Tuesday, August 7, 2012

From MUSE: Teaching is still hard.

This may be true, but I'm still hopeful.  In 1912, Edward M. Hopkins of the University of Kansas wrote the following:
[I]If good teaching can be done under present conditions, it is passing strange that so few teachers have found out how to do it; that English composition teachers as a class, if judged by criticism that is becoming more and more frequent, are so abnormally inefficient. For every year the complaints become louder that the investment in English teaching yields but a small fraction of the desired returns. Every year teachers resign, break down, perhaps become permanently invalided, having sacrificed ambition, health, and in not a few instances even life, in the struggle to do all the work expected of them. Every year thousands of pupils drift through the schools, half-cared for in English classes where they should have constant and encouraging personal attention, and neglected in other classes where their English should be watched over at least incidentally, to emerge in a more or less damaged linguistic condition, incapable of meeting satisfactorily the simplest practical demand upon their powers of expression. Much money is spent, valuable teachers are worn out at an inhumanly rapid rate, and results are inadequate or wholly lacking. From any point of view—that of taxpayer, teacher, or pupil—such a situation is intolerable.
Peter Smagorinsky notes that not much has changed:
Professor Hopkins found the conditions of 1912—with homogeneous students, little concern for drop-outs, few students who spoke limited English, no standardized tests, and other factors that make demands on teachers’ time—to be oppressive and tragic.
In today’s more complicated world and schools, a century later, much remains the same. Professor Hopkins wrote that “[P]ublic opinion and public criticism enter to this statement an effective denial. The public doesn’t know anything about the circumstances, but it does seem to know that it pays for something that for some reason it is not receiving; and the teacher is not usually in a position to escape either the blame or the penalty.” Sound familiar?
How about putting 40 students in those classes (the recommendation of Bill Gates, one of the two most influential people in the nation in current educational policy)? How about if half of them would rather be working, like my grandfather, and resist the whole institution of school, much less the English class and its incessant demand for essays?
What if a goodly number speak a language other than English at home and come from cultures that are oriented to behaviors very different from those expected in school? How about if, instead of the occasional essay in a journal or newspaper serving as public discourse, commentary by anonymous critics fills the air around the clock with a negativity that dwarfs any that has ever surrounded public education?
What if elected officials, over and over, appointed people with no experience as educators to oversee educational policy such that teachers’ work conditions are determined and governed by people who don’t “know anything about the circumstances”?
Hopkins’s observations from a century ago are worth attending to. They effectively annihilate the “good old days” rhetoric that surrounds education, demonstrate that the public’s dim view of teachers is nothing new, and show that even under vastly more favorable conditions than teachers face today, teaching well is backbreaking work. Sad to say, that message continues to get lost in the overwhelmingly negative environment in which teachers must do what they set out to do when deciding to become teachers: care for kids enough to invest their working lives in their well-being and futures.
Also published on MUSE '13

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