As a first year teacher in the district, my school requires that I attend almost 40 hours of professional development on top of the already annoying, weekly-ish meetings demanded of everyone else. Workshops cover such diverse topics as “Responsive Instruction” and “Classroom Management” to prepare new teachers for the practical realities of the job beyond the inert theories covered in university. And great! We all want a well-trained education workforce.
I am coming up on my first month teaching full-time at an urban, majority-minority American high school. Or really, I’ve already taught five weeks. I meant to post this last week, but I didn’t because I was exhausted.
The school is violent. Four of the five days in my first week featured fights during passing period. Last week included a large fight at lunch involving multiple students, and this week an almost-team brawl in gym class over a football game. The bathrooms close intermittently because students defecate on the floor, rip off stall doors, and even steal soap-dispensers and sinks. Students must enter school under a metal detector and submit to random police searches of their bags because, last semester, a student brought a loaded gun to school. Earlier this month, an unidentified “teenager” was shot a few hundred feet from school property. Two years ago, one was killed.
In such an environment, it should be no surprise that the school’s general discipline and classroom behavior is obnoxious. Academics suffer in turn: less than 15% of high schoolers in the district passed their state math and English exams last year.
As a potential point of ease, I should note that my school performs better than other, higher poverty schools in the state and country and that the pandemic has almost certainly made conditions worse than in typical years. But rather than make me feel better, that just furthers my despair. If so much student-on-student violence and academic disfunction isn’t rock bottom, how many millions of American students have experienced worse?
I have no means to explain why this has happened or how to do better. Given the current round of polarization around public schools, I absolutely don’t want to touch that political fireball right now anyway. As a new career teacher, I just want to express my dismay with the hope that acknowledging the problems might help me face them. And my god do we have problems; in denying them, we only do further harm.
[Last in the series, I’ve driven myself mad with this topic]
Before I begin complaining again, I want to open with a few administrative points about the barriers to entering teaching as a profession, especially considering the persistent media narrative about an American teacher shortage and that narrative’s relationship with alternative certification programs like my own.
[Something short, but I want a place to record this research that I spent so many hours obsessing over. I finished the program (great relief) so I’ll conclude this series soon]
When I think of a profession, I think of a job that deals with a critical skill or body of knowledge. Lawyers need to know how to find and read case law; structural engineers need to know how to design and construct a truss; surgeons need to know how to use a scalpel and where to cut. However, reflecting on my progress at the end of my teacher training program, I feel no more prepared or qualified for the job than when I began as an assistant teacher. What skills have I learned? What knowledge have I mastered?
Let me put this a different way: when under attack on the political scene, or commiserating over their low pay relative to other vocations, I have noticed that some teachers feel the need to reassure themselves and others that they are indeed professionals. The usual defense of their credentials is to find safety in the body of knowledge contained in child development studies. But hmmm… what did I learn about child development?
I can only speak for my own program, but though professors taught about child development, I learned almost nothing good or useful. The dedicated psychology / development course focused most on two figures: Piaget and Vygotsky, both century-old theorists (same birth year, 1896!) associated with distinct constructivist concepts of learning. However, in the years since, developments in cognitive science have squeezed both to the point that I don’t understand why they remain foundational.
Gasp! Critical Theory with capital letters, that bug-a-bear of our modern American culture wars! For now, define the term however you want because in my view it has become conventionally meaningless through extreme politicization and overuse. I’ll get to a formal textbook definition down below.
However, combine lazy usage of critical theory with the dog-awful educational research standards described in the previous post, and you get a uniquely noxious mess. To set the mood, I’ll just slap myself a poignant Lyotard quote, pulled from Francois Cusset’s funny intellectual history French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of The United States:
My opinion is that theories are themselves narratives, but hidden; that one must not let oneself be deceived by their pretention to omnitemporality. — Jean-Francois Lyotard, Instructions Pai’ennes.
[Part 2 of the Ed School Trials and Trivialities series, beginning here.]
As an undergraduate, I transferred late (by the pure chance of convenient scheduling) into what became one of my favorite courses, a general education seminar on the history of cosmology from the ancient Greeks to modern astrophysicists. The professor, an astronomer who specialized in galaxy formation, was a bit of a sour oddball, the opposite of the sort of cheerful, self-consciously nerdy types who like to appear on public-broadcast science programs. No, he told us sophomores eager to learn (to paraphrase a distant memory): every theory we cover in this course is wrong, Aristotle as much as Einstein.
I think he wanted to act as a provocateur – for example, he spoke highly of the accuracy of epicycles, the much-maligned medieval method for calculating the movement of planetary bodies, before demolishing them for lack of parsimony when we reached Kepler – so I don’t know how much he believed his classroom persona. But pedantically, he had a point: as a committed empiricist who rated theories less on their strict truth than their predictive power, he embraced a scientific ethic similar to that expressed in the statistical aphorism “all models are wrong, some are useful.”
I’ve been away from this blog for months, first because I started graduate studies in education, second because I became very sick after a minor surgery (not COVID!), and third because I had to resume my teacher training.
However, notice in the previous sentence that I switched from the aspirational ideal of “graduate studies” to the duller term “teacher training.” I have lost all respect for my professors and program.
Though I am supposedly in a well-ranked graduate program (complete with 500-level credits!) designed to help people with bachelor degrees acquire a teaching certification, I sometimes feel like I’m back in grade school: we have weekly journaling activities, pause class for 10-20 minute “mental health checks” during one-hour sessions, and – this is no joke – listen to professors read aloud from the textbook “because kids like [it].” Assignments have included watching movies, playing online quiz games, and making Instagram posts (!!!) instead of writing essays.
I am not a child; at my most restrained, I would describe much of the program as an insulting waste of time completely disconnected from the practical, adult realities of teaching. Sometimes I wonder why I should even listen: having worked three years as an assistant teacher, I have more primary and secondary classroom experience than some of my professors, experts in the sociology of education rather than education itself. At this point, I am only sticking through it to fulfill the bureaucratic requirements of a teaching certification and out of a sunk-cost mindset that it’s too late to get a refund. Maybe then I reveal my biases too soon: at its worst, the program sometimes even makes me physically, viscerally angry. I am not a fair source. But really, why should I be? I’m spending thousands of dollars to make an Instagram post? UGHHH!!!
So, I am starting an irregular series on this blog to record my most frustrating experiences: Ed School TnT (trials and trivialities), so titled because
1) it is a real trial. For the first time in my life, I hate class and dread going to school, even though it has moved online due to the pandemic. I do things I would have scolded myself for as an undergraduate: texting in class, skipping readings, and dashing off assignments without any concern for quality (for one PowerPoint, I left two slides with default “insert text here” labels. I got 100% anyway).
2) it is absurd. The topics covered in my courses are either trivial and obvious (see examples in this post) or repeated so many times as unchallenged mantras that they become so (a future post). I am not learning. But that doesn’t seem to matter – every class is pass-fail or close to it, meaning that no matter how shallow my learning or how poor my output, I pass if I appear to try …though in honesty, I quit trying long ago. With such low standards, and such obvious course content, why should I bother?
For this first post, I want to give some flavor of the trivialities of the program to demonstrate how little practical value my classes offer aspiring teachers. The best place to start, I think, is the most rigorous and difficult course in the program: “Social Studies Methods.” Though, as you maybe already caught in the title, given the low standards, I don’t have much respect for even this “practical” course.