What teachers don’t need (but are getting anyway)
By Valerie Strauss
This was written by Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University in South Carolina. A version of this first appeared on dailykos.com.
By Paul Thomas
Just days ago, I completed my 28th year as a teacher — 18 as a high school teacher of English followed by 10 years as a professor of education.
And I am excited about the coming semesters because, as I have felt every year of my teaching life, I know I failed in some ways this past academic year and I am confident I will be better in my next opportunities to teach.
As a teacher, I am far from finished — and I never will be.
I want to make a statement to the many and powerful leaders in education reform, all of whom have either no experience or expertise, or very little, as teachers:
I don’t need standards to teach. I need students.
If You Have Never Taught, You Simply Don’t Understand
Governors, policy wonks, and think tanks, I don’t need the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
Secretary Arne Duncan, I have no interest in racing to the top, when that means the top of the pile of my fellow teachers trampled by the policies you have created and promoted.
Bill Gates, I don’t want a dime of your billions; in fact, I am not even interested in what you do (I have always used Apple products) as long as you drop education as your hobby.
Michelle Rhee, I have no interest in my students having mouths forcibly shut by me. I am here to hear their open minds and mouths.
Pearson, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, and every company seeking to sell me anything to support my implementing CCSS or preparing my students for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, state high-stakes tests, or the SAT, I am not interested in buying anything. No software, no hardware, no textbooks, no worksheets. Nothing.
Professional organizations and unions, I need you to stop racing for a place at the table with the reformers and corporations noted above, and instead, seek ways to support my autonomy and agency as a professional so that the autonomy and agency of the children in our schools can become the primary focus of universal public education for free people.
And, finally, to anyone who thinks you know what I should teach and how, please seek a place at the front of a classroom filled with other people’s children, teach for a few years, and then let’s get together and talk. I am eager to be collegial in the pursuit of community as a key part of teaching and learning.
Becoming and being a teacher is a constant state of becoming. A teacher must be always a student and scholar of her/his field(s), her/his pedagogy, and her/his students.
What the people and groups identified above seem not to understand is that for my eighteen years of teaching high school English, I probably taught about 2,000 students; thus, I taught about 2,000 different classes. And not a single measurable outcome of any of those students predicts much of anything about my effectiveness or if I’ll succeed with any future student. Some of the students who appear successful did so in spite of my failures. Some of the students who appear to have failed were provided my very best as a teacher. Almost all of the good and bad I have created as a teacher are not measurable or apparent in manageable ways.
I wasn’t concerned about meeting anyone’s standards or preparing any student for a test or making sure any student was prepared for the next grade, college, or the workforce.
And I never will be.
Instead of standards, testing, competition, labeling, ranking, and sorting (all the cancerous elements of traditional schooling and the current accountability era), as a teacher, I need to offer my students authentic learning opportunities in which they produce artifacts of their understanding and expertise. My students need from me my authoritative feedback to those authentic artifacts.
I have no interest in competing with my fellow teachers for whose students score highest on tests so I can earn more money than my colleagues. I don’t, either, want to join forces with my in-school colleagues to outperform other schools in order to compete for their customers. I couldn’t care less how my state’s schools compare with other states or how U.S. schools compare on international tests.
Absolutely none of that matters.
While not unique to Howard Gardner, we have a very clear idea of what it is teachers should do in the pursuit of learning. Gardner’s “The Disciplined Mind” examines a conception of education not distracted by accountability.
Teaching and learning must be primarily collaborative, a community of learners.
The goals of learning must be the broad and clear — although always evolving — defining qualities of the fields of knowledge we honor in academia.
Every history course, for example, would pursue, What does it mean to be a historian? Every science class, What does it mean to be a scientist? Every writing class, What does it mean to be a writer?
Teaching and learning are the collaborative pursuit of questions. Anything else is indoctrination, dehumanizing, and antithetical to democratic ideals and human agency.
Humans never will—and never should—learn the same box of knowledge. Humans never will—and never should—learn in linear, sequential ways.
And there is no need for any of that anyway as long as we seek to be a community instead of barbaric individuals committed to the conquest of goods at the expense of others.
I don’t need standards to teach. I need students.
(My becoming a teacher can be traced directly to the wonderful and rich influence of my mother, and that influence is inextricable from the powerful and enduring influence of my father.)
I don’t expect anyone to agree 100% with Prof. Thomas’s views — but anyone concerned about education, about job training, about their children, or about our nation, will listen.