Thursday, September 20, 2012

On Being a Teacher by Richard Sasso

Let me begin with a simple statement: Unless you have been a teacher for several years in the American K-12 system, you will not understand the demands and difficulties of the teaching profession.
Teachers consistently find themselves on the receiving end of countless “reforms” by “non-educators”: from Bill Gates to their next-door neighbor (who probably resents teachers’ tenure, their public pensions and their summers).  Incidentally, teachers are not paid for their time off.

Some reform movements are indirect attacks on the teaching profession. Consider Teach for America. Can someone teach effectively after having attended a ten-or-twelve week training session by a corporate sponsor? Why don’t we have programs like “Become a Doctor or Nurse and Diagnose for America,” “Fly Commercial Airlines for America,” “Extinguish a Fire for America,” or “Litigate” for America? Of course, no one would want the services of a doctor, an airline pilot, fireman or a lawyer who is trained in only 12 weeks. Why should it be acceptable to allow children to be taught by a non-professional impersonator?

Most people do not realize the time and effort needed to prepare for just one class each day. High school teachers teach at least five classes, which entails two or three different courses. It is not like Dead Poets Society or Stand and Deliver, either. This isn’t to say that there is a lack of drama all of the time. Sometimes it is quite exhilarating; nevertheless, teachers also work at home preparing lessons, grading compositions and tests, and studying curricula without any fanfare.

Teaching requires more than knowledge of the material. An ex-teacher once told me managing a class was like “trying to keep twenty beach balls under water at once.” Self-control is not always an easy skill to grasp for adolescents. A teacher realizes that his or her strength and composure are what stands between a well-ordered classroom and the sudden eruption of entropy.

Many students are not driven by a desire to obtain knowledge and the mastery of skills; sometimes, they are simply “grade grubbing” – their goal is to get into a college or a university and receive a scholarship. It is sobering to recognize how often studious behavior masks a deeper cynicism. I can hardly blame them, though. Our system punishes and rewards them in highly-calibrated ways.
Indeed, even our best high schools explicitly take time away from teaching course content and dedicate many lessons during the year for standardized testing. The creators of homogeneous tests have become the unelected and unaccountable dictators of a lot of our schools’ curricula.

It is sad that fifty percent of teachers will leave the profession within their first five years. I have taught for ten years at an affluent school district in Illinois, and not one day has been easy. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for teachers working in poor inner-city neighborhoods without the resources we have. (If you are curious why Japan, Singapore, and Finland have such strong school systems, ask yourself how many blighted slums there are in each country. The correlation is not coincidental). Indeed, as Diane Ravitch has pointed out numerous times: Schools in affluent neighborhoods in America are doing as well as any in the world. That important fact is also lost in the debate.

None of this is to say that I hate being a teacher. I love being a teacher. It is to say that most of my fellow citizens have a lot to learn about the nature of what it is that teachers confront  every day. This is just "the tip of the [teaching] iceberg."

--Richard Sasso

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