Saturday, July 31, 2004

What does it take to teach a teacher?

Walking down the more recent passages of memory lane, I look back at the teacher "preparation" program I was forced to endure for the sake of my teaching certificate. It is one of the most important programs, indeed, the most important program that could be imagined - after all it is here that the people are "trained" to teach our children, which has an overwhelming impact on the future of our country, and yet for most Americans it is a mystery - ask what goes on in a certificate or credential program and most will likely say "I don't know" or perhaps, (at best) "They teach teaching methodics" or something like that.

In reality the state programs have become massive indoctrination programs which (in my CA state university program) spend exactly one one-semester course (all courses were semester length, ranging from 2-5 hours a week languishing in a classroom + extensive and time-wasting outside assignments) on methodics out of a 2-3 year full-time study program (with an average of 3 courses a semester). Most of the time is spent on courses with mysterious names such as "The Social (or Psychological) Foundations of Education".

A course on "Assessment and Evaluation" - the instructor did not even believe in the purpose of what they (pronoun purposefully chosen) were teaching, and tacitly acknowledged this (kudos to them).

A course on teaching reading "in all content areas"; i.e.; how a math teacher can teach reading in math, etc. Overall one of the least useless courses, thanks to a dynamic instructor with a few really good ideas.

A mandatory advanced technology course. Pretty much a "You have to come and muck around with these technologies and show some kind of result" course. The single exam question was essentially "How would you develop technology at your school if you were the local tech guru?", with designed answers that only a hard core tech specialist should have to know, like how many LAN lines and what kinds of wireless connections should you install. (Should all teachers become experts at that? Why is it required and how is that the primary assessment of my technological capabilities?)

A Health course, that besides dealing with legal questions of caring for and dealing with kids in public school, also has you keep a (personal and invasive) eating and exercise log, and has you submit answers to the instructor on how you would answer a child who asked you if you (ever) drink or have used drugs - not necessarily a bad thing, but your answers must dovetail with the instructor's political message.

A course on how to teach non-English speaking immigrants (my area of expertise - the instructor was worse than useless - she was downright harmful. She interrupted students giving presentations on their (largely uninformed) ideas on how they would approach the topic, and would conduct extensive ad hoc lectures while the poor presenters stood there (in one case, for 90 minutes - no lie), presentation unfinished. All student teachers were listless and apathetic, and my presentation brought applause and comments that they got more out of it than out of the entire course (sorry for tooting my own horn, but that's what happened).

The methodics course (English - teaching Romeo and Juliet). Not a really bad course, but they pretend to address the problems of immigrant (ESL) language learners (part of the general movement to eliminate ESL classes and "include" all students, regardless of ability level, in one big class), and experience classroom "success" with no real immigrants to practice on. (Simply that people think they have been prepared for something when in fact, they have not.

A Special Ed class - which they re-cast as "inclusion" (see above). Basically, all you had to do to pass this "course" was show up and participate. Everybody's opinions are right, no absolutes, just exude a belief that you will try to solve all of these kids' (sometimes hopelessly complicated) problems, and you get an "A". One particularly ineffective device employed by the instructor - she took us all into a courtyard and had us walk around in circles while she started and stopped music to transmit some idea on communication. The idea was so unremarkable as to be forgotten, but the idiocy of marching around in circles to music with other adults is forever.

A Psych Foundations course (see above). The goal of the course remained a mystery, but I got by by "fulfilling requirements". As with all courses it was very important to formulate good BS in a way the instructor wants to hear it.

A Social Foundations course. This was the ultimate political indoctrination course at the university. The instructor specifically taught that white men were to blame for all of society's ills, and that women and minorities needed to embrace a cloak of victimhood. When I brought up the achievements of Helen Keller and Frederick Douglass (a woman and a black slave that chose to overcome enormous obstacles to succeed rather than adopt victimhood) I was scolded for 10 minutes after class for disrupting the tone of her "discussion" and "missing the point". What little "teaching material" we had to present had to show how we would address problems of "social justice", which meant in practice ensuring favoritism of minorities to "correct the social injustice" inflicted on them throughout history by the white man. (I am not advocating white supremacy here, either. But it is certain that politics of favoritism will alienate the group(s) not favored.)

Finally, the student teaching. One semester (for teacher candidates already in the classroom) of what is supposed to be the crowning glory and most practical aspect of the program actually became the semester from hell. Worse in that the instructor was a teacher from my own school. Although I approached the "student teaching" in a reasonably humble and open manner (although I might be forgiven for a little bit of arrogance - after 7 years in the classroom and a good deal of experience in teaching my own subject matter), the "instructor", after letting me reveal all my weaknesses (in an honest desire to improve my teaching skills) betrayed me by broadcasting things that I had said in general e-mails, and worse, deliberately took things that I said out of context in order to show that she was complying with new "tougher" requirements. I was forced to abandon all of my teaching methods and run a curriculum I knew to be a failure, and had to live in constant fear of surprise visits, under threat of being dropped from the program. In all fairness, she and her cronies at the university were under pressure from state inspectors, but nevertheless, it was almost beyond belief that the stated purpose of teaching teachers to teach could be so twisted. I am sure my case was not an isolated one.

To make a long story short, I soon left the public system, where I was but a flunky, dropped into battle and had all weapons that could do the job effectively taken away (kind of like in Aliens, when the marines are sent into danger without their heavy weaponry) for the private practice, where so far, I am a lot happier, and so are the kids I work with.

It would be appropriate to look at why it has become so enormously difficult to become a teacher, or even a classroom aide, for crying out loud, but that's another blog entry.

What does it mean to school someone?

As a public high school teacher in the US for several years, the "mainstream" pupils* that I witnessed were studying on a level that would have been identified as middle school (6-8th grade) in my youth. The dumbing down of schools over the 20-odd years since my own graduation is undeniable. In addition, all efforts by staff, teachers and principals that really wanted to educate the children, failed. While many people have pointed to particular reasons why and have offered what amount to band-aids to fix the problem, none of these cures has ever worked. As my experience expanded to include enforced participation in the state teacher preparation program, I began to perceive that the problems are systemic and universal.

I have more recently read the works of John Taylor Gatto, a 30 year NYC teacher (3-time teacher of the year), and found much that chimed with my experience. In particular, his claims that the school system is actually accomplishing its purpose, but that purpose is not what the people now in the schools believe it to be, really struck me as true. There are many things that Mr. Gatto states, some of which seem a bit far-fetched, which I would need back-up documentation to be convinced of. But on the whole, the logic of those explanations has me quite nearly convinced that he is more or less on the mark.

Basically, his thesis is that approximately 100 years ago, give or take (his historical analysis focuses on the period of about 1850-1930, with historical roots going back quite a bit further), lead businessmen (including Rockefeller and Carnegie), together with radical educational theorists, began the establishment of a new order, one of enforced, mass schooling with the real purpose of remolding society, the purpose being corporate and financial exploitation on the part of the former, and zealous idealism on the part of the latter. But you really should read how he puts it.

While I was initially tempted to write off that idea as crackpot, upon reflection it explained practically everything that I simply couldn't understand when I had been struggling in that system. The thorough enslavement of society as a whole to consumerism, the manifest failure of the schools themselves, the monstrous bureaucracy that works directly against the teachers while pretending to do the opposite, the docility of people today as their freedoms are taken away one by one (most don't realize that this is actually happening), the parroting of state propaganda, ranging from educational terms such as inclusiveness and diversity (without following those concepts through to their logical conclusions) to political/military slogans such as "support the troops" (when people misinterpret into "Be supportive of individuals in the military" ideas actually meant to support policy decisions of leaders - and these misunderstandings are deliberately fostered and encouraged, all of these things are the results of our education system, and the lack of true education. The fact that all of these symptoms of a non-free society are of enormous benefit to the corporate empires hardly seems like a happy coincidence.

The main weakness (to date) in Mr. Gatto's writings for me personally is that it is difficult to verify his claims online, making some of his information suspect, and some of his claims dubious. Nevertheless, much of what he has said fits. All too well.

One brief sample of his work, rebutting conspiracy theory charges: "If you obsess about conspiracy, what you'll fail to see is that we are held fast by a form of highly abstract thinking fully concretized in human institutions which has grown beyond the power of the managers of these institutions to control. If there is a way out of the trap we're in, it won't be by removing some bad guys and replacing them with good guys."

For a more thorough one, click here. Whether you agree with this guy or not, he certainly addresses the major problems that aren't going away.

* The word student, in European languages, means a person who professionally studies; specifically, a college student. "Pupil" is the term reserved for school-age children. I would, however, honor any child that actively strives to learn with the title of student.