Understanding the typical “high school teacher”

This is the typical story of the typical high school teacher.

Her journey begins in college, where typically, she will be in the top bottom third of her graduating class. And typically, she will not graduate from one of the most elite schools, but a local public one. Not sure what to do with her life – and by that she means financially with her life – she settles on the calling of a public school teacher. Sure, she thinks, it’s not much pay, but she can surely make a positive difference in people’s lives.

She takes the relevant courses in obtaining her teacher’s certification, and having taken some preparation for the CBEST, she wonders “who wouldn’t be qualified to be a school teacher?” This test may have been the easiest she’s ever taken, and she struggles to think of a more difficult standardized test since elementary school.

Having graduated from the certification program, and having obtain a position at a local high school, she is ready to make a difference. She is ready to make her mark upon the world, beginning with her first 150 students her first year. After all, she has five classes per semester, with an average of 30 students each. At first, she might attempt to get to know them. She might read their student profiles, with grades from previous years, annual test scores, student activities, disciplinary reports, and other standard metrics. But they all blur together.

Before the school year began, she had to put together a lesson plan. But long ago she learned, in her teaching program, that there would be some restrictions and oversight from her department. But she didn’t realize just how many rules there would be. All the thrilling pieces of literature, facts and narratives of history, all the things she wanted to share – there would be little, if any time at all, for these things.
Wondering if she could ask for some flexibility, she turns to her department head, who interrupts her to inform her that these standards are mandated by the district, state, and even the Department of Education through the “common core” cirriculum. The matter, in other words, is out of his hands.

Meanwhile, her class is full of students from the far-advanced to the very-behind. There are completely lazy students, hard working students, and everyone in between. She learns to shy away from controversial ideas – unless she really believes in them – because she fears the inevitable complaints by parents who don’t like them. A shame, because the discussion would really have helped their critical thinking skills – more so than what the “common core” curriculum would supposedly have taught.

If there are too many Cs parents complain, and if there are too many As, students stop trying. So she learns to give plenty of Bs. Maybe she does this by grading more easily, maybe she does this by curving student grades. Maybe she gives projects that provide for easy As to bring up everyone’s grades, assignments that have nothing to do with thoughtful ideas written in clearly persuasive prose, but more to do with pictures and drawings and dioramas. Whichever way, she has lowered her standards.

She did try teaching harder, trying different things. But even the smartest students seemed lost, and anyone with lesser abilities gave up. She needs to help the bulk of her students, so she learned to stop innovating. In any case, how could she tailor her efforts for each of her five classes, with thirty very different students each?

The years pass by. Her lectures all sound the same now. One for her freshmen, one for her sophomores, one for her juniors, and one for her seniors. She can’t remember everyone’s names once they go onto the the next year. A student visited by the other day, and said her name. How startling! “Hi Miss So-and-So! How are you?” Who was he? Never mind. The next class is about to begin. It’s about how slavery was bad.

***

The problem with teaching thirty students at a time is that the endeavor no longer becomes “teaching.” It is instruction. The teacher is no longer a teacher (a person who imparts skill and understanding, rather than simple facts and knowledge), but rather a lecturer for most of the time. She is a speaking version of a textbook. With thirty students, there is hardly time for questions to be asked, much less answers to be deeply and profoundly explained.

Teachers are those who impart skills and understanding to their students. When Socrates taught Plato, he didn’t teach him a set of facts or bodies of knowledge, he taught him how to think carefully and deeply about his subjects. When Confucius taught his students, and they taught their own, what they found valuable about Confucius’ teachings weren’t facts or anything else that could be memorized, but rather the concepts, ideas, and principles that brought upon a deeper understanding that went beyond mere facts. Truly, these are the model teachers throughout history.

In contrast, school “teachers” (talking in front of thirty students at a time) are simply lecturers and instructors. They impart facts and knowledge, but little understanding. They might show how to do something, but impart no understanding adaptable to solving another situation. They might explain what a text was about (e.g. Shakespeare) but not how to understand it on one’s own. Once the teacher leaves, the students have little ability to think on their own. This is not education. This is instruction.

This is why student grades have been increasing, while their academic ability has been decreasing, over the years. Grades can always be adjusted to the new average, and that average decreases each year. Even the SAT scores have become inflated because it is, in essence, a curved test. A 1200 in 2019 is nowhere as good as a 1200 in 1999. Why? Because more people are going to college, especially the stupider (or “less capable,” if you’d rather a euphemism) ones. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Ultimately, what the student receives in high school is not actually education. It’s lectures. It’s instruction. But the student won’t develop the skills of understanding how to think, how to learn, how to reflect, how to discover insight – not without a true teacher to guide his scholarly cultivation, or without great personal struggle (like that of Confucius or Socrates, themselves the greatest of teachers).

What we have been trained to call “education,” therefore, really isn’t education. Would this be what Mark Twain meant by saying “don’t let your ‘education’ get in the way of your learning?”

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