Hakuna Matata?

In response to my recent post highlighting a proposal made by our National Teacher of the Year Team, Mary—a first time commenter on the Radical—left the following thoughts that challenged my thinking this morning. She began by quoting a comment I made:

“After all, if I come to school… each day well prepared, and energetically and enthusiastically provide the best possible educational opportunity, how can I do more? How can I rationally be held responsible for more?”

Amen!

The fact of the matter is that schools are not industries and students aren’t widgets — we can’t control the “raw material” we are given to be sure our “product” is of uniform high quality. The notion that we can take any child — motivated or unmotivated, gifted or developmentally delayed — and produce a highly achieving graduate is nonsense. And yes, it’s rhetoric.

My grandfather’s motivation for getting an education was that he wanted to stay out of the coal mines! Our modern culture — the American, good-time culture — produces large numbers of children who have no internal motivation and have neither parents nor a harsh real-world environment providing external motivation. Why study chemistry when you can play video games, text message your friends on your cell phone, or watch TV downloads until 3 in the morning?

Wait a few decades — I predict that we’ll see similar problems cropping up in other countries where the affluence is growing rapidly.

My next question to those who presume that enough “good” teachers (as opposed to we who are in the classrooms now) will turn around the American culture is: where are these people going to come from? I am considered a good teacher under most measures. High test scores. School leader. Mentor to new teachers. And every year I wonder if this should be my last. The rewards are few, the demands many. My analytical and problem-solving skills would be valued elsewhere far more than they will ever be valued in a school.

Since the start of our nation’s push for accountability and the introduction of No Child Left Behind, I’ve been wrestling with these very ideas. What responsibility do teachers and schools have for ensuring the success of every child?

We work and live in a country that is incredibly comfortable allowing families to struggle to find food, medical care and adequate housing—currently 25% of all children in America grow up living in poverty—and yet we react with shock when gaps are reported between the academic performance of students living in wealth and those living in high needs communities. A part of me recognizes that until we are serious about addressing the economic gap that plagues rural and urban residents in nearly every state, our goal of ensuring that every child has an adequate education is nothing more than rhetoric.

But I also grow frustrated with educators who work from the mindset that it is our job to teach and a student’s job to learn. This dismissive attitude—embraced far too often—is somewhat embarrassing and has led to a general perception in America that teachers are lazy and incapable of accepting ownership over our profession.

How can we rightfully say that learning isn’t our business?

What compounds this mistake is our insistence that teachers are the “keys to the future” and “our nation’s only hope for a brighter tomorrow.” We argue for pay raises and then blame student failure on anything but our efforts. We bristle when outsiders question our “finished product” and react with indignance when confronted with “the brutal truth” about students who go underserved by colleagues who are unprofessional and irresponsible. When we’re doubted, we get defensive and start looking for a million excuses why children fail.

I guess I’ve just come to believe that if we want the respect accorded to other professions, we have to accept responsibility for student learning. We can’t claim to be teachers if a large percentage of our children leave our classrooms unprepared for the challenges of life. Either we are professionals ready to own our work—and the results that we produce—or we’re low-skilled workers with little ability, a problem-free philosophy and absolutely no worries!

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