What I’d teach today

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male-teacher-cartoonIn a previous incarnation, I was a teacher. But I think today I could be a better teacher.

For more than 10 years, I taught high school English. Along the way I taught writing and peace studies in college.

I enjoyed teaching. I liked the students. I got along with other teachers and college faculty. I sometimes taught classes with other teachers, at both high school and college.

I always said teaching is the greatest profession. It’s simple: A teacher can make a difference in the lives of other people.

Lately, I’ve been disappointed that so many young people seem to have missed some basic lessons. I’m not referring to a failure to find the square root of big numbers or shortcuts to memorizing the Gettysburg Address.

The lessons I have in mind are those that help you get along with other people, fellow workers, family members and friends.

We all know people with troubled relationships. The list of divorce filings in Tuesday’s paper hints at the numbers of people that affects. Then, judging by the daily crime reports, some people haven’t learned out to stay out of trouble with the law.

Behind both divorce filings and crime reports, you know the personal stories are sad, sometimes tragic. Often, a divorce or a crime hurts a lot of people. Need I mention the social costs?

If I were to return to teaching today, I’d be sure to spend class time on two essential life skills. The first would be how to get along with other people. The second would be how to stay out of trouble with the law.

I know what my approach would be, too.

There would be no textbook. There would be no worksheets. There would be no long out-of-class assignments. As the teacher, I wouldn’t make up the lessons.

Rather, I’d invite students to bring case studies gleaned from their own reading or from stories in real life. That would include stories from relatives, neighbors and newspaper accounts. If relatives and neighbors, the rule would be no names allowed.

Or, I’d welcome them to invent case studies, providing enough detail is in the case to give it real-life complexity.

As the teacher, I wouldn’t lecture. I might add to the case study other cases that I
knew about.

Students would lead the discussion of the cases. They would be invited to tell what mistakes people in these cases made and what things those persons did right. My job as teacher would be to keep the discussion going and push the class toward conclusions.

We might take field trips to a courtroom to observe a criminal trial. I’m skeptical, though, that a visit to a jail or prison would persuade any potential juvenile offender to take the straight and narrow. Rather, I’d put my faith mostly in classroom discussions.

My goal with such teaching would be broader than helping students stay out of a bad marriage. It would be much broader helping them avoid jail and prison.

I readily concede that most marriages don’t end in divorce. Most students avoid trouble with the law.

Let’s say, though, I’m able to help only a few students stay married. Let’s say, my kind of classroom only deters a handful of students from committing a crime. Still, that’s a plus.

But I think my teaching style here benefits every student. Why am I so confident of this? It’s because every student benefits from learning how to think things through. Call it creative problem solving. Call it critical thinking.

Such skills help you evaluate the claims of sales persons for their products. These skills help you discern the truth from the exaggerations of political candidates. Thinking skills are useful in making every kind of daily decision.

If applying such skills becomes a habit, you’re more likely to stay out of trouble with the law and with everyone else. I believe, in fact, that applying good thinking skills will make you a happier person.

If I were a teacher again, that would be the main curriculum.

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In search of the great teacher

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John Merrow
John Merrow

No visits. No interviews. No contrary opinions. That’s how a new survey of the nation’s schools of education went about its business.

John Merrow of “Learning Matters” invited e-mail comment on the National Council on Teacher Quality’s report on 608 schools of education. That’s half of the U.S. programs. As Merrow points out in his e-mail, the surveyors didn’t visit campuses or classes. But they rated the schools nonetheless. And 160 got no stars. Zero. Only 100 earned three or more stars out of a possible five. I doubt the departments of education learned anything useful from the survey.

Here’s my take on teaching training. I question assumptions lots of folk jump to. One is that the smartest people make the best teachers. Which the ed school quality survey seems to take for granted. Thus it matters that education majors score in the top third on standardized tests. I’m skeptical there’s much of a correlation.

I also doubt that competition among the schools for top students will get any one of the schools to improve. Anyway, what are the schools supposed to do? Have profs publish more scholarly articles? More methods classes? Fewer? Fire the veteran profs? Increase salaries despite the tight budgets?

Let me say this about competition. Sorry. Competition might get you better marketing. Might. It doesn’t get you a better product. Look at the best-selling widgets from cars to carpet that get low marks in Consumer Reports.

I liked what I saw in New York City’s District 10, which I wrote about a few years back. There, classroom teachers get a lot of mentoring by master teachers. Likewise, in Germany, with other Education Writers Association fellows, I saw new teachers receive the daily supervision of veterans, much more than the student teaching requirement here.

I cite my in-house expert, my wife Toni. She supervised student teachers for an area college after her career in schools. She had been a school principal, suburban and urban. Plus, for one stint, she was an assistant superintendent who oversaw professional development and curriculum. One year, she served as a program officer with the National Science Foundation. I’ve often heard her talk about how some people just don’t have what it takes to be a good teacher. No matter how good the schooling or desire or supervision. But some fairly good teachers can improve. Thus, the value of mentoring even experienced teachers.

I do think people who are serious about reforming teacher training would do well to interview educators with Toni’s background and expertise. As a sometime fellow with Arizona State’s Professor Alex Molnar’s program, now based at Colorado in Boulder, I haven’t always been impressed by these veteran professors of education. Big on theory. But I’ve never had the impression most regularly visit elementary and upper level classrooms.

In college, seminary and graduate schools, I had a few professors I’d give high marks to. No matter the subject. It can be a pretty idiosyncratic profession. My professor in Shakespeare at Xavier in the 1960s put his hands over his ears if a student dared raise his hand to ask a question. He got few questions either semester. I loved his class.

In recent years, some of the best teaching I saw was in seminars at Wabash College when I visited that school on a Lilly Endowment Fellowship. At another program I visited, Purdue engineering, I sat through huge classes which were pretty dull. Of course, I’m not a math or science guy. I was impressed that grad students would met privately with undergrads.

Some years ago, then Columbia Professor Linda Darling-Hammond found that teachers who had the highest test scores and best grades didn’t stay more than a few years in the classroom. Schools can be a tough environment for people with better paying options.

Making good teachers starts long before college and the school of education. It means spotting students with the potential to teach. That’s the student with a knack for explaining things to the other kids. It’s the student who wants to learn about everything. It’s the student who’s always telling the teacher or a friend about a great book he or she just read. That’s the stuff, demonstrated at an early age, of a good teacher.

Then, let the school of education be so good it inspires that student to see there’s no greater way to spend his life.

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