If you don’t yet have time for the long Auden post below, or if you’ve already finished it, here are links to a couple of fantastic texts. Besides advancing sensible points, they’re models of concise, tart rhetoric. It turns out that having experience as a teacher is the main criterion for making credible claims about education. Yes, plenty of non-teacher input is fine, even helpful, as long as it defers to the training and experience of actual educators. Otherwise you are just kibitzing and need to go away now.
Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Jonathan Senchyne braved The New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference, and now we have his field report. The takeaway? As we at the Reader have long been pointing out, most of the players with grand plans for leveraging Technology and other very innovative things to “disrupt” or remake (for today’s modern society!) American education have never been teachers. Often they’ve been students at elite institutions, but that’s it. Do these people lecture their dentists on how to numb a gum, or push the mechanic out of the way once their sedan is on the lift? The infuriating, absurd details from Senchyne’s piece are its best attribute. You’ll meet insane charlatans from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, as well as former politicians turned corporate-ed pimps, all of them marching in “a parade of highly polished representatives from government, finance, education administration, The New York Times, nonprofit policy tanks, and private-sector business,” all of them “on stage in various combinations to deliver pitches.” And why, yes, Arne Duncan (Harvard, Class of ’87) was there to rep our privately educated (as usual) President’s terrible ideas about mass education.
“But I was a student for a really long time! I know what it takes to teach well.” One hears this on the reg, sometimes candidly, more often as the implicit supposition behind whatever someone is burbling about teacher pay, grading standards, a class being “irrelevant,” or what have you. As Sarah Blaine emphasizes on her blog parentingthecore, this is horseshit. Teaching is an extremely complex, difficult, taxing job at any school level, and most people could never hack it; she herself eventually “copped out” (her words) and became a lawyer, and this led her to conclude something that the Schools for Tomorrow brigade would do well to confront:
The people I encounter out in the world now respect me as a lawyer, as a professional, in part because the vast majority of them have absolutely no idea what I really do.
All of you former students who are not teachers and not lawyers, you have no more idea of what it is to teach than you do of what it is to practice law.
All of you former students: you did not design curricula, plan lessons, attend faculty meetings, assess papers, design rubrics, create exams, prepare report cards, and monitor attendance. You did not tutor students, review rough drafts, and create study questions. You did not assign homework. You did not write daily lesson objectives on the white board. You did not write poems of the week on the white board. You did not write homework on the white board. You did not learn to write legibly on the white board while simultaneously making sure that none of your students threw a chair out a window.
You did not design lessons that succeeded. You did not design lessons that failed. [. . .]
You did not. And you don’t know. You observed. Maybe you learned. But you didn’t teach.
The problem with teaching as a profession is that every single adult citizen of this country thinks that they know what teachers do. And they don’t. So they prescribe solutions, and they develop public policy, and they editorialize, and they politicize.
Blaine taught at a rural high school, but most of what she says applies to college teaching, trust me.
She is not claiming that teaching is a mystical calling that some people are just “born” knowing how to do. Few actual teachers think that way, even if that is how it works in movies. Blaine calls teaching “a profession” because, as with policework or medicine or chemical engineering, “only years of practicing my skills and honing my skills would have rendered me a true professional. An expert.” She’s right. I am already an effective teacher (no big deal, folks) but I am nowhere close to the educator I could be if I manage to stay in the game another few decades. I learn constantly from more experienced colleagues and from my time in the classroom with my students, most of whom are good kids that, if they are willing to work, deserve to get more from college than debt you cannot even discharge in bankruptcy.
This is why decent academic programs try to cultivate a stable core of faculty, where teachers learn explicitly and implicitly, directly and indirectly, in the short run and over the years, from one another.
And thus we have yet another reason why the adjunctification of the professoriate is a goddamn rolling disaster.