Monday, November 17, 2014

In Which I List 5 Ways to Improve Education

Mostly, I use this blog to post about writing, authors, the writing life, publishing, and the like. I tell you about my own journey through all that and I hope you celebrate it with me.

Today, I want to talk about education. About school reform. About teaching English. It’s been on my mind these days, in part because I’ve done some subbing at my old school, including a two week stint for a colleague whose daughter had a very serious surgery. And once you’re back in the groove, it sticks with you. I may not be in the trenches every day, but I’m back there regularly enough.

Want to make our educational system better? I mean, do you really?

1. Hire teachers who are truly experts in their fields. The ones who can teach their subject matter without the teacher’s guide that comes with the textbook. The ones who are passionate and in love with their subject matter and widely read. Yes, teachers teach children. But they have to teach them SOMETHING. And if you can only function with guides and pre-canned Pearson materials, then you are not a master teacher. You’re just not. This means that when you interview a candidate to teach, say, Junior English, sit her/him down without access to the Internet and ask her to write a sample lesson for how to teach, say, The Great Gatsby. If she can’t do it, don’t hire her. If he/she can teach math but not explain the 'why', don't hire him. If she’s graduated with an English degree and does not have a command of the basics, don’t hire her. Or him. Similarly, if he/she knows only the canon classics and is not keeping up with the best of what's being written now, the gloriously diverse world of contemporary literature, that's a problem, too. Yeah, that's lot, I know! But what teachers know, the depth and breadth of their education, really does matter. Put only the best and the brightest in classrooms with our students.

2     2. Commit to how many students TOTAL is a workable load for a teacher to do a good job. English teachers at the high school where I taught full time until recently, now teach an average total of about 180 students each. Yes, you read that correctly. 6 classes of well over 30. Just do the math. If each student wrote one essay per week (and I’m not counting quizzes, tests and other written assessments, much less lesson planning and reading and everything else), and the teacher spent just five minutes per student grading/assessing progress, the total for that ONE assignment with 180 students would be 15 hours. Yes, you read that correctly. 15 hours. The average teacher has at maximum, 40 free minutes a day during the work day to grade/plan without meetings, paperwork, duty. So yes, about 3 hours a week. If they’re lucky. So the grading gets done in the evenings and on the weekends. Which is fine. I mean, most editors I now work with do their editing at home, too. But 180 students means that the teachers who are doing the best of jobs are burning out fast. They are working every night and 8-10 hours plus on the weekends, sometimes taking sick days to grade all day. They are not filling the well with life experience that will make them better teachers because they are never, ever done. And that’s just for ONE assignment. 100 students per secondary teacher should be the max. If it’s not, your school ISN’T doing its best job for its community.

3. Accept that collaborative learning is not always the best type of classroom structure. Understand that it works once material has been taught by the teacher. But zero plus zero equals zero, you know? Which means that divvying up chapters to have students read and then each group ‘teaches’ the material to the class, but the entire class does not actually read all the material, is actually quite often LAZY TEACHING. It’s the kind of thing that you save for those days when you’re sick or hungover (yes, it happens) or worried about an ailing parent or your own kids or whatever. It is NOT creative, although it may look like it is on the surface. It is not productive. It really isn’t. Calling teachers facilitators falls under the same category. Yes, it really does. My best teachers knew more than I did. A lot more. And they found creative and interesting ways to present that information to me. They did not rely on me to find it all myself, although they encouraged me to search and think and question. Often they simply lectured and I took copious notes, but not verbatim ones, thus ensuring that I was actually transferring that material to my brain in a way that worked for me. Don’t mistake the glitter for the substance. It’s easy to do. Trust me on this.

 4. Mentor newer teachers with more seasoned staff members. Make sure they know how to assess written assignments consistently. Make sure they’re not drowning in the work. Be a shoulder to lean on and a voice of reason in the academic wilderness. Remind them that they must teach the students that they’re given, find delight in these unique human beings who they have been given the privilege of educating. They should learn with them and laugh with them and cry with them and LISTEN to them. Remind them that some days, nothing they do will be enough. On those days, maybe all they can do is smile at this kid who is doing all the wrong things, whose issues won’t be fixed by you, not then or maybe not ever, and treat him/her with respect. Even when it’s almost impossible to do so. Even when your kindness will be perceived as weakness. And trust me, sometimes it will. Do not become too jaded, you must tell them. Keep your sense of humor and wonder at the human condition. Do this all year long, not just the first week.

5. And if you’re a parent, do your job, too. Instill a love of learning in your children. Encourage them. Read to them. Read with them. Don’t ever tell them that school is just a game. Be their advocates. Discuss world events. Tell your children that learning is a lifelong journey. It has value. Information is powerful. Turn off the screens at night. Talk. Explore. Do this even if you are exhausted or broke or sad or struggling to keep afloat. Even if your child is difficult. Even if life is falling on your head.  Know your child’s learning style, but don’t make it a crutch. Sometimes failure is okay. It really is. If your child never fails, he may not be stretching far enough. Tenacity is a good thing, too. In fact, it’s a very good thing.


Unknown said...

Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for saying this. Now if we can just get all of those people who make educational policy (yet have no idea what teachers truly face on a day-to-day basis!) to acknowledge truth and common sense, maybe we'll see some positive changes in our school system and more respect for teaching professionals. And thank you for being the phenomenal teacher you were for me and so many others whose lives you touched during your first career. ;)

Karen said...

Excellent blog. Agree with everything. Thanks, Joy, for being a helpful colleague.

Joy Preble said...

Thanks, you guys!! If I was queen of the world...