Thoughts on Education

Just read an article about the current and continuing “crisis” in education. It is claimed that almost every school district in America is facing a severe shortage of qualified teachers. The culprits are retirement and other forms of attrition, low pay, job stresses, and the public’s attitude about education.

When I first considered teaching in the early 1960s demand outstripped supply and I liked knowing I could go most anyplace and find a position. I liked the idea of having that flexibility. I also liked knowing I’d have from Memorial Day to Labor Day to pursue other interest.

Of course neither of those are as true today as back then. There are lots of jobs but they tend to be in science, math, and special education, and in inner-city school districts. People in math and science can earn much more by taking their skills into industry rather than education. Summer break isn’t what it once was. The school year has been lengthened and today many schools commonly don’t let out until sometime in June and then resume classes around the middle of August. Of course salaries have been adjusted but not always fairly.

My first teaching job in Ohio was teaching junior high special education. I had no training in special education and taught on a temporary certificate. Eventually I became certified but after five years I had all I could take. Special education requires a very special person to withstand the demands of the job. And like every teaching position those demands have only increased over the years. The burn out rate in special education is huge.

For the rest of my career I taught high school American History to juniors and American Government to seniors. These ages were a perfect match for my personality and teaching methods.  Maturationally the ages are also better suited for more in depth social studies . I was a happy creature and rarely didn’t want to get out of bed and get the day started. I could go to school, walk into my classroom with a cup of coffee, and teach the curriculum in a way I felt was professionally correct and that I was comfortable with.

Every year it became harder to do this. The lawmakers and bureaucrats just couldn’t leave the unbroken alone. Policies were always changing, curriculum always being interfered with, and there was never enough money. A major frustration was the ever lessening respect for the professional knowledge of the educator. Teaching became more dictated by politics than by years of professional experience. The politicians just could not resist using schools as a target for people’s frustrations. Thus was born accountability and mandatory proficiency testing, the greatest boondoggle in modern educational history.

As part of the pressure to teach to the test and give students a second opportunity to pass the test, if first they didn’t succeed, the local administration decided to change the sequence of classes by providing history to sophomores and government to juniors. This resulted in students who were one year further from the mental maturity need to comprehend the subjective nature of advanced social studies. The year after I retired those same administrators had dropped it down to freshman and sophomore levels and went from teaching each subject as a two semester course to simply meeting state minimum requirements of one semester each. So, if you run into a kid who thinks George Washington freed the inmates of Hitler’s concentration camps, you’ll know how that happened.

I wasn’t burnt out when I retired but I knew that if I stayed another year it would start working on me pretty hard. Since retirement the stresses over teaching the test have only increased. While some teachers support what has happened most don’t. I’ve met a goodly number of teachers who have left the classroom because of policy constraints and the pressures of paperwork have simply gotten too much.

At its absolute best teaching is a high stress profession. At the high school level you have to face maybe 150 students a day. Every one of them is an individual with their own problems and needs. And as the person whose name’s on the door you have to be more than just Mr. History. You have to be truant officer, policeman, surrogate parent, psychologists, guidance councilor, minister, social worker, personal hygiene cop, available ear, arbitrator, and on more than one occasion ready to administer basic major health care. They don’t teach you in education classes how to deal with a kid who just fell to the floor from a seizure. They never mention some female student is going to seek advice about her father acting inappropriate or that someday you may have to apply pressure to a gunshot wound from a kid who shot them self just outside your classroom door.

That increasing numbers of young people are choosing to not enter or not stay in education is not surprising to me. That veteran educators are leaving the profession is no surprise. The job has become far more complicated and what is expected of a modern teacher doesn’t come close to the rewards and appreciation they are offered.

Teaching was a wonderful experience for me. In spite of all the lows my students and me got through it as best we could. But I seriously doubt that given today’s realities I would consider if starting over.

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