A Teachers Lament: What I Do Best Matters Least
Dr Mark Naison
If someone ever asked me what I would most like to be remembered for, I would answer, without hesitation “my teaching.” Teaching wakes me up in the morning, and keeps me up at night. I think about how to motivate my classes when I am reading, listening to music, or talking to my friends and stay in touch with my students long after they have graduated. When I give a lecture where everything comes together exactly as I planned it and my students clearly “get” what I am trying to say, I feel like Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin, or Jimi Hendrix after a performance- exhausted, emotionally drained, but ready to recharge my batteries and do it again. I have found nothing that compares to the high of making my students see the world in a new way and finding powers inside themselves that they didn’t know were there.
But the thrill of teaching, which motivated me to get a Ph.D in the first place, has had virtually nothing to do with my professional advancement. Every time I have received a promotion, it has been on the strength of my published writings, or on the research I have done. I benefit from tremendous support from the Fordham University administration, and am treated with considerable respect by my professional colleagues , but I doubt if much of it derives from what goes on in my classroom. The only people who know, or care, about the time and effort I put into my teaching are my students and it is their response to me, and their accomplishments, that I have to use as an affirmation of the value of what I care about most.
I am not saying this to complain about my personal situation, which is, at the very least, a privileged one, but to point out how little teaching is valued, or understood, in American society. Because so many of the traits that make a great teacher- particularly the emotional connection they forge with their students, and the long term impact of the knowledge they impart- cannot be easily quantified, it is tempting to see teaching as something that anyone can do, to view teachers as replaceable parts, or to see teaching as a necessary evil for scholars whose “real work” is research.
This attitude toward teaching is damaging at all levels, but particularly so in elementary and secondary education. The best people enter teaching because they want to change lives, but when those making policy devalue the emotional connection teachers make with students in favor of achieving results on standardized tests, it pushes great teachers out of the profession.
When you reduce teaching to its capacity to generate short term performance under conditions of extreme stress, you not only take most of the joy out of teaching and learning, you undermine the capacity of teachers to stir the imaginations of their students and inspire them to do great things. Mastery of a defined body of knowledge is only one portion of a teacher’s job; the other is to make learning itself joyful and exciting. If you base evaluation of teaching only on the first, because it is the only thing that can be easily measured, then you end up penalizing teachers for creativity and making students hate school. This is precisely what the education reform movement institutionalized by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top has done. It has created a legion of browbeaten and demoralized teachers and fostered a lifetime aversion to education among young people in working class and poor communities who are being drilled and drilled, and tested and tested and whose remarkable creative talents go unrecognized and untapped.
If education is going to thrive in America in every community, including the poorest and most socially isolated, we need to recruit and retain teachers who love teaching and treat them with respect. Salary is one component of this, but autonomy is another. If you don’t give teachers the freedom to be creative and create emotional connections with students and their families, then you will simply reproduce the existing structure of race and class inequality in the next generation. We need to view students as creative thinkers and makers of their own destiny, not as obedient and subservient drones who recapitulate bodies of knowledge in easily digestible form. And that requires having teachers who can strike a balance between skill instruction and tapping students imaginative and creative side. Many of those teachers are already there, ready to be unleashed; others are waiting to be recruited to the profession.
But until education reform becomes “teacher centered,” rather than infused with managerial imperatives and obsessed with accountability, our education system, at all levels, will remain stagnant.
There are great teachers everywhere. If you honor them and reward them, maybe we will can bring back joy and creativity to our schools
December 28, 2010