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War on Teachers II: Why It Can’t Work

(The title is inspired by Historiann’s excellent post. Also a note: unlike most of the things I blog about, teaching is what I’ve done professionally for decades. I taught in universities, not schools, but the two aren’t totally unrelated.)

Let’s face it. The war on teachers is about money. People want to pay less and get more.

Sometimes you can do that. Solar power and energy efficiency instead of nukes and oil come to mind. In that case paying less and getting more is the sign of an intelligent choice. But when the low price comes from a flimflam artist selling cheap hope, falling for it is the mark of a fool. So, really, the first order of business is to see how low the price can go and still give you what you’re paying for.

So what are we paying for? What is learning, really? And, for that matter, teaching?

Everybody has learned, so there’s nothing all that new here. There are many active components in learning. Remembering the relevant facts or sources takes effort, making the relevant connections to find solutions to problems takes even more effort, and figuring out where the gaps are in one’s knowledge and filling them takes perhaps the most active commitment to effectiveness of all.

Anything that requires active participation requires willingness, and willingness cannot be forced. That is a hugely important point that much of the current popular discussion about education overlooks. Learning cannot be forced. Punitive measures have never worked, don’t work, and will never work because they can’t work.

Now let’s think about teaching. Here again, everyone old enough to be reading this has done some teaching, even if they haven’t always recognized it as such. So compare what I’m about to say to your own experience, and not to what you’ve heard.

Effective teaching is whatever enables effective learning. Knowledge of the subject matter is only one component. Presenting it so that students can learn it easily is another small component. Most important is paying attention to each student, getting a sense of what they’ve understood, what they’re still missing, and how best to fill the gaps given the student’s way of organizing information. It feels a bit like an exercise in mindreading, and the teacher has to care about the student to be able to do it. Understanding someone else simply doesn’t happen without caring. The teacher may not even care about the student, strictly speaking. They may only care about doing their work to a professional standard. But whatever the origin, they have to care.

Everybody who teaches does that to some degree. Parents showing their children how to button a shirt are doing it. Pay close attention to yourself when you’re trying to help someone you care about learn something. There’ll be that distinct feeling of trying to get inside their minds in order to figure out how best to explain it. The main difference is that non-teachers do that briefly, generally only with one or a few people at a time, and usually only for relatively simple concepts. Multiply the effort and attention involved times the number of students in a class, the amount of the subject that needs explaining, and the number of hours teaching, and one can start to have some concept of what it is that teachers do.

But that’s just part of it. Think about doing a teacher’s job. The closest thing to it that most people have done at some point is public speaking. That addresses the first step, presenting information to a group of people. The act of doing it requires intense concentration because one’s mind has to be doing several things at once: keeping the overall presentation in mind, speaking coherently about the current point, and simultaneously preparing the next few intelligent sentences while the current ones are spoken. A practised teacher will also, at the same time, be gauging the level of understanding in the audience and modifying the presentation on the fly as needed. When the students being taught are young, the teacher will also be keeping order and checking for untoward activities, all while not losing track of any of the above five simultaneous aspects of the act of teaching. That level of concentration and engagement is standard during all of in-class time. It’s not special or something only the best do. Some do it better than others, but every teacher does it.

Teaching is not a desk job. The physical requirements are much closer to performance art than anything else. The parallels extend to other areas. As with performance art, the great majority of time spent on teaching happens outside of class. And, also as with performance art, it won’t amount to anything unless the individual involved puts a great deal of her- or himself into it.

All of the above should make clear that teaching requires even greater active involvement than learning. Teaching, like learning, also cannot be forced. Punitive measures have never worked, don’t work, and will never work because they can’t work.

Firing teachers won’t make the survivors care. Humiliating teachers isn’t going to make them love their work. Telling them how to do a complex and specialized job, while demonstrating complete ignorance of what’s involved from the very first word, is not going to make them do a better job.

So what does work? That could, and has, filled many books. I’ll try to not to run away with the joy of holding forth on my pet notions in the last part, The War on Teachers Ignorance.

Posted to Acid Test, The Confluence, Corrente.

12 Responses

  1. What would you say is the biggest problem teachers face?

    I know they face multiple problems but if you had to choose the largest problem to address what would it be?

    I would think that the apathy of others would be somewhere near the top of the heap. I mean you can care yourself to oblivion but if a student or the student’s support network don’t care then it is a moot point.

    It’s funny because I see a lot of people pointing at teachers as the sole problem in the system but there are so many components to childhood education. Parents, peers, administrators, even the children themselves can all be either a help or a hinderance to the learning process. Then there are issues like access to learning resources, access to a healthy home environment, access to adequate nutrition, access to proper health care and all these things can be stumbling blocks in each child’s life. And these things aren’t necessarily going to be consistently good or bad or even something that a teacher has immediate awareness of for each individual student. The you have different personality types. Some kids are risk averse they don’t want to try because they fear failure. Another might be willing to try but doesn’t know enough about a subject to even ask adequate questions to begin the task. Still another might be feel that in order to begin to attempt the tasks that they need to understand how this affects them or will affect them. I mean the motivations or demotivators seem endless. I mean all of these things contribute to or take away from the process. It seems that people just make teachers the easy target.

    • Tomorrow I was going to put up the last bit, and one of the points there is that the single most important factor for good education is small class sizes. Small classes cost money. Money depends on the value people place on whatever it’s buying. For the most part, I don’t see the anti-intellectual US putting much value on education. Its only real purpose for a lot of people is a fatter paycheck.

      If there was more honesty, they could get certification much more cheaply than education, but they’d still have to understand education enough to realize they need to spend about five times as much on schools. If certification was all they wanted, they could cut back a lot at my end, in the universities.

      (I couldn’t decide whether to do one humongous post or not. It would answer some questions as they came up, but there’s also the risk of causing coma!)

      • I value our future so I see education as an investment in that future. The only thing I might place more value on is the present since there is no guarantee on a future.

        Fatter paychecks are good but so are intrinsic values such as job satisfaction. If you can have both all the better. As a parent and spouse I don’t get a cent for my labor but it is a labor born of love. I don’t expect others to have to work for peanuts to take care of my progeny when I am not there to do so. I appreciate the value a good educator brings to the table.

        Your posts have been wonderful. I truly enjoy policy. The wonkishness of Secretary Clinton is what I really grew to appreciate the most about Hillary. It isn’t easy in a market of competing ideas to find solutions as but the only way you start to come up with them is to have discussions about them and try different solutions. Secretary Clinton was no coward when it came to putting herself out there and selling her ideas and her belief set. It’s refreshing and I try to remind myself at one time that not every Democrat was a coward or understood that compromise wasn’t supposed to be just for compromises sake. It meant both sides were supposed to get some value. It also meant understanding which principles might be worth a compromise upon and which ones weren’t. Sigh.

        Anyway, I’m thoroughly enjoying your posts(although I initially glanced at this particular one at Corrente.)

  2. Great post. Read Michael Apple’s work if you want to learn more about the forces behind education “reform”.


  3. Wow, what a fantastic post…and series. I look forward to the next installment. As a 21-year veteran teacher (grades K-6, all of it) in the public school system, I can tell that you know exactly what you are talking about. Knowledge of your subject matter will only get you so far. If you have a classroom full of students who have not eaten, have hard-core gang members as role models, cannot afford even $3 to buy a recorder for Music class, would rather bully others than anything else, have serious emotional meltdowns on a regular basis, clown around constantly for attention…well, the list could go on and on. It is next to impossible to teach in this kind of situation. I invite anyone who thinks otherwise to my classroom.

  4. I second LJSNAustin. This is a great post.

    Most teachers I know spend a great deal of time outside the classroom preparing than they spend teaching, including weeks before and after the official school year ends — yes, their summer “off”!

    High school teachers typically teach 5 – 6 classes a day. With 30 – 34 kids per class, that’s more than 150 homework assignments, quizzes, tests, etc to grade. If you are teaching more than one level of a course, you may have to prepare several different lesson plans. And, of course, because each class is different and students learn in different ways and at different speeds, no one lesson plan will suit every class.

    And if your students are unmotivated, do not view education as important to them, or come from difficult backgrounds, just getting “control” of a class can be the most difficult task. (LSJN, I admire you for continuing to try!)

    Teaching is a high energy job and quite exhausting. The best teachers are like performers, as you say. They are lit up when they teach, and work to understand each student and their learning style.

    Thanks again for these posts.

  5. I think you are absolutely right that education will never work unless it is valued, with motivated students.

    I’ve often observed that for me and my friends education was our holy grail. It was our only option for a successful life. Therefore we were motivated to achieve excellence.

    However, throughout elementary school, I was never in a class with less than 50 to 60 students. This was life. Smaller class sizes are great, and a fantastic goal, but I think the overriding problem is motivation.

    If students are to learn, they must see that education is valued and can create value.

    • I should clarify that I don’t think the lack of value or the lack of motivation is the teacher’s fault. I think it is societal.

      Kids and their parents see too many “easier”, “quicker” paths to success.

    • 50 to 60 students per class in grade school ought to be a federal crime.

      You’re right that a motivated student can learn just about anywhere. But as a society, we’re fools if we expect to coast on the talents of the (too) few like you. It’s not a system that does well for most, i.e. average, people and, let’s face it, average is all there will ever be much of. Anything else is a logical impossibility. :biggrin:

      • You’re right. It was not a system for the weak. Unfortunate really.

        This is a very good series.

  6. Thanks to all the commenters. It really means a lot to me to see engaged commentary like this. I spend a lot of time these days saying, “Oh, what’s the use.” And then a few people who care show up and suddenly it feels worth it. Really. You folks have made my day.

    • Caring is never a useless exercise. Don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise. You’re doing a great job!


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