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Why I want to be a teacher and why I (in all likelihood) never will be - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
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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lannamichaels From: lannamichaels Date: May 14th, 2005 06:13 pm (UTC) (Link)

I have a major problem with GPA and letter grades. In high school, I had maybe two hard classes: math and history. A B in those classes was worth more than any other A I could pull out, yet a hard-won B would lower my GPA. There was no way to distinguish between the hard classes and easy classes on my transcript, and my school did not have electives. The principal pretty randomly called classes "honors" or "AP", which led to me taking a three year American History class and having the first two years of it being AP and the last year being Advanced. I believe in testing, but I really wish there was a way to standardize things across schools and districts. I got a C on an eigth grade civics paper and it was deserved, but that C would have been an A in my english class. Then again, that English teacher had a very strange grading system that no one could understand. My best friend got a B even though she'd gotten As on everything else, and I once got a B in Jewish History even though I'd gotten 99s on all the tests because the teacher thought I wasn't trying hard. I don't mind weird grading practices as long as they make sense. There was a story in the paper once about an elementary school teacher never giving out A's and I don't understand that at all. Why lower a kid's self esteem? I don't believe in those weird activies, like no playing kickball, that are meant to raise self-esteem, but I had plenty of teachers who gave us a lot of emotional abuse. That's just wrong.

I read about parents coming in to change grades and I go "WTF?" What are they trying to teach their kids, that you don't have to work for grades, that if you whine enough, things will change? There just weren't parents in my school who came in and demanded grades to be changed. They came in and said that books were obscene and, get this, we couldn't read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court because it was too long. That was sixth grade. The parent said it was discriminating against her daughter who couldn't read very fast. *sigh* Oh, and when we read The Chosen, the rabbi of the big synagogue came in and did a short lecture on Chassidism and how it wasn't bad. Thank you. Orthodox Jews with Lubavich friends apparently would never have figured that out. I love it when they talked down to us. Made me all warm and fuzzy inside, knowing that the administration thought we were stupid. :|
nomadicwriter From: nomadicwriter Date: May 14th, 2005 11:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
I once got a B in Jewish History even though I'd gotten 99s on all the tests because the teacher thought I wasn't trying hard. I don't mind weird grading practices as long as they make sense. There was a story in the paper once about an elementary school teacher never giving out A's and I don't understand that at all.

My history teacher once spoke to my mother about the idea of deliberately grading my work below what it was worth; I was doing just enough work to get the top grade available and nothing extra (largely because the subject matter at the time bored me to tears), and she wanted to mark me down to push me into putting more effort in. My mother, fortunately, took the time to point out that giving me marks I would be well aware were unfair might not, actually, be incredibly motivational.

I'm all in favour of grades and standardised testing, but it's got to be standardised. If an essay is worth a C, it's worth a C. It can't be a D in one class 'cause the teacher wants you to try harder and a B somewhere else because that teacher doesn't want to hurt your self-esteem.

And don't even get me started on the British government's "everybody should leave school with qualifications, so let's keep lowering the standards until everyone can get them" approach. (Somebody really needs to sit these people down and explain in small words the concept of an "average", and why everybody can't be above it at the same time.)
sue_parsons From: sue_parsons Date: May 14th, 2005 06:44 pm (UTC) (Link)

Different perspective

In my twenty years of teaching first and second graders, what I have concluded is this: my job is less to pass on knowledge and more to awaken the desire to learn, the thirst for reading, and the ability to think and question. I see myself less as the vessel of knowledge, pouring of myself into the empty minds of passive individuals, and more the facilitator of active learning. As a result, my kids come out of my classroom as working, responsible participants in their education. They constantly make connections between and among subjects and use science and social studies vocabulary applied to a new story we are reading in language arts.

If confronted with a child running in the hall, I put on my playground voice, which is quite something, and holler, "WALK!" Kids know that is what they are supposed to do and why. Enough have them have been clobbered by a fast-moving body to figure that out. But where the reasoning aspect comes in is conflict resolution. When kids come up to me at recess and complain that so-and-so said she would not be her friend, my response is usually, "What are you going to do about that?" or "Wow. That must make you sad." How to resolve it is up to the kids. They are taughtat the beginning of the school year several methods of how to solve their own problems, and are reminded to do so. They know not to even think about getting me to talk about something like that in the middle of classtime; our school has been labeled as "underperforming", so the focus is on curriculum one hundred percent of the time.

But I strive to build a learning community where every child is a valued member. The very first week of school my son comes in and administers the TIMI test of Multiple Intelligences (Howard Gardner) so that I can see how best to instruct the children - are these folks mostly spatial learners or logical-mathematical? That will determine what bulletin boards look like. Any musical kids in the mix? I teach them to tap their fingers together quietly when they need to act out a rhythm, so as not to disturb others. Are we mostly intrapersonal or interpersonal? That will let me know who prefers to work alone and who might work best in small groups. Bodily-Kinesthetic thrust this year? I need to have the kids act out stories and bring in cooking and movement activities this year. The results of this test go on a yearlong bulletin board. If a child is struggling to learn a poem, he is referred to someone on the pink chart - the linguistic learners. Art project glitches often are worked out by the spatial kids listed on the yellow paper. Everyone in the room is a mentor in his or her two strongest learning modes.

Yes, I DO do a great deal of directed teaching, the "pouring in" portion of passing on curriculum. But it is in small doses, and chunks of timeblocks each day go to practicing and working out kinks in pairs and triads of children. In my classroom I celebrate both individual, creative thinking and mastering of standards. A quarter of my students are resource children, a quartile or more below grade level due to learning disabilities. Several attend speech programs because of low vocabulary or articulation errors. Several are English Language Learners. But we all hang together in our desire to learn as much as we can in a school year.

Each year I work towards developing a functioning community of learners, a little subset of my school and neighborhood. They exit my room at the end of June, certainly aware of their own needs but also very much cognizant of their strengths. They know they are to be accountable for their own learning. And, what is more, they know they made a difference in our little microcosm of Chino, California.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 14th, 2005 07:01 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Different perspective

As long as they learn the material, then yes--teach in whatever way seems appropriate to you. You're the classroom teacher, and you know whether or not they're getting it.

It's the philosophy that it's just not important for them to learn the material that makes me want to go in and start kicking butt. It's been the dominant thread in child study and so on since roughly the 1920s, and I'm well aware of Dewey and Kilpatrick and so on--it's not lack of exposure!

I also should point out that my thoughts are always on a high school level. My only interest in elementary schools is making sure that the kids have a solid academic basis on which they can build more intensive study at a high school level and get ready for college--making sure that every kid is exposed to math, science, history, reading, etc, so that no child comes to high school without the underlying preparation for the work. As far as I'm concerned, if a classroom teacher finds it more effective to teach math by creating a learning community, that's fine... as long as they know their multiplication tables when they come out of it. Only the classroom teacher is in a position to see whether or not they're getting the material and know which methods work best with her particular students. (And her own particular personality--for myself, as a student, I always preferred a strongly competitive, individualistic approach, and haven't had any patience with group projects at any stage of my academic life, so I doubt that I'd be good at teaching with that method, so it wouldn't work for me; if it does work for you and suit the way you think and relate to your students, then that's certainly the way you should be teaching. Like I said, I don't believe in pedagogical panaceas... whatever works best for the teacher as far as actually teaching the material is peachy with me, as long as the kids learn it.)
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: May 14th, 2005 07:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
You're not the only single childless woman who votes with Education being a big factor -- and I love your take on the difference between library schools and the real world, too.

I'm not a teacher because I'd get bored out of my skull dealing with the same twenty kids day after day. All the same age group, all the time? Yikes!

Not to mention I'd never get through a masters degree in Education without seriously alienating the professors. There's a ton of crap in educational theory and it leads to irresponsible experiments with children's lives.

Do I think that you need to teach to a kid's strengths? Yeah, but they've got to know what they've got to know, or they don't move on...
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 14th, 2005 07:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
You're not the only single childless woman who votes with Education being a big factor

Oh, good. Though they never seem to ask our opinions on anything, do they? ;)

The "same twenty kids" (more like thirty or more in some schools) issue is another one. On the one hand, it's kind of appealing to get a chance to see them through a year. On the other, you start to get a problem with familiarity. Again, though, I'm thinking high school, subject area, so I'd be dealing with a few different classes.

The difference between library school and real life... huh... are there similarities?
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: May 14th, 2005 08:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
I would have gone insane with boredom if no one had taught me to read before I was eight. I could read simple words before I started school at four, and was reading fluently by the time I was six.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 15th, 2005 03:08 am (UTC) (Link)
I learned to read absurdly early and with no formal instruction (the year I turned three, people were trying to tell my mother I was reading, and she didn't believe them--she thought I'd just memorized all of my books, and all the books at my nursery school--until I got a book I'd never seen before for Christmas and read it out loud to her). I can't wrap my head around the notion of an eight year old not reading more or less anything s/he can get her hands on. One of the reasons I read as early as I did was that my mom held me on her lap while she was studying for college and read to me from her textbooks, assuming that all I cared about was the sound of her voice. And I had my family doing a circuit reading of The Wizard of Oz when I was a toddler. I was the only child in a house with four adults and I just went from lap to lap. I had a lot of patience with that story, and they finally got it for me in audio to listen to whenever I wanted. But of course, that must have been far too long for a three- or four-year-old.
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From: nothing_gold Date: May 14th, 2005 09:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
but I do think that the point of school is to pass on knowledge to children, not to raise children

Thank you. This attitude just kills me. My question is, if these schools were failing at just trying to teach high schoolers to read, as many Chicago public schools have been for decades, how the hell do they expect to be able to teach life skills?

The latest thing I heard that just boggled my mind was that a grade school somewhere here in the Chicago metro area has stopped giving out homework. Why? Because the students weren't doing it anyway. *headdesk* I shudder to think how hellish the transition to high school will be for these kids, and it makes me so angry that the school's administration thinks this is a good idea.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: May 14th, 2005 10:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
The attitude that the school should dictate a child's learning rate, especially with reading, was one I fought with all the way through primary school. I was not allowed to get out chapter books from the library because I was under eight. Clearly, I couldn't understand them. The fact I went home and read historical novels for fun was irrelevant - I was only pretending, because the rules said children under eight should not be reading anything harder than picture books. So I have a particular hatred for any rules about age of learning to read.

However, I do believe there is a place in schools for health classes. While Health and PE were the bane of my college years because they took time out of my academic classes, they were valuable. PE, because a lot of kids don't want to be at school and it gives them chilling-out time. Health, because we learnt important information that most people simply wouldn't have accessed any other way. I'm thinking mainly of sex ed, but also useful stuff about alcohol, drink driving, safety on the streets,and that sort of thing. While a school's primary function should be academic, social classes are incredibly useful at lower levels.

In the last two years we had a "life skills" class for the higher levels which enabled kids to do things like first aid courses, driving tests, childcare certificates - stuff that was really useful for the less academically inclined kids. It was an elective, so the people who wanted to do five scholarship subjects or whatever weren't wasting time, but it was great for the people who did do it. It's important for schools to push everyone to do their best, but let's face it - not everyone is going to go on to higher education, or wants to (and what I saw at school was that people were going to uni when they shouldn't, because they got it in their heads it was the only thing to do.) I see nothing wrong with letting those people gain practical skills at school.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 15th, 2005 02:52 am (UTC) (Link)
School librarians have a different track in library school unfortunately--something called a "school media specialist," and it requires some curricular courses that I haven't had, because it's a school faculty position. I think some people were grandfathered (or grandmothered ;)) in, but now, if you want be a school librarian, there's a special course of study. Sigh. I keep looking, because I know of at least one person who made the transition from public to school, albeit a private school, but most of them want the special stuff.

Hebrew school or day school is a thought, though the non-speaking of Hebrew could get in my way...
(no subject) - feylin17 - Expand
lesera128 From: lesera128 Date: May 15th, 2005 05:01 am (UTC) (Link)
I couldn't help but to post a comment.

I teach Western Civ to college freshmen. Although I love history, teaching it to first year collegiate students has got to be one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and that is saying something. I am not an arbitary grader...I structure my syllabi very clearly, write excessive comments on both objective and subjective assignments, and usually do score sheets so that students know exactly why they got what grade.

That being said, I cannot tell you how many times that students have tried to go over my head to my department chair to get grades changed on assignmnets let alone the final class grade. I recently remember flunking a student who had taken in an class essay question on "The Communist Manifesto" which asked for specific analysis on one of the themes of the book. The student gave an answer which simply summarized the book and contained virtually no analysis... for which I gave them half credit on the essay as it showed they had put some effort into reading the book, but they had not answered the question and thus received a 50 on the assignment.

A lot of students today who I have encountered as being 18 or 19 and being away at a university for the first time have usually been spoiled and have entitlement issues concerning their grades. They expect to receive the same treatment in highschool when they were recipients of 5.0 GPAs on a 4.0 scale when the only work they did was regurgitate picky details. While their summarization skills are great, the rest of the students are severely lacking in academic preparation for college. The Western Civ class that I teach is required for all BAs and BSs, so all the students have to pass with at least a C or else they have to take it again. I can only tell you that the problem is so large university-wide that students have only a 66% first time passing rate.

I think this problem which I encounter is indicative of something that starts in lower grades (both public and private) because we have watered down curriculum in effort to compensate for time lost due to teachers doing a parent's job especially concerning manners and self-control.

Primary and secondary schools are not helping collegiate bound students, and unless this is recognized by more than a select few groups, our educational system is going to be in even more serious trouble than it is right now....

Sorry for the bit of a rant, but this hit a nerve albeit tangently. :)~
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 15th, 2005 05:41 am (UTC) (Link)
I think this problem which I encounter is indicative of something that starts in lower grades (both public and private) because we have watered down curriculum in effort to compensate for time lost due to teachers doing a parent's job especially concerning manners and self-control.

Oh, yeah. That's a huge problem, and that's mostly what I was referring to about it not being the school's job to raise children, and that the school needs to behave as a school and discharge its primary duty of actually bestowing an education. It drives me berserk. And of course, in that case, the problem isn't the educational system, but parents who need to be severely head-thwapped. They're really doing damage to their kids.
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scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: May 16th, 2005 04:13 am (UTC) (Link)
Reading your many rants on the current educational fads, I have to say I totally understand and largely agree. It's been a blessing to earn my education degree from a school that happily flies in the face of leftist educational theory.

Schools can be hugely different in their approach to education. I've heard time and time again that the deciding factor in the quality of any given school is the administration. If the principal believes in discipline, the teaching of the basics, and preparing students to be life-long learners, then the teachers will follow that lead. Either that or teachers who agree will be likely to transfer to that school. Also, many school systems are more concerned with students meeting testing or curriculum standards for the state than with dictating every lesson plan.

Thankfully, there is a small but rising tide of people who are sick of all the fads, and who have noticed (as you have) that schools are being used as all-purpose child raising facilities. Did you see that Newsweek article a few months back that chronicled "nightmare parents"? The sort who either hover too much, or expect the schools to "clean up" their kids for them? Incomplete as the article was, it was encouraging.

So many things have distracted us from the point of education--which happens to be education: knowledge, discernment, curiosity, and discipline. We need to lead the way back to that.
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