December 7, 2022
Many years ago, when I was a second-year teacher and dorm parent, I stood outside my dormitory, enjoying the quiet and deciding which way to walk. The students had departed for Thanksgiving vacation, and the blue, crystalline emptiness of the day beckoned. For some reason, I looked up at a second-floor window of a student’s room. The shade was down, but I noticed several small shapes against the windowpane. Curious, I went back inside and upstairs to the room. When I raised the shade, I discovered a half dozen pills neatly taped to the glass. His stash. Because the student had pulled the shade before I made the usual pre-vacation inspection, I hadn’t seen them and probably never would have if I hadn’t looked up when I was outdoors.
It never ends, I thought, as I headed to the main building to report my discovery to the dean, who was as much a fixture in his office as his cluttered desk, even during vacation. I dreaded the disciplinary repercussions that would likely sour all the work I had done during the fall term to create a good atmosphere in the dorm, but confronting student behavior was part of the job. I thought. The school’s no-tolerance policy appeared in both the student and faculty handbooks.
When I finished speaking, the dean looked at me quietly for a moment and then said, “Do you know how much this kid is worth to the annual fund?” And that was that.
As a teacher, as a dorm parent, as an employee who thought he understood the ethos of the school—its mission to build character and hold students to high standards of scholarship and behavior—what I needed at that moment was administrative support. What I received was a lesson in realpolitik.
This event occurred in the ‘70s, recurred in various guises over my next 50 years, and, according to my colleagues who continue to teach and with whom I remain in touch, occurs today. In fact, since the upheaval of the pandemic and the attendant concern about declining mental health, it’s gotten worse, especially in independent schools, where cost and parental aspirations dominate. “School is no longer about building character or academic skills,” one teacher told me. “The kids’ happiness is now the driving force behind all that we do. No dress code, an average grade above 90, no consequences for infractions of rules, acceptance of theft and cheating, and the list goes on.”
Even in colleges, this trend to keep kids happy seems dominant. The New York Times recently reported on Dr. Maitland Jones, a respected, award-winning organic chemistry teacher who was fired when several of his students signed a petition claiming that “he was too hard, [and] blaming Dr. Jones for their poor test scores.” Reporter Stephanie Saul wrote, “In short, this one unhappy chemistry class could be a case study of the pressures on higher education as it tries to handle its Gen-Z student body. Should universities ease pressure on students, many of whom are still coping with the pandemic’s effects on their mental health and schooling?”
This is the reality in which teachers increasingly find themselves working, yet their needs have not changed since I was a young, naive rookie at the beginning of my career. They need respect and support. Not an empty my-teacher-right-or-wrong sort of support, but the earned respect accorded to committed professionals who care deeply about their schools, their students, and education. This respect can be measured by many factors: the degree to which teachers’ voices are included in decision-making, the extent to which teachers experience a collegial partnership with administrators, the autonomy teachers are given in their schools, the resources available to support learning, and their salaries.
The painful truth, as I have experienced it, is that most non-educators don’t consider teaching a “real” profession. It’s a problem of perception. We aren’t like doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, or corporate workers. Part of the perception, of course, comes from our relatively low salaries (equating professional worth with net worth), but anyone studying education in the U.S. quickly discovers a long, multi-threaded history of a lack of professional status and respect accorded to teachers, along with a general anti-intellectual tradition that demeans them as ivory-tower, effete pointy-head snobs. Add to that characterization the more recent history of reports focused on the failure of schools: Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top. Low salaries and little success do not create a perception that education is much of a profession.
Another more significant problem—one not only of perception but of reality—is that teachers tend to have somewhere between 12 and 15 weeks of vacation each year—breaks for Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring, and summer. And even with all this free time, most educators (again, in my experience) don’t study, let alone even read, the neuroscientific research into how people learn, so most aren’t thinking about how we might design more effective, engaging, emotionally relevant schools. And they certainly aren’t working with colleagues or administrators on these challenges. What sort of profession is that? It seems reasonable to expect those in the learning profession to keep current with learning research.
The first and most obvious solution to the problem could also result in transforming education and improving the learning of our students: Put teachers on, and pay them appropriately for, 12-month contracts, and use six or seven weeks of the summer, when students are not in school, for teachers and administrators to work together to study and understand the neuroscience of learning; to explore the implications of this research for school designs, policies, structures, and practices; to create curricula, and to engage in other aspects of professional development. Currently, if this sort of collegial and professional development work is done at all, administrators must try to cram it into the traditional nine months of the contractual school year, when teachers are already overwhelmed by their classroom responsibilities. The result is that many teachers experience this work as an annoying distraction rather than as a professional obligation.
Additional solutions will likely emerge as professional educators dive deeply into research and school design—for example, the need to rethink teacher training and qualifications. It may be that a strong interdisciplinary background and a solid foundation in mind, brain, and education programs will better serve educators as they discover new approaches to learning. Perhaps we will finally abandon the one-size-fits-all model of schooling: the same graduation requirements for all students, the same curricula and daily schedules, and the same course loads and assessments. We might even create more effective, successful models that enable teachers to work with fewer students.
Education is a profession focused on child development and meaningful learning. Its success depends on a partnership of mutual support and respect among teachers, administrators, neuroscientists, students, and parents. The current societal perception of schools, the experiences of teachers within schools, and the poor to mediocre results of schooling evinced in our graduates are symptoms of a dysfunctional system that require immediate, sustained action and fundamentally new designs for learning. That’s not only what your faculty needs but what you need—what society needs.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Alden Blodget for Intrepid Ed News.
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I am not an educator. I am a parent of college-age boys and I know many ADHD and autistic and dyslexic children who need to be included in the American education system. Currently, they are told they are included because they are given IEPs. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had an IEP? With a revamping of schools and with teachers getting the support and education you suggest, maybe we can get there. It sounds daunting, but so does graduating thousands of students every year who haven’t been educated.