Who will be our future teachers?

There has been (quite rightfully) a lot of discussion about how the new Reach for the Top competition has placed too much emphasis on test scores and thus limits a student’s creative potential, not to mention undermines possibility of success in vocational fields. Many of the critiques have come from teachers themselves (in fact, all of the articles I have linked to are from educators). But one question that remains (at least, in what I have come across) unasked is, what does this mean for the teaching profession? And I’m not talking about those who are currently teaching (they have made their position perfectly clear). More specifically, who are going to the teachers of the future?


As a college English instructor “specializing” in Freshman/Intro gen. ed. courses, I have taught students from all majors, including education. And, unfortunately, education students have tended to be the weakest. They were always very conscientious, very nice, came to my office hours, and seemed to try hard. They usually did very well on tests. But when it came to essays…Perhaps they stood out in my mind because it scared me so much that these were the people who were going to be (possibly) educating my children.

It’s a question we’ve all asked, who becomes a teacher, and why? We have all heard the cynical/derogatory theories (couldn’t cut it anywhere else, wanted a job for life, no ambition, etc). But upon reflection, I’ve come up with a theory that those who tend towards education are those who did well in school and for the most part, enjoyed it. Those who did well on tests. Those who were able to sit still and listen. And this might represent the largest obstacle to true school reform: many teachers chose teaching in order to recreate the system that was successful for them.

Because, let’s face it, if traditional schooling doesn’t reward creative and innovative students, it certainly doesn’t reward overly creative and innovative teachers either. How do you “get ahead”? Get a higher degree. Taught by professors who are rewarded (granted tenure) for not being particularly innovative, either (publish articles, present papers at conferences).

This observation struck me as I sat at a conference, listening to a professor read a paper while I prepared to do the same, except I glanced at my twitter feed to read about web 2.0 teaching tools. The person presenting was talking about a long-lost memoir dealing with the Haitian rebellion; he has one of two copies of the original French text. I saw parallels between the text and a book I am currently reading. He was very proprietary about the manuscript. Why? This was his golden ticket. He could find a way to put it online in order for scholars to access an important historical and literary text. But, because of the requirements of tenure and promotion, he is saving it for an academic press. And I don’t blame him.

This is how higher ed (for the most part) rewards professors: be innovative (long-lost text!) in your research but completely archaic (academic press, scholarly article, conference presentation) in terms of delivery methods. Rewards professors in any discipline, including education. So, we have professors (locked in their own system) teaching teachers, locked in another. But this is how we have decided to reward teachers. Not for improving or innovating, but by getting a masters.

As many articles have pointed out, smart students don’t actually like school all that much because they’re bored. I was really good at school, but I didn’t particularly like it. I could sit still well enough, but I never really paid too much attention in class. I suspect many of my teachers hated me because I so clearly did little to no work, didn’t take notes, etc, and yet still did very well. But I loved university. The freedom. The challenge. The professors. My classmates. So, I stayed with what I loved. The university.

And while the university has not proven to fulfill its promise, I can’t imagine going back to a) do another degree in education and b) teach in high school. After spending all this time trying to undo the “teaching for the test” learning that students have been fed throughout high school, how could I willingly go forward to teach just that?

Do I want to work in an area where teachers are unable to do the obvious? Do I want to go into a profession where leaders and innovators have to basically opt out of the system and start charter or private schools? Where if I have a poor coworker, it is practically impossible to do anything about it (yeah, I know, the university is no better)? Where I am scapegoated by politicians?

The LAUSD recently opened up bidding for new schools to anyone who was interested. The result? Groups of teachers put together bids that beat out more established charter schools. As put by A.J. Duffy, it represents “put up or shut up” time for the teachers: “it gives us what we’ve been asking for: control over the schools, along with other stakeholders. Let us create the curriculum; let us create the professional development and decide how to use the money. We get blamed for everything, but we’ve never been in control.”

I am a good teacher – I have the student and peer evaluations to back me up. But none of that matters. I know I am supposed to be a teacher. But how much am I willing to give up in order to be a teacher? How much is anyone willing to give up?

Remediation and College Success

There has been a lot of buzz online about college completion. This is a shift away from college accessibility; as put in a recent editorial, “Access Without Success Is An Empty Promise,” with less than 50% of students who start higher ed ever get their four-year degree. While far from the only issue, the need for remediation plays a significant role in predicting college success. According to a 2006 study (pdf), a student who requires a remedial reading course is 41% more likely to drop out.


This has not escaped the notice of some powerful (and rich) organizations: both the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation are funding a Developmental Education Initiative which focuses primarily on community colleges. Those of us who have taught/are teaching at the university level know that community colleges aren’t alone in dealing with underprepared students. Both Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle featured articles today that look at the issue of remediation and college completion.

Some of their conclusions? Personalized and targeted services. Small, short (and cheaper) remediation courses that focus on specific weaknesses. This is not new; an (expensive) online seminar on serving underprepared students talks about evaluating students early to assess their level of readiness, getting to know their unique situation and intervening as quickly as possible.

Who is supposed to be doing this intervention? Overworked adjuncts? A whole new class of university administrators? How much intervention are we supposed to provide? And, finally, where in this do we get the students to actually care?

The most interesting information and provocative questions most often come from the comments. One instructor commenting on Inside Higher Ed asks how she is supposed to get her students to understand that they need to be able to read and summarize, write and organize, etc. Another asks why higher ed keeps having to make up for the shortcomings of the K-12 system.

But the comment that is near and dear to my heart is from Martha J.: “If colleges would stand firm on entrance standards, private preparatory systems would quickly emerge to provide remediation – and the very existence of such systems would help put pressure back on the high schools, where it belongs.” Hi, Martha, I’d like to introduce you to collegereadywriting.com. I think it useless to wait for the colleges to lead the way at this point. The private preparatory systems are coming for you! Putting pressure on all forms of education since, well, right this second.

Edupunk vs. Edupreneur

I’ve been inspired in my new business venture by the writings of Anya Kamenetz whose book, DIY U, analyses the new movements in liberating higher education. A recent article focuses on Edupunks, those who are seeking to overthrow tradition higher education, mainly through providing free (or nearly free) content and classes. The article is well worth the read as a resource for free (or nearly free) courses, content and degrees available online. I’m a big fan of free content on the Internet; many of my lectures have been informed by free videos of lectures, podcasts, online discussion boards and course notes.

The part of this particular aspect of the movement is, much like online newspaper content, is still relying on the old institutions (the university) in order to provide content. The professors who are providing this content are paid by the university. Why not allows students to access their lectures? They are still pulling in their salary, there are still students paying tuition and putting their butts in the seats, and chances are, they have tenure and thus almost absolute job security. How many adjuncts have the time, resources or academic freedom to be able to do the same things?
How many of them want to?
At the end of the day, my small project needs to make money or else it will cease to be. I am providing a service that I would love to give away to non-traditional and minority students in order to help them succeed, however they want to. But I also have a family to help support, student loans and other debt to pay off, rent to pay, food to buy, etc… In discussions I have been having on Twitter with others who are passionate about education reform, some have said that real change will come from below. DIY U seems to imply that the changes are coming from the top. I can assure you that change will not come from the middle.
At the bottom, there is nothing left, really, to lose. There is nowhere to go but up. At the top, there is the security, the connections, the money to be able to take a chance. In the middle, there is nothing but fear and necessity. Fear of falling farther behind and the necessity of taking care of your family above all else.
Perhaps there are those in the middle who are braver than I. But for the moment, I have to settle for scrapping something together for myself and for others with the hope that I can make at least a small change, nurture it until it grows into something larger.

Reading “Great Books”: Ultimate Pattern Recognition

Another wonderful blog that I have been introduced to, Emergent By Design, has begun exploring “Essential Skills for 21st Century Survival” and the first is pattern recognition. While shaped as a way to innovate and/or solve scientific problems, it starts with that part of the brain that loves, craves, narratives. We want to make sense of the world, and we do so through stories. Ancient myths were a way to explain the world, the seemingly randomness of the mysterious universe around us. And we kept looking, kept modifying the narrative, and it turned into science. But at the end of the day, it started with stories.

I have two very young children. My daughter is deep into the “why” period. Most days, I try to explain why things happen from a very rational, scientific place (why does the sun go down, why does it rain, why do I need to sleep, why is the dog barking, etc). But it has to be told to her in the form of a story, of a narrative. The sun is a character in the play called the solar system. It behaves in a certain way for certain reasons, and it travels to the other side of the world, so they can have the sun, too. Some days it’s enough. Other days, she counters me and says, no, I think the sun is tired and goes to sleep.
When it comes to understanding the patterns of human behavior, this has to be modified. Why is she sad? Why is he mean? Why is he scary? She is learning that all humans behave differently, react differently to the same conditions (when I cry, some of my friends give me hugs, others laugh, others run away and hide). Each reaction is the result of a story. And we can predict once we understand these stories. But where do we get different stories, how can we expose ourselves to the multiplicities of patterns formed all over the world.
Books.
Another blog, discussing “What’s so Great About Great Books,” posits the problem that these so-called great books are not repositories of Truth as many would claim, but instead confuse the reader with conflicting and conflicted perspectives. I say, yes! That is the point! Out of the chaos, is there not some connective tissue, some pattern that students should learn to identify. A comment on the article states that the best students in freshman writing have often been exposed to Great Books. Well, of course they are. They have been forced to confront different and challenging perspectives, ideas, narratives, emotions, reactions, solutions. And they will either change their own narratives or reinforce them. Either way, the student has looked at patterns within the literature and come up with a way to make sense of them.
A comment on the first article mentioned in this post laments that for most people, their ability or inability to change their narrative, to see (or accept) other patterns is due to a lack of “black swans” (literary device!) jarring them out of their stupor. What better way than literature to provide black swans for everyone to see, discuss and discover? Another comment mentions “The Hobbit” and other books where there is a quest. We are all questing and books can help us get to where we’re going, make us better.
When I taught the required Intro to Lit course that many students dread, I always told them that this was an opportunity to expand their thinking, their ideas. Even if you are going to be a scientist, literature was the way to take you from simply following directions in an experiment to being able to apply the knowledge and come up with new ideas. Exercising that part of the brain that thinks creatively, symbolically, metaphorically, narratively. That part of the brain that sees different kinds of patterns.
In order to encourage pre-literacy skills, we are told as parents to make sure we make reading active (instead of passive). Ask “What do you think happens next? Why? Etc…” Somewhere we stop doing that. Somewhere, we no longer exercise that part of the brain, forgetting to read, forgetting what reading brings. We start to see patterns, bigger and better patterns. These “old” books still have a lot to teach us.

K-12, Teachers, Testing…What DO They Do?

A wonderful blog written by teachers, InterACT, has been asking a questions lately, such as “What does Career and College-Ready Really Look Like?” and “Do You Understand My Job?” On Twitter, I have been engaged in a number of really stimulating debates about what’s going on with teachers, testing, and K-12 education. I’m still learning the acronyms, but No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and the re-authorization of the federal legislation regarding K-12 education has had the internets a-buzzing.

From my perspective as an educator who taught college freshmen for 10 years, I have to say that any student who can’t write a coherent essay expressing an actual idea is NOT college ready. Any student who is not empowered or motivated to take charge of their own education/career/future is NOT college ready. I understand your job as a teacher to do that. I also understand that filling in bubbles is not constructive to getting students to my definition of college readiness.
But I also believe that there are teachers out there who are not getting students to the level of college readiness and that they need to be removed. I think that just because you’ve taught for a long time doesn’t mean that it means you’re a good or great teacher. And I know from experience that the best and brightest students are not the ones going into teacher’s colleges and getting education degrees. We need a way to get rid of these teachers and get the best for students. I also think that people will rise (or fall) to expectations.
I don’t want my children to learn to hate school (and thus learning) because school has removed all of the joy from the process. But I also don’t want my children to be completely free to indulge in any and all impulses in order for them to feel “good” about themselves. I want them to take pride in their accomplishments and to understand that the feeling of satisfaction they feel is directly related to the amount of effort (I don’t want to use the word “work”) they put in.
I guess the problem for me is that I DON’T understand what the K-12 system is doing right now. I don’t understand what school administrations are doing, what teacher’s colleges are doing, what teachers are doing, what legislators are doing, what parents are doing. Why can’t my freshman students write? Why won’t they read? Why don’t they know the difference between “I think” and “I feel”? Why can’t they understand that just simply showing up for every class isn’t enough to get an A in the class?
So, that’s my answer. Everyone lays the blame on everyone else. So, it’s hopeless, I guess. But not really. When my students come into my class, I tell them that there is no reason (not one) why they cannot be successful, however they define success. But, they have to be willing to do the work. If they are willing to do the work, so am I. I could write them off because of their parents, friends, high school, study/social habits, etc. I make it clear that I am not the one wasting their time in my class, they are. I’m tired of laying blame and tired of excuses. If I don’t try, I’m not sure who will.

What can we do outside of higher ed – That’s still ed?

President Obama’s plan for schools includes “college and career readiness.” But as I have written elsewhere in the blog, anyone on the front lines of freshman education knows that many, many of the students coming into college are not ready for college-level work, let along career-level work. There is also a over-abundance of underemployed PhD’s who have extensive experience with what students are lacking in terms of college readiness. The solution? A PhD (or more!) for every school, whose sole purpose is to ensure college readiness in the students, to assist teachers in teaching the skills that will be needed in college, and to equip as many students as possible to be successful in college.


But, if I wanted to be a high school teacher, I wouldn’t have done a PhD! Fine, but what did you do your PhD for? A tenure-track job. In which you would teach. Yes, and do research. But, really, how much research are you doing running from one school to another, preparing courses, correcting a mountain of papers, worrying about how you are going to pay your bills? Teach grad classes? How many of those have your taught lately? What would you really be giving up if you were to get a job like this?

You could live where you wanted to, have a regular-paying job, and still have the opportunity to shape and change lives.

Ed degree? Well, it hasn’t guaranteed the ability to teach college readiness. Why not try something different? This could – no, would!- change lives, students’ lives who may not have even considered college when they are taught or exposed to a “real” college-level teacher. Students benefit, underemployed PhDs would benefit, schools would benefit, and higher ed would ultimately benefit.

And they would benefit in more ways than one. Suddenly, a whole lot of that cheap, contingent labor they’ve been relying on will be gone. What will they do then? How will they retain their best teachers and researchers when schools are drawing them away? Hey, try offering us tenure-track jobs.

See, everyone wins.

A Woman’s Work in Higher Ed.

A recent blog post on http://educationceo.wordpress.com/ was provocatively titled “Women Have No Place in Education.” The writer is a dedicated and tireless advocate for school choice, and is putting her proverbial money where her mouth is by starting a charter school for underprivileged kids. But what she write, I think, applies to women in higher ed:


Women really do have a place in education, but I can’t help but wonder if working as a classroom teacher in some ways limits our opportunities to assume leadership roles, e.g., administration, superintendency, charter school developer, etc. Now I know there are some very dedicated, qualified, and damned good classroom teachers who have absolutely no desire to transition into a leadership role. I can and do respect that. But what about those who do? At what cost? What must she/they exchange in order to exercise their dynamic and visionary leadership skills and leading their staff in transforming a school that ensures the success of every child.”

Now, this isn’t exactly the same as the situation in higher ed, but the majority of adjunct teachers (contingent, underpaid, responsible for the majority of the foundational courses in the humanities) are women. We are essentially hitting a “glass ceiling” in higher ed. It is impossible to transition to leadership roles without that ever-elusive tenure-track job. So women are limited in their career development, deprived of their chance to choose to shape the direction of higher education.

But what other options are there? This is the way we have allowed ourselves to be limited, the way higher ed has convinced us to limit ourselves: We believe that if we have a PhD, we are a failure unless we get that tenure-track position. So we scratch and claw and keep coming back, keep putting off having families, paying off debt, buying a house, getting married, etc. And we keep complaining (quietly, as rocking the boat too much is career suicide) but we can’t see our way out of it.

So what do we have to sacrifice in order to take matters into our own hands and take charge of our careers but also to work to improve conditions for students and other teachers? How can we change the university when we aren’t allowed in?

From without.

We need to start using the skills we have acquired over the years, not in unrelated areas, but in the name of education. Use our research skills to grow our knowledge and power in the name of ourselves and our careers as we chose to define them. Use our teaching skills to teach other in new ways. What are we sacrificing? The dream of the tenure-track job and all that that includes. What might we gain? Independence, power and a voice to change higher ed for the better. And to change lives.

My next blog, someplace to start.

Goodbye Humanities, Hello — ?????

I was going to devote this blog post to the continuing hand-wringing about the crisis in the Humanities. The Chronicle of Higher Education currently has an entire section devoted to the decline of tenure-track positions in this area, about how we need to look at ourselves, stop accepting grad students, be more honest, be encouraged to find jobs elsewhere, etc. Listen, the numbers are there; tenure-track in the humanities are declining. But until alumni, students, and parents start raising alarms, nothing is going to change. Can’t write? It’s someone else’s problem, it’s someone else’s fault.

But I’m tired of it. I feel a bit like an kicked dog; I kept coming back, hungry for the few morsels of affection and flattery, hoping that this time I wouldn’t get a swift kick immediately following. There is a grad student who writes:


Yeah, good luck with that. This is the same profession that has been ignoring the problem as it has exploded for the past 30 (40?) years. Kicked puppy. Please, please, this time, you’ll love me enough to give me what I need, what I want. I’m no longer angry at academia for doing what it does; it benefits those few who have won the tenure-track lottery. They can feel superior to the rest of us and rely on our own intellectual vanity and fragility to ensure a never-ending supply of PhD students.

To all those grad students, you’re on your own. Get out. Get on google and start doing research yourself. Take the time. That article that you think will finally perfect your C.V.? It won’t. Take the time and start doing some job and career research instead. Pay someone to do it for you. There are academic coaches out there now who specialize in getting you out (see Leaving Academia, among others). Who we are, what we do, it can be great in other avenues.

Should there be a more direct route for PhD’s to be able to teach in high schools? Yes. Is that a good enough excuse not to do everything you can to get out if that’s what you want? Nope. Do PhD’s “get no respect” outside of academia. Yup. We’re the butt end of so many jokes, I can’t even count them anymore. But are you going to let that defeat you?

Apparently, yes.

What have you got to lose? Pick yourselves up, stop expecting someone else to do the work for you and just do it. You have the skills. Use them in an area that will eventually get you a job or a career that a) pays and b) provides self-respect. Be brave, be great, be strong, and for God’s sake, stop whining.

College Acceptance Day! April Fool’s!

I have been working on a advertising strategy, researching websites and publications that would reach my target audience. My College Readiness Course is meant for, among others, high school seniors on the brink of starting college or university. I have been looking at high school counselors, independent college admissions counselors, publications and websites focusing on the admissions process.

I was impressed with the scope of the information provided by the sites I visited: Improve your SAT/ACT! Write the perfect admissions essay! Choose the best-fitting college! What to do if you’re wait-listed! Navigate student loans! How to survive residence life! Going through the massive amount of information and range of services that are available, I was struck that the one area, perhaps the most important area, that is not covered is the academic side of getting ready for college. Once you get in, figure out how to pay for it, and move in, you have to go to class, get the grades and graduate.


It’s frustrating to me as a teacher that students (and their parents) spend so much time and money on getting into college, not trusting the high schools to help them in this area and yet trust that these same institutions are teaching the kids what they need to do or know in order to succeed academically outside of high school. The kids may have been over-achievers as high school students, passed all the appropriate state assessments, but we (in higher ed) know that that does not guarantee that the student is prepared for college. As an example, 2/3 of students in the California State system need to take remedial classes. And these are students who are graduating with at least a “B” average from high school (the minimum requirement to get into Cal State). With budget cuts, the Cal State System has ordered the end of remediation. So what is a student to do in order to succeed in college?

All over the country today, students have received acceptance (and rejection) envelopes (or emails). “Senioritis,” if it already hasn’t set it, takes complete hold of the students; the hard work is already done! We’re in!

April Fool’s!

The hard work, it hasn’t even begun. Many students, despite doing everything “right,” will find themselves overwhelmed and unable to get the grades they are accustomed to. They will find themselves pleading with the teacher, but I got (insert grade here) in this subject in high school! Seniors, take pride in your acceptances, enjoy the success, but know that it’ll take more work than that in order to succeed in this next phase.

The Sins of Our Current Education System

I’ve discovered a fascinating new blog through Psychology Today called, Freedom To Learn, and it looks like learning from the perspective of a developmental psychologist, Dr. David Gray. Recently, the post was on what he perceives as “The Seven Sins of Our Forced Education.” Two of the seven sins really spoke to me, sin five: Linking of Learning with Fear, Loathing, and Drudgery, and sin six, Inhibition of Critical Thinking.


This is a story I always tell my students when teaching literature or even writing. When I was in Grade 10, I was in my school’s enriched English class. The entire class had been together in the enriched stream since entering high school; we were the best and the brightest, and we knew it. We got high grades and we won praise. But this class was the worst. Our teacher had us read a book that we had been warned about: you will learn to hate Grandfather Connor. One day, we were told to write an in-class essay describing how the Brick House was symbolic of Grandfather Connor. Being 15, full of ourselves, and our brilliance, we thought this assignment was CRAP. We didn’t see how a house could be symbolic of anything, nor did we care.

One by one, we would bring our essays up to the teacher where she would proceed to tear our ideas apart. Garbage, she would say, stop wasting my time. We were, in fact, wasting her time, as we were just guessing (or at least I knew I was and most of my circle of friends were, too). But by some miracle, someone would come up with a way that the house and the grandfather were similar. And we would all frantically copy the idea, no, the whole sentence that had gained the teacher’s grudging approval. But the end of the class, we all had written an identical one-page essay. And we were no closer to understanding symbolism or how the house was a symbol for the grandfather.

I tell this story because it illustrates the two sins very well. First, we were humiliated in front of the class when we would come up and present whatever nonsense we had come up with. We left the class devastated. This was not learning; this was torture. It’s a miracle that I ended up studying literature in university and grad school seeing as how English class was my least favorite class all through high school. I loved reading, but English class was “work,” and not the good kind. The good might be hard, but did the teachers have to go so far out of their way to make the experience as freaking miserable as possible?

Dr. Gray describes how education as it is currently practiced limits critical thinking:

But despite all the lip service that educators devote to that goal, most students–including most “honors students”–learn to avoid thinking critically about their schoolwork. They learn that their job in school is to get high marks on tests and that critical thinking only wastes time and interferes. To get a good grade, you need to figure out what the teacher wants you to say and then say it.”

Sound familiar? We didn’t learn anything about critical thinking; we learned how to write a paper that was acceptable to our professor. I’m not saying that the house WASN’T symbolic of the grandfather (it is), but we certainly didn’t learn how to see symbolism or understand it. This was the challenge we faced and were particularly adept at as “gifted” students: figuring out teachers out and giving them what they wanted. Thinking critically, it was not.

The reason I use this story when I teach is to try and overcome these two sins that often happen in education. I use it as a gate to talking about their fear, anxieties, and pet peeves when it comes to learning about literature and writing. I remember how I would have wanted to be taught about symbolism and use that method (and others) to get students to see the connections between what an author writes and what (else) they can be saying. Reading can be a really fun puzzle to “solve,” or it can be a chore to endure. I always remember how to make it a joy. I don’t want anyone to feel the way we did that day in English class in Grade 10.