I started my teaching career in 1969 so I guess that I have been teaching in six decades. I want to make it to the seventh.
Because being a teacher is both an honor and a vocation. But let me define teacher in the purest sense. A teacher is a consummate professional who is skillfully adept at their discipline; understands the importance of varied instruction in the classroom; connects with each student in a personal manner; cares about the student as a person and seeks to know the whole child; honors laughter as the music of happy human beings; praises diversity as the key to understanding the world; serves as en loco parentis for the child; praises and disciplines honestly; and coaches a work and moral ethic and revels in the successes of their charges. It has been my trek for 44 years to accomplish these attributes and as I move along this journey, more of the qualities of “teacher” reveal themselves to me. The wisdom that I have gathered is that humility to always be a learner and the courage to make the right decisions are part of the trek. It is endless and should be. When you feel that you have reached the top of the mountain that is when you begin to slide backwards.
There are three major changes over my years of teaching that I have observed and internalized:
Students in the 70s, 80s and to a degree, in the 90s pigeon-holed themselves into traditional walks of life and often times saw school as a rite of passage. Some really cared about getting good grades to go to a good college and pursue a professional career. Some saw school as competition to get good grades and “win the race.” But there was usually the catch-all that allowed students to navigate K-12 without distinction and emerge to live a life with a good paying unskilled job or to learn a trade and achieve the American dream.
By the 1980s, more students came to school from single-parent homes. This social trend put more and more of an onus on schools to be more and more for the child. Social services increased. Sophistication of understanding learning disabilities proliferated. More and more awareness of the conditions in the home became part of the school’s obligation. Schools had to provide more and more services. By the 90s, schools came under more and more scrutiny for its practices, and athletics and other school activities increased. Students became more active in these activities and the primary function of a school as a place to develop the mind began to be equated with the other events of a child’s day. In short, the school became significantly responsible for the entire development of the person.
Prior to the 1990s and surely by 2000, school was a delivery system. Teachers who had mastered a discipline presented that discipline to their students in a variety of manners and that constituted a body of knowledge called a curriculum. If you mastered it, you received a good grade and were promoted accordingly. But if you did not you were sorted accordingly. But by 2001, the focus shifted to the school and its practitioners. It was no longer “The teacher presented the information and it was your responsibility as a student to acquire it.” It shifted to “if the student did not acquire the requisite information, it was the responsibility of the teacher to present it in a different way until the student did acquire the information.” Then it evolved into NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND. Was this a good evolution? In some respects, yes. It forced the education professionals to adjust the focus of the teaching-learning process to the learner. It made good professionals search for better and differentiated strategies to reach the learner. It accentuated the profession’s skill of teaching. But, in other respects, no. It devalued the trades and skilled factory jobs that would allow many young people viable and interesting lives. It overvalued the professions and made it an either/or situation. The service occupations have grown in this nation and the need for skilled workers in the factories and trades are still necessary and in demand. People with a high school diploma earn, it is estimated, about $600,000 more in their lifetime than those who are high school dropouts. Currently, the economy is hampered by 2% more unemployment because of young people without high school diplomas who are unemployable. Maybe we have over accentuated the value of a traditional education, K-16, at the price of a nation of producers.
And there is a byproduct to all of this. In the 1970s and 1980s, students and teachers did not have the pressure of the state tests. Testing definitively changed the landscape for students and teachers because now students were burdened with consistent testing and schools (aka their administrators and teachers) were held accountable to the numbers that resulted. Students became needier, less self-directed, and more competitive. And perhaps because of the more single parent homes or both parents working, self-esteem entered into the picture. Some of this can be attributed to parental guilt because as they spent less time with their children, they needed another arena where they could exhibit their love. In battling teachers, coaches, and mentors for aggrandizement of their child, they put further pressure on the schools. Many schools and teachers have chosen to succumb to parental demands at the price of excellence, expectation, and performance.
Despite the great social-economic-emotional changes over the last 40+ years, there is still universality. Schools and our students are the bedrock of our society. They are young and developing people filled with potential and talent. They need the support of caring, mature and literate adults to help them find their way. All people want to see themselves as worthwhile. Young people in particular need to find their worth, be individually recognized by their name, and honestly feel that they can accomplish good things in their lives. In this respect nothing has changed. We are in the business of developing human capital.
Until 2003, I felt that I was a teacher in a system. I had seized hold of teacher leadership much earlier in the 1990s but it was because of the apathy and disinterest of administration. When I was perceived as a threat, I was duly guarded. But it was too late. I had unleashed my passions for leadership from within the ranks. It could no longer be forestalled because I took the high road of the desire to have students achieve at their highest possible level without restraints. It was then that I experienced the shared leadership thrust. With new administrative leadership who respected and validated the upfront role of teachers, teacher leadership thrived. A change in administration only magnified the role of teachers as leaders and further validated collaborative leadership. It is in this crucible that the pragmatically optimistic me lies. Public education has many threats from outside the ranks. Charter schools, cyber schools, an assault on public education by state governments, the public declaring “open season” on teachers, and the overall attitude that our schools are failing permeate too much of our national thought. These are viable threats. But in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, there is no free society without a free public education. Our youth are the building blocks of our society and our democratic way of life. Public education is the foundation upon which a successful government and its society are based. It communicates culture, values, traditions, and becomes the homogenous experience of all Americans. That is the undeniable end of which I dedicate my services. It is endemic to a democracy.
My challenge to myself and to other educators is to see each day through the lens of the 5 L’s. Live, love, learn, laugh, and leave a legacy. Exhibit to your charges that you love what you do and encourage them to come along on your new journey. Every school year is a new journey or trek. If you do not exhibit your love for what you do, how would young people think that what you are teaching is valuable? And remember that you are in the business of human beings. We crunch data and sometimes students become numbers. But, we should not lose sight of the essence of teaching —developing the human potential to its apex. Be learners. See each day as another opportunity to affect the world through our students. We have the unenviable chance to be an ingredient in the life of another human being, and we see 100-150 of them a day. Please let’s laugh. It is the most human music that a person can make and it can be infectious. And we learn better when the senses are properly relaxed and open to thinking.
And perhaps most of all, leave a legacy. Your students are your legacy; your words and actions each day are your legacy; your treatment of your charges by personalizing their k-12 experience is also your legacy. When students come back to tell you that you were significant in their life, they tacitly acknowledge the path of educational advancement that you took with them but they will most remember how you treated and cared about them as individuals. We must always know that we are in the human business and we can exact magical results with belief in the potential of our young.