No More Teachers?

At the start of “Good-bye, Teacher… “ Fred Keller quotes one version of that old doggerel:

Good-bye scholars, good-bye school;
Good-bye teacher, darned old fool!

I learned it as:

Good-bye pencils, good-bye books;
Good-bye teachers’ dirty looks.

It doesn’t matter; the point’s the same.  We were glad to get rid of teachers, for the summer, at least.

We hated them.  Or, at least, we thought we did.  They repressed us, kept us quiet and indoors.  Made us read and study.  “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” we said.

The disdain for teachers and for their profession started early and, for many Americans, remains strong.  Young and naive, we didn’t believe we ever learned at school, that we pretty much taught ourselves everything we know.  Many of us still don’t.

By “we,” I mean “we.”  I hated school until I got to college, and found my teachers repressive, petty, and unfair.  Only a few were any good: a Mr. Board (I’m sorry I don’t remember his first name) who taught American Studies at Holland High School in Michigan in the sixties, who showed me teachers could think and could challenge, and who let it slide when I skipped school the day Woody Guthrie died. One or two others.  Most of my learning came from the books I devoured and the people I talked to and argued with–everywhere but in school.

The few good teachers I had were different from the rest, from the ones I so abhorred.  They knew two things in common, how to motivate students and the content of their fields.  Beyond that, they were all unique, each with his or her own style and methodology.  So, I thought, they didn’t count.

When I became a teacher, I thought hard about them, and have tried to develop my own motivational abilities and a classroom style and method reflecting my own personality and (most important) the needs of the students.  At some point, I dropped my resentments against all those bad teachers I suffered through and started concentrating on the few who were good.

Which is where I started to diverge from the mainstream of thought about teaching in the United States.

The generalized and previously unfocused disdain for teachers in the United States has coalesced into a movement whose prime, if unspoken goal is removal of the teacher from education completely.  It has long been seen in the home-schooling movement, where parents feel they can take on teaching duties more successfully than the professionals.  (And it’s true–but it’s also not something that can be true for most families.  It takes wealth and stability, and educated parents, for home-schooling to work.)  It is manifest, today, in attitudes towards teachers’ unions, which are seen as coddling lazy teachers with easy schedules and huge amounts of free time each year.

It is seen, today, in the mania for standardization, especially in our charter schools, where teaching is reduced to the following of a script.  One former charter-school teacher writes:

I asked my supervisor why everything was scripted, and she informed me that this was a way to ensure teaching consistency across each grade level. In the past, she explained, some students had been getting quality instruction, while others were getting less quality instruction; scripts were a way to eradicate that inequality and make sure that everyone received the same thing. Mediocrity, evidently, was acceptable, as long as it was uniform.

The idea of uniform teaching baffled and infuriated me for a number of reasons. It reduced teaching to regurgitating lines off a page, and learning to nothing more than acquiring information and regurgitating it right back. Use of scripts insinuated that we were incapable of designing instruction on our own and that manuals created by faceless executives were appropriate for all of our students.

The idea doesn’t baffle me: it’s a way of reducing teaching to clerical duties that can be performed by anyone, making the teacher expendable.  Allowing that anger at teachers from our early days that still boils within us, whose steam still pressures us, to find release.

It’s a sign that we Americans have not grown up or have regressed back to childishness, that we have become so immature we cannot recognize the good in the bad, that we don’t see that, for all its weaknesses, the public-education system that developed over the past century-and-a-half, a system based on the individual teacher, has been extremely successful and has, for all we might have hated it, allowed us to achieve more than any country in history.

It’s a sign, too, that we believe our own myth, that we made it on our own in the face of obstacles like all those teachers who were out to destroy us, not letting us ‘be all we could be,’ not coddling us as we believe they should have been doing.  It’s a sign that we think we could have done it all, if left to our own devices.

Our desire to destroy teachers is a manifestation of an insipid and short-sighted libertarianism that also grasps onto the writing of Ayn Rand with its vision of the super-individual, the one who can do anything as long as all of those standing in the way are pushed aside.

Our desire to destroy teachers stems from a childish vision of our own individualism and empowerment, from belief that we are better and more deserving than anyone else.

Not only is our desire childish (as Ayn Rand is, appealing to immature belief in one’s own unique, if unappreciated talent), but it is self-destructive, leading to the tearing down of what has built us up.

If we want the possibilities for the future to return to the level of the past, we have to start growing up finally, as American culture, and to start seeing that life is greater than any individual, as is success, and that we, if we are going to improve the future, need  to set aside our own resentments about the past and find what was good there.  We are going to have to learn to understand the value of others, particularly of teachers and guides.  We are going to have to come to see again that no individual stands alone, but stands with the assistance of others.

Throwing out the baby with the bathwater has never proven a satisfactory course… unless it’s the baby we wanted to get rid of in the first place.

And only the least mature among us could really want that.

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