Thursday, July 26, 2012

Those Who Can, Teach, Until They Don't

I am doing some professional development this summer.  At one of these sessions, I heard from a professor at one of our city's great universities, who has done some work with high school students over the summer.  This gentleman was lovely and learned, and very respectful of and attuned to his audience, which was composed almost entirely of New York City high school teachers.  Nevertheless, I couldn't help but listen to this man's remarks and feel like a bit of a chump.

This gentleman was very proud of the work he did with his high school students, as well he should be.  His syllabus was rich and challenging; the samples of discussion we heard and writing we saw certainly looked rigorous and engaging.  And the students themselves were lively and focused.  All well and good.

This gentleman caps his class at fifteen students.  All fifteen of those students have to apply to his class. There are no grades, only written and oral feedback from the professor and his three assistants (for fifteen students) throughout the course.

He emphasized that, of course, work like this is made much more possible under his circumstances than ours.  And fair enough; I have no personal beef with him.  But surely some idiot from the DOE could come to his presentation and say, "Well, look, he's working with New York City high school students, and look what he can do!  Look what they can do!  Why can't you lousy unionized public school teachers do it?"--forgetting, of course, that he is working with fifteen highly motivated, hand-picked students and three (three!!!) assistants.

I persist in my work as an educator because I feel that it is important, and I am good at it, and I am generally treated fairly at work.  Don't cry for me; if I really wanted to do something else, I could and would.  But that's precisely the problem: Many of us teachers are bright and motivated and talented enough to do something else.  Is it any surprise that many of those of us who feel underappreciated, disrespected, and powerless move on, in the face of the challenges we face, in the face of the paperwork and the bureaucracy?  When the students and the paperwork pile up with no assistance, no extra time or space or money, and no end in sight?

We'd all like to teach in his situation, and I think, and at the same time I can accept that I probably never will.  Still, maybe we, and "the system" in general, should look at it as a goal, rather than a pipe dream.
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