FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,

Why I want to be a teacher and why I (in all likelihood) never will be

I'm sure you've all noticed the rage of education posts, and me reading books on history of education, and so on. Or, well, maybe you haven't. I have, because I'm going through one of my periodic, "Why am I not a teacher?" phases.

See, teaching is an idea I keep coming back to, over and over. As far back as high school, I did Future Teachers of America (high school kids go down to the elementary school and do errands for the teachers help out in the classroom). I only did that one semester, and I forgot I'd done it at all until I started to post that the interest hadn't started until late college. I looked at Teach for America for awhile after undergraduate school (before I decided to bite the bullet and submit to getting a Masters in something). And in my current job as a youth services librarian, the two things I do best are library education--yes, I absolutely adore teaching people how to use a library, and get very disappointed when they just want me to retrieve something for them--and tearing my hair out when I see examples of poor schooling (most of which I duly report here).

Reading Left Back, even through its biases (most of which I share wholeheartedly, but I do try to ignore them), makes me much more passionate about the issue than reading other polemics about other subjects. I have definite opinions on just about everything, but it seems to be only educational issues that really make my brain burn. I've often joked that I'm the only single, childless woman in America who isn't in the educational system who votes based on educational issues first. I don't think there's anything more important to living in a democracy than making sure that everyone has access to a solid education. It's the great leveller, and without it, we don't stand a chance.

And I just like teaching. I use a kind of Socratic method when I'm teaching classes about the catalogs and the library ("And why do you think your teacher might put a limit on the number of internet sources you use? How are they different from magazine articles?"), and I love watching kids get interested in whatever I'm showing them. Hell, I love getting teenagers to admit that they're interested in something. The public speaking part freaked me out the first time, but once I got used to it, it became my single favorite part of the job. If you ask them questions, they do listen. And finding out little quirky bits of trivia that you can share along with the necessary knowledge actually seems to be a great method--heaven knows why, but there's always a good response to finding out how many books there are in the library, or the stupid reason a bit of art got banned. Every class I take through, I watch to see how I can do better the next time--what keeps their interest, when do they start wandering, etc. Because I like to be good at it.

I find myself looking at booklists and thinking, "Well, I wouldn't assign this, because I think it doesn't have enough to work with" or "This would be really good for teaching about the use of symbolism, if a little weak on teaching characterization." Or coming up with theories on what I think are important--I spent most of a bus ride home the other day imagining ways to encourage students to learn critical distance, which will help with both thinking and reading comp scores. I think about historical context and changes in the nature of writing over the years and how to get across how incredible language and literature are. I mentally argue with practices and try to guess what objectives each assignment I see is trying to achieve. In other words, I literally sit around fantasizing about being a teacher. (I'm apparently fairly skilled at this fantasy; during Shifts, people kept asking if I was a teacher, and I kept saying, more or less, "I'm not a teacher, I just play one on MindTV.") And both in RL and online, people are always telling me that I should teach. And at least two or three times a year, like clockwork, I start thinking about it, leafing through job listings, checking out the NTE, and so on.

So why am I not a teacher?

There are practical issues that I keep running into, chiefly the fact that I have no desire whatsoever to go further into debt to get another Masters degree for another job that pays about the same as an executive secretary's. It's bad enough trying to pay off one student loan on such a salary. There's the question of uprooting my life, which I dislike doing, and of the obligations I have as far as paying loans, keeping my apartment, etc.

But it all begs the question--I've thought about doing it forever, but when I did finally give in and (grudgingly) get a Masters, it was in library science (oh, excuse me, information science; we don't use the Big Bad L-Word anymore... grrr), not education.

I mean, I do love libraries, and had been working in them rather regularly since I graduated from college, so the library school wasn't a huge shock to the system. And I'd looked at other things--even went so far as to take the LSAT and look at law schools, though legal theory always interested me more than legal practice.

So why not look into education schools? I probably could have stayed in Albuquerque and saved some money if I'd decided on that, since I'm reasonably sure that UNM has an education department. But it never crossed my mind. I've just always had a feeling that, while I might do well in the classroom, my personality isn't particularly well-suited to the professional part of teaching.

First, I'm a big fan of substance over emotion. In the course of my interest in education, I'd heard over and over about child psychology and worrying about self-esteem and making subjects "relevant" and all sorts of things that I am just not philosophically comfortable with, at least as they are commonly practiced. These cure-all systems that come down through progressive education--the top down sort of stuff--always strike me as aiming straight for the lowest common denominator, and reading some of the quotes in Left Back hasn't really changed my opinion. I have to go back and read some of this in context, because it appears that some "progressive" educators decided that learning to read before the age of eight was harmful and books were really unnecessary in the classroom... I refuse to believe that educators actually said that without some serious qualification, so as soon as I finish this book, I'm going to look up her endnotes and see that she pulled the notion completely out of context and is just being a demagogue... right? Please? And teachers are held to these theories.

I can't dismiss as demagoguery the extensive quotes talking about how classroom teachers who questioned the new system had to be "changed" because they were suffering from "cultural lag" that made them think it was necessary for students to master academic material in school rather than grow as human beings (as if the two are somehow unrelated). I've seen the attitude firsthand in libraries and in library school--in the latter, several professors said that "You'll find old school librarians are resistant to change, and you'll have to fight them to put in new ideas." (This, of course, is silly--what they're resistant to is bad change. They're fine with computers and use of same, but oddly find it objectionable when books are sacrificed for the sake of popular DVDs.) And having spent as much time as I have being interested in education, I have to say, I've definitely noticed the same attitude in their writings. My mother started a teaching degree (didn't finish it) and literally was presented with a scenario in which a child was running in the hall and asked what she would do. She said she would make the child stop running--this answer was wrong. She was supposed to engage the child in dialogue about why he might not want to run in the hall. Of course, how one was supposed to catch him to have this dialogue is open to question. :headdesk:

I would completely explode at this, and I admire Mom for being able to maintain composure in the face of such nonsense. I'm not as patient as I used to be, or as insecure in the face of a degree as I once was (which honestly, was never all that much). I don't think I'd make it through a Masters in education.

I also disagree with the use of schools as the be-all, end-all of everything. Odd, coming from someone who believes that they are infinitely important, but I do. I think schools need to limit their scope a bit, remember what they are best suited to: academic knowledge. I don't think that should be limited to the three R's--therefore, I would end up in conflict with right-wing educational idealogues as well--but I do think that the point of school is to pass on knowledge to children, not to raise children, and the modern educational system disagrees with me. Granted, I would never be teaching Health Class myself, but how long would I be able to keep from rolling my eyes at a class I think of as totally non-academic and out of place in schools? And how long would I be able to get along with colleagues who absolutely believe that it's the place of schools to teach kids about dating practices, and only a cretin would possibly disagree and consider art classes to be more important? This could make my life miserable quickly, as would my increasingly-less-cordial dislike of the social science colonization of every other subject, especially the humanities.

And what about parents who go ballistic if Johnny gets a C, no matter how eminently the C was deserved? I mean, I recall my junior and senior year English teacher explaining his grading of essays: "This is the standard form. Introductory paragraph, followed by a paragraph that addresses each sentence in the introduction, followed by a conclusion. I promise you that if you give me a paper like that, it will get a C, because it will be a perfect example of the average." One of the other students--the girl with whom I shared the salutatorian position--got very frustrated with this because she got the promised C's, even though, "I did it just like he said!" Nowadays, I could very easily envision a parent storming in and complaining that her GPA had been drawn down by this capricious and unfair grading practice... a practice with which I agree wholeheartedly. Or how about my best teacher, tenth grade bio, who informed us on the first day that our GPAs would be roughly ten points lower than we'd get on the Regents exam, at least if she was doing her job properly? Those are the sorts of teachers I admire and would emulate... and it would get me in serious trouble these days.


I mean, my thought on the subject is very, very simple: Schools exist to pass on knowledge. The person in the best position to see if this objective is being met is the classroom teacher, who can see their faces. No particular pedagogy is right for every student (though I believe all subject matters can and should be taught, at least in their basic forms, to every student), and the best teaching method is always the one a good teacher finds most natural to him or her, the one that s/he can maintain in class without putting on an act all the time, which is tiring for everyone. I mostly hold that truth to be self-evident, you know?

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