Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun, 30 May 1999 07:39:26 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: On Being An Educator

You know, it is not easy being an educator. It's not easy being the center of a highly politicized and panicy public discussion. It's not easy being held accountable and answerable and liable for every word and move. It is not easy being demeaned and treated as an amateur or treated as a child. It is not easy living with the too prevalent popular belief that people go into teaching because they can't do anything else or because of the long summer vacations. It is not easy being an educator battered by the myth that anyone can teach. It is not easy being an educator pressured by the assertion that every child can learn.

There are times I feel like I'm an Emergency Room physican. I'm not responsible for the roads on which people wreck or the guns that people shoot or the alcohol that people consume or the drugs inject, sniff, smoke or whatever. I sure did not cause patients' injury or illness; and I can't be concerned with a patient's ethnic background, religion, gender, social status, skin color, accent. I still must treat the consequences without judging the causes; I must treat make the effort to heal everyone. I cannot shuffle the difficult cases off into some hidden room. I must be sensitive, humane, revive, prescribe, set, suture, cure, listen, and heal; I still must treat not only the body, but the spirit as well. I must treat each patient as a sacred human being. I must not be judgemental and selective in my treatment. And so, as an educator I must help students, each and every one, whose individual underlying problems I didn't cause and whose outside life I cannot control but impacts performance in class.

The public rightly expects no less of me. We are bombarded with calls for change. It's often like walking down a midway having a host of carnival barkers screaming at you from all sides: Reduce class size! Test the teachers! Issue vouchers! Put students in uniforms! Have sex education! Eliminate sex education! Mainstream. Have a dress code for teachers! End social promotion! Develop a national test for this or that! Teach the subject! Teach the student! Don't spare the rod! Throw away the rod! Education is a birthright! Every child can learn! Bring prayer back into the classroom! Keep it out! Create charter schools! Prepare students for the work place! Secure the schools! Create drug-free zones! Raise test scores! Reduce the amount of homework! Increase graduation rates Reduce drop-out rates! Increase the amount of homework! Create special programs! Decrease the amount of homework! Test. Track. Score. Get them at grade level. Improve teaching styles! Go back to the basic 3Rs! Lengthen the school year! Be a "constructivist!" Be a parent! Be a councilor! Be a friend! Be a......

In one sense the public has unreasonable expectations, if not contradictory: no social promotion; don't hold back my child; help them to ask questions; give them the answers; support and encourage their independence; discipline them; teach them to honor and respect and submit to authority and tradition; teach them to challenge, develop initiative and critical thinking; teach them to obey; teach them to deal with sexuality, health, interpersonal relations; help them mature; teach them to think for themselves; teach them a specific set of values; teach them community; teach them citizenship; teach them to participate in sports, to be artistic, to be musical, to sing; teach them how to use their hands; make the school a decent place for our kids so we can work and play without worrying about them; we want them evaluated, tested, leveled, tracked, graded, ranked; prepare them for the workplace; teach them communication and interpersonal skills; we want to know all about their talents, abilities, potentials; we want the school to provide opportunties to exercise, play, compete, form friendships. Whew!!

Looking over this list I am not sure any teacher can live up to the great expectations and soaring demands. When that bell rings and the classroom door closes, however, the sluce of extraordinary expectations open to inundate the teacher. It is a plethora of wants that cannot be. People's expectations are not fair. Nevertheless, teachers are at the end of pointing fingers of blame, used as target practice, made into someone's scape goats, their careers and bonuses are put at risk, all for things often beyond their control.

Teaching, working all day with an unimaginable diversity of people, young and non-traditional, is tough under the best of circumstances. Anyone can walk into a classroom and talk and write on the blackboard and monitor a concocted test. But real teaching is more than transmitting information. There is a body of science about learning. There is also an art in working with young people. And, there is a lot of humanity. Teaching is not something that you do; it is something that you are; it is something that you need. Teaching is a mission, not a job. Teaching is not a routine. There is no such thing as casualized teaching. It is the teacher's lot to make every ordinary day extraordinary, make sure it is not routine, that it's exciting and inviting, that it is special, that that it's a happening. No, being a teacher is not a snap.

But unless we see the teacher as more than a particularly dressed technical expert of this or tester of that, unless we stop focusing on relatively minor and superficial issues as dress codes, class size, length of school year, merit pay and efficacy of homework, tests and grades, unless there is an attitude change and change in how schools operate, unless we respect the teacher for the trained professional he or she is, unless we break away from the "this is the way it has always been done," we are trivializing education and teachers don't have a prayer of succeeding.

We talk of improvement rather than transformation. Educational criticism focuses on technique itself with little or shallow reflection on what the technique is to serve; at it's worse, through testing, tracking, leveling, and a host of other labels, it is--implicitly, tacitly, indirectly-- sorting out, excluding, maintaining the existing economic and social uneven playing field, perpetuating racism rather than including and offering opportunity to all, stripping unique people of their uniqueness; it focuses on the bright students who have lots of home support, are easy to teach, and make for nice newspaper articles and school bragging rights; it centers around a created order, a norm, around a mythical image of the perfect student; it substitutes personalize learning for standardized tests. To be sure, for some students, school is just fine as it is; for the overwhelming majority, however, business as usual will simple produce failure as usual.

But all students are here and now! Each is a future not to be lost. We cannot allow any to remain "know nots," "have nots," "left outs," "left behinds," "thrown outs." We cannot wait until our long list of "if only" wishes are fulfilled, until all of society's ills have been cured, until every home is wonderful, until all parents are encouraging and supportive, until all students are enthusiastic, until all teachers are memorable, until the coffers are perennially overflowing, until every educational technique works for each and all is discovered. We have to practice what I call "The power of positive teaching." We have to believe that each person is like a box of Crackerjacks, not knowing what prize is inside or when you'll find it, but knowing there is a prize within. And, we have to act, we have to keep our eye out, ever searching for that prize before that student fails and we lose that prize. We have to act before each of us fails. Each delay makes it harder for the teacher and brings the student closer to doom. If every student is to learn in my collegiate class, to succeed in life and in making a living, we have to realize that the question of accomplishment begins to be answered with. let's say, honing learning skills and and instilling enthusiasm for learning in the ninth grade, with third grade reading, with readiness for kindergarten, with preparation and encouragement before kindergarten. Every year's delay makes the task harder for me and for each preceeding teacher; every year's delay lowers the flame of enthusiasm.

We, the public, have to do more than yell at teachers; teachers have to do more than tear their clothes and beat their breasts; We all have to engage in less finger pointing and less defensive posturing; we all have to do less moaning of "why me." The majority of parents can't do the job alone; teachers can't do the job alone. What's the job? It is far more than to transmit, test, and grade. It is far more than to get a score and to go to a college. It is to deepen the understanding of our young people, to touch their lives, to guide them into living the good life and having productive careers.

Now, I know that such an accomplishment rests on a lot lot of things: time, effort, money. But most of all, on which everything rests, success means an attitude change by parents and teachers. Can we make basic changes in education without parallel changes in the basic conception of schooling and cultural beliefs, without fundamental attitude changes? I think not. Look around. Our schools haven't changed much over the decades. They are like my modern car. My car 1996 Miata has greatly changed since the days of the 1920s Model T and of my 1950 jalopy, and yet it is still remarkably the same.

We are still unclear and undecided about our priorities; we still do not have a clear vision. There are divisions on the moral, political and social aspects of education, and we educators haven't done much to provide parents a way to figure out what is best for their children, how to participate in discussion about educational policy, and more importantly about creating that educational vision. On the other hand, the public provides so little while wanting so much to be done. Salaries are low, opportunities to grow intellectually and professionally are limited, resources are slim, treatment is disdaining, demands on time--curricula and extra curricula--are swamping.

The people put so much faith in education and so little resources, so little faith in teachers. It is not a financial problem. The question is not so much how we can get more funds. The real question is why do we have such a low commitment to provide high-quality education, why do we still have such a low regard for teachers? Why do we still think that anyone can teach? Are we, in fact, suspicious that schools are great for spending our hard-earned tax dollars, but lousy at solving problems? Are we suspicious of educational "fads" by the educational "know it alls?"

I do know it does not do any good to pretend that all teachers are shining and amazing and wonderful, that every home is a re-run of the "Donna Reed Show," that home conditions don't affect learning, that community values and money don't matter. It does no good to use a mythic past as a weapon against the present. It does no good to use the present as a millstone rather than a milestone for the future. Schools have never been isolated ivory towers. They have always been rocked by the waves lapping about them. Today, they are impacted by working parents and by divorcing parents; by unwed births; by drugs; by family mobility; by funding issues; by local values; by demands of who will be served; by demands of answerability and accountability; by public debate on social and cultural issues; by more respect accorded students; by greater protection of each student's rights; by less tolerance for allowing failure; by greater vocational orientation; by less tolerance for the uneducated, or at least the unschooled; by more and more and more expectations of schools and teachers to "succeed" regardless of what happens in all those hours of a student's life away from school. No being an educator is not easy.

The question is: are our expectations fair; are we holding teachers accountable for things beyond their control; are teachers holding themselves accountable for things within their control; is the public holding itself accountable for things within its control? Are our view and actions and thoughts constricted by the walls of our school buildings? Are we all willing to make dramatic changes when such changes are needed? Are we all willing to make extraordinary changes in how our schools operate--and even where and when they operate-- and in all of our attitude to meet our extraordinary expectations for our schools? Are we really commited to the education of each an every young person?

Some failure is inevitable. We all are fallible human beings. But, such imperfect that should not be used as an excuse, a rationalization, and explanation for not making the attempt to reach out to each and every young person. We can cut each of our failure rates, if........ Going back to the emergency room analogy. If a child isn't learning, are we willing to treat the situation as a life-threatening emergency; we willing to rush to converge with every life-sustaining resource we have as if that child were a critical patient being rushed from the ambulance? Is the footage of the scene as dramatic? Or........

Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
912-333-5947                       /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
                                  /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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