Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What is Lost When Teaching as a Lifetime Calling is Undermined: A Personal Reflection

Today, teachers, from elementary school through the university, are the targets of a ferocious effort to force them to conform to private sector norms of accountability, productivity, and market driven competition. The assault takes two major forms- an effort to quantify student leaning so that teacher effectiveness can be easily judged; and an effort to weaken or eliminate teacher tenure so that teachers can be removed, or rewarded, based on their effectiveness/ The goal of these reforms is to have teachers work under conditions which more closely resemble those of workers in the private sector and to place them under fierce and continuous pressure to improve their productivity. The underlying assumption is that our educational system is expensive and inefficient, undermining the competitiveness of the American economy in the global marketplace This argument, I have discovered, has an irresistible appeal to those who have spent their lives in the private sector, especially those who have risen to the top through what they believe are their own talents and abilities. They see teacher tenure as a luxury the society can no longer afford, as it rewards inefficiency and retards innovation. Their views have found an echo I the policies of both major parties so teachers, at all level, will have to justify themselves on the basis of regular performance assessments whose content is dictated by federal and state governments rather than teachers own professional associations. Most teachers, especially the most talented and committed ones, view these reforms with horror, Not only are they extremely skeptical of the private sector’s vaunted “efficiency,” a legitimate concern given the astronomical compensation private companies give their executives, they fear that way classroom learning will be assessed erase those aspects of classroom teaching which make it life changing for student and teacher, and in the process, turn teaching into a revolving door profession. This is not a idle concern. Every teaching evaluation instrument I know treats the individual class as a self contained entity, and tries to measure or assess what learning took place only during the time that class met. But the best teachers I know don’t just try to promote mastery of a fixed body of material, they try to impart ways of thinking, and ways of seeing the world, that will influence their students long after they leave any particular class. And to promote that dimension of “lifetime learning.” they remain in touch with their students long after they leave their classes, and even draw upon former students to help teach current ones. These lifelong connections are among the most important things that keep great teachers in the classroom., yet I have never seen a policy maker so much as mention them in their proposals for how to improve American schools I know this all sounds very abstract, even self-serving to people who have not been teachers so I want to give a few examples from my own experience. I have been teaching nearly 45 years, starting first with high school students in the Columbia Upward Bound Program moving on to undergraduates and graduate students at Fordham University. Both of my parents were lifetime educators in the New York City public schools so I had a model of professionalism and dedication to draw upon. But I also brought my own political experiences, my research on Black History and passion for racial justice into the classroom and viewed my students as people I was trying to empower as well as to teach. Because of the subject matter I was teaching, African American History, and the time I was teaching it, the late 60’s and early 70’s, there was no scripted curriculum for what I was doing. I invented my courses as I went along, with the help other young scholars in the field, and gave my students great freedom to interpret the material. My courses incorporated room for debates and performances, used music as guide to historical understanding,, and produced class publications. I also spent time with my students outside of class, playing ball with them, attending cultural events and demonstrations, meeting them for one on one tutoring sessions when necessary. The result was that I developed connections with some of my students that lasted a lifetime How these connections helped my students I can only speculate, but they had a tremendous effect on my own effectiveness as a scholar and teacher.. Here are some examples of how my own pedagogy has been enhanced by the activities of former students with whom I have remained in touch, some for more than forty years One of the first students I ever taught in the Columbia Upward Bound Program, William Wright, had as great an influence on my life as any professor I had in college. William was on the Board of Governors of the Institute of Afro-American Studies at Fordham, as a student representative, when it took the momentous step of hiring me as a faculty member in 1970. Even though I was probably the first white faculty member ever hired by a Black Studies program, this department has remained my home for the last 42 years, and a great home it has been.. But that wasn’t all. When my book “White Boy: A Memoir” came out in 2002, William, who was then news director of BET, commissioned a three minute special on my book, which led to numerous speaking opportunities at universities and broadcast media. But most importantly, William’s daughter, Patricia Wright, who was an undergraduate and graduate student at Fordham, became the first graduate assistant of the research project I founded, the Bronx African American History Project and was instrumental in organizing a huge benefit concert, featuring the Bronx’s greatest doo wop singers, that attracted more than 700 people and put the BAAHP on the map, locally and nationally, as an innovative community history project But there’s more. Two of the first students I taught at Fordham in the fall of 1970 and 1971, and whom I got to know as fellow activists in the Fordham anti-war movement, Kathy Palmer and Sally Dunford, are still active in the Bronx, Kathy as a teacher at a local elementary school, Sally as a housing organizer and community advocate/.. When I was supervising senior theses this year, each proved instrumental in advising my students on the issues they were investigating. And this was not the first time I called on them for help as an advisor on student projects or for help with my research. Kathy has been enormously helpful in setting up interviews for the Bronx African American History Project, and Sally has spoken in my classes and employed students as interns in her housing group. Finally, the Bronx African American History Project, which is now one of the premier community based oral history projects in the nation, has grown and flourished because of the generosity of two groups, Bronx residents, past and present, who want to see their stories told and stereotypes about the Bronx defused, and former students in our Department who are proud to see the lessons they learned incorporated into a ground breaking research initiative. Without the individual contributions of our students, some who go back to the 70’s, some who graduated only a year or two ago, the Bronx African American History Project, which now has conducted over 300 oral history interviews, could not exist in its current form. We are not talking about a small number of people. At least a hundred former students are regular BAAHP supporters, a remarkable total for a Department as small as ours, but a tribute to the way our Department faculty have approached their teaching as a mission, not just a job, and have built relationships with students that have lasted a lifetime. I share these stories not just to explain how my former students have enhanced my life personally and professionally, but to affirm the value of honoring teaching as a lifelong profession, of giving teachers the autonomy to decide what takes place in their classrooms and of viewing classroom learning through the lens of relationship building as well as skill instruction. Current reforms, if taken to their logical conclusion, will undermine all of those goals and make our schools places where inquiry and imagination are stifled, and students and teachers are always looking over their shoulder to see if they have violated some rule. If that happens, something very precious in our lives will have been lost. May 29,2012

10 comments:

Sue VanHattum said...

Thank you, Mark.

I too am still connected with many former students. I hope someday to start a Richmond (CA) Community Math Center. If I do, its success will depend on the participation of former students, who are lifelong residents of this community. (I've only lived here for ten years.)

I don't think any big organization really knows how to be efficient. And efficiency has to be looked at in relation to one's goals. The important goals of teaching/ learning are hard things to measure.

(Have you seen the post about the "worst" teacher in NYC? Of course, she's a great teacher...)

Paradox said...

Are you against grading students?

Paradox said...

Here's the problem, Mark. As a lifelong, extremely frustrated "gifted" student, I have absolutely no problem with your idea that good teachers should have autonomy to decide what goes on in their classroom. You keep qualifying your remarks and experience with words like "good" and "most talented" and "best teachers" - descriptions which by their very definition are a minority subset of a larger population. Just as not all of your students are equal, not all teachers are equal either. In fact, many of them have no business being in a classroom. So while my life has been profoundly influenced by those rare magical teachers you speak of, it's also been damaged by a far greater number of mediocre, unhappy, vengeful, and simply unintelligent teachers. I agree that it's impossible to quantify learning in such narrow categories, but what are you going to do about the huge number of mediocre teachers hiding behind the shield of tenure and unions? The bottom line is that if I can be graded as a student, teachers can be graded as well. This is an inseparable truth - any separation between teacher and student performance quantification reveals a foundational problem about the entire educational system. Walk the walk, Mark. If you don't want to be graded, you should refuse to grade YOUR students and publish a letter explaining your reasoning. Until then, this student will have a very hard time taking anything you say seriously.

Paradox said...

Giving a pass to the thousands of mediocre teachers just because a few great ones exist is no different than giving your entire class an A just because a couple of students did well. I just fail to understand how this obvious fact can be so lost on the general teaching population.

Mark Naison said...

If you are so "gifted" Paradox, you wouldn't be making the argument you are making. I give you a "B" because your arguments have no connection to the real world of teaching where self-assessment and peer assessment is continuous. Are there really that many mediocre teachers protected by tenure? Are there more mediocre teachers than bankers, advertising executives, garage mechanics, who work in fields without tenure. The teaching profession is uniquely "political" and subject to pressures fromm students, parents, elected officials, ambitioius administrators. The best public schools in the nation have teacher tenure because it is necessary to attract people who want to make a lifetime commitment to the field.

Mark Naison said...

Those who can, teach, those who can't tell teachers what to do

Paradox said...

Mark, if you're going to grade me, I suggest you learn how to write properly first. The sentence, "Most teachers, especially the most talented and committed ones, view these reforms with horror, Not only are they extremely skeptical of the private sector’s vaunted “efficiency,” a legitimate concern given the astronomical compensation private companies give their executives, they fear that way classroom learning will be assessed erase those aspects of classroom teaching which make it life changing for student and teacher, and in the process, turn teaching into a revolving door profession." is quite possibly the most poorly constructed one I've ever seen on a public blog. Grammatical errors aside, you fail to comprehend my basic argument - no, there are not more mediocre teachers than bankers, executives, or garage mechanics. My point is, there are exactly the same amount of mediocre teachers. But mediocre bankers, advertising executives, and garage mechanics are not paid as highly as extremely good ones, nor are they protected from being fired. And again, why should students be graded if teachers cannot?

Paradox said...

Further Mark, surely you can't take self-assessment and peer assessment seriously. It's pointless and masturbatory. If you disagree with me and believe in it so strongly, how about you let your students self and peer assess themselves for a few semesters instead of grading them? Please. Get real.

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BigSean said...

Trolladox, fuck off ok ? Is that grammatically correct enough for your highly intelligent sensibilities ? Don't you have a hedge fund to manage or a cancer to cure somewhere or are you coasting in stepmom's basement as an edu troll until the GOP calls to offer you the VP spot with Mittens ? Nothing more ridiculous than another self proclaimed internet genius who has hours to snipe on other people's blogs. Your extreme frustration is manifest. Get over yourself Einstein everyone else has.