Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Teachers Lament: What I Do Best Matters Least
Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

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

Mark Naison
December 28, 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sometimes Superman- And Lois Lane- Live Next Door- What We Can Learn About Teaching from the Pruitts of E 168th Street

Dr Mark Naison, Fordham University

Today, I had a chance to spend time with two members of the most amazing family of educators I know, the Pruitt’s of East 168th Street in the Morrisania Section of the Bronx. The Pruitt family, who moved a small row house on 168th Street in the early 1940’s when the neighborhood was mostly Jewish, had five children all of whom became teachers- Harriet ( McFeeters) who worked more than 40 years in the Bronx as a teacher, principal and assistant district superindent James, who taught social studies in Bronx High Schools along with a stint running the Upward Bound Program at Fordham; Bess, who was a gym and dance instructor at Evander Childs High School and founded one of the first dance promotion companies run by a Black woman, and Henry and Janet, who were teachers and school administrators in Englewood and Newark, respectively.

At a time when improving our public schools, especially in poor and working class communities, has become a national obsession, it is astonishing to me that no one in the New York City Department of Education has sought to draw upon the experiences of this remarkable family for clues to how recruit and retain talented teachers Every one of these remarkable individuals spent their entire professional life as teachers and school administrators and achieved remarkable success in inspiring students who worked with them and teachers who worked under their leadership.

But the idea of recruiting lifetime educators seems to have low priority for those guiding America’s school systems. Teach For America, the largest and most prestigious alternate certification program in the nation, actually promotes teaching in poverty schools as a pathway for entering more prestigious careers ( TFA once put up a poster at Fordham explaining how joining TFA could improve one’s chances of getting into Stanford Business School!) and keeps only a fraction of its recruits in the classroom for more than five years. Under the Bloomberg/Klein regime in New York, the Department of Education has made a concerted effort to replace veteran teachers with newcomers from alternative certification programs, many of whom burn out and leave in two or three years. The idea of recruiting people who grew up in working class neighborhoods and giving them first class training so they can return as teachers to the neighborhoods they grew up doesn’t fit in the business models dominating educational policy, which look to maximum flexibility and mobility in the educational workforce

However, when it comes to teaching, flexibility and mobility may not be the traits we are looking for. The best teachers do more than impart skills and subject matter to their students; they build relationships that last a lifetime. I have seen this first hand with the two members of the Pruitt family I know best, Jim Pruitt and Harriet McFeeters.

You cannot go anywhere in the Bronx with these two individuals without running into someone who was one of their students, or their colleagues. Invariably, there are hugs, kisses and comments to me about how the person I was with either changed their life ( if they were a student) or helped them do their job better ( if they were a teacher or principal). But my evidence for this is not just based on individual encounters. I had the privilege of attending the retirement party for Jim Pruitt when he finally left teaching that was attended by more than two hundred people, most of whom were his former students from Morris and Kennedy High Schools. I also, almost every year, drop in on the Fordham Upward Bound Reunion, where more than 50 Black and Latino men who grew up in the Bronx reminisce about the experiences they had under Jim Pruitt’s mentorship.

There are a few things about the Pruitt family history that might provide clues to their success. They grew up in an African American family working class family where learning and public service were held up as ideals irrespective of the wealth one possessed. Each child attended New York City public schools and attended New York public universities. And two members of the family Bess and Harriet, lived in the family house in Morrisania during all the years they worked in the Bronx public schools, years that included an arson and abandonment cycle that decimated many portions of their neighborhood, a fiscal crisis took music, arts and after school programs out of the public schools, and a crack epidemic that destroyed many young people and their families. Through all this, Bess and Harriet remained in their neighborhood and remained in Bronx schools, guiding young people who others gave up on and mentoring new teachers who came in to work for them.

If you are looking for Superheroes, educators whose experience may hold the key to helping young people growing up in poverty embrace education, the best place to look may not be in the Charter Schools of Harlem, but in a little row house on East 168th Street between Prospect and Union Avenues in the Morrisania section of the Bronx.

I know that’s where I go when I’m looking for inspiration, along with a great public school in the Bronx, PS 140, headed by a remarkable principal, Paul Cannon, who grew up only two blocks away from the Pruitts.

Maybe someday, when the people running our schools stop looking to Wall Street or Hearst Publications for guidance, they will turn to the people who have a proven track record for educating inner city youth, and who did it- and are doing it- in the neighborhoods they grew up in.
Mark Naison, December 22 2010