Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

5/17/2005

Quit while you’re ahead

File under: Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't, Know Thyself, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 7:43 am.

….even if that means quitting before you’ve even started. That’s what teacher-in-training Lauren is considering doing - finding another line of work before ever taking a regular teaching position. I can’t relate to everything in her post, especially the USA-specific parts, but boy do I feel this: Politicians, concerned with public sway, bloviate on education and educational policies that have no empirical bearing on scholastic research…In no way do I feel obligated to justify my pedagogy to a parade of political assholes who aren’t even familiar with the term.

Last week, I visited my old high school, an institution that I’d be content to relegate to the domain of the unpleasant memory were it not for the fact that the best damned high school math teacher in the western hemisphere still works there. I’ve known Mrs. C. for nearly half my life, and I’ve kept in touch over email and snail mail with Mrs. C. for the past decade. I owe much of my success as a mathematician to Mrs. C. I owe almost all of my successes as a teacher to her.

Mrs. C. has worked as a high school math teacher for over thirty years - half of that at my school. During my time at the high school, she was consistently the most popular teacher around - no mean feat for someone who taught math, of all subjects. She was loved by her strong students and her weak students alike; she was available for several hours of remedial and extra help every day - not just for her own students, but for other teachers’ students as well. She had stacks of enrichment material for anyone who asked for any. She was frequently solicited for letters of recommendation for graduating students; she mailed mine to me the month after I graduated. It was two pages long, and went into profound detail about my academic ability, my interests, my goals, and my character. And Mrs. C. imposed high standards, too: she prided herself on her classes’ low drop rate, and was known to retain near-failing students who could have easily gotten C’s or even B’s if they’d taken the easier night school classes.

She’s delighted that I’ve decided to teach math - albeit at the college level, rather than at the high school level - and when I dropped in during her lunch hour last week, she listened attentively to my adventures teaching math at Island U. She’d already heard of some of them; back in February, when I was at my most frustrated, I inflicted a tirade upon her inbox, begging for feedback. Last week, I elaborated, on my trials: students who couldn’t do elementary school-level math, building design that facilitated disruptions to classes, students who thought that the final exam was optional, a system that teaches students that “bad marks” translate naturally into “scaled grades”, a general expectation that good teaching is equivalent to spoonfeeding - I could go on. And have, in this space. And did, last week, to Mrs. C.

A few weeks ago, another blog I frequent was visited by a troll, supposedly a high school history teacher, who snootily informed us regulars that she could educate and inspire everyone - regardless of background or attitude; that she never had any of the problems we wrote about; and that every time a student of ours failed, it was our fault and our fault alone. This anonymous commenter was soundly eviscerated, as well she should have been; but I was hoping that Mrs. C.’s feedback to me would be similar. I’d been hoping that she’d sympathize with me and say, “Yes, I dealt with those things back in my first few years of teaching; but as I became more experienced, I learned how to create an environment in which I could teach effectively to receptive students.”

Instead, Mrs. C. nodded sadly and said, “You know, I never used to have those sorts of problems back in your year, or before. Now, I have them all the time. And I don’t know what I could do about them.”

Back when I was a student, she told me, she had a handful of students who didn’t do their homework. But they were a small minority. Students who didn’t do their homework and demanded high marks anyway were virtually nonexistent. Now, the latter group comprises the bulk of Mrs. C.’s class. Getting them to understand that they need to do their homework, she reported, is like pulling teeth. Every week she fields angry phone calls from parents who hold her singly responsible for their children’s poor performance. “And it never used to be like that,” she said. “Never. I don’t know what you can do,” she told me apologetically. “Me, I’m retiring next year.”

And Mrs. C., hardly a conspiracy theorist or superficial thinker, was quick to diagnose the problem: “I blame Mike Harris,” she said simply.

Mike Harris was the premier of Ontario from 1995 to 2002. Harris had once been a teacher; he’d been fired from his job after very little time in the classroom. Many people speculated, only half-jokingly, that his stint as premier was little more than revenge. There was certainly plenty of evidence in that direction. Most egregiously, in 1996, Harris appointed a high school dropout, John Snobelen, as Minister of Education. Snobelen’s public statements on the importance of educational reform were fraught with more grammatical errors per capita than I’d ever seen before; nevertheless, a month into his job, he was awarded - I am not making this up - an honourary high school diploma from an Ontario school. (Aside: my own high school diploma was signed by Snobelen, something I found more than a little insulting.)

Harris ran on a platform of “teacher accountability”. Some of the reforms he proposed were long overdue: for instance, Ontario parents had long been complaining that their children’s report cards were unclear and unnecessarily laden with jargon. An illiterate fifth-grader, for instance, could bring home an evaluation that reported on his creativity, friendliness and enthusiasm but made no mention of his inability to read. That had to change. In addition, the previous government, in a misguided move to make the transition to high school kinder, gentler, and more colour-blind, had replaced the different levels of classes (advanced, general, and basic) with the lowest common denominator, teaching basic prerequisite material to all incoming students.

But, said Mrs. C., the language of “teacher accountability” fostered an adversarial relationship between teachers and parents. Previously, she reported, there was a sincerely held belief that teachers, parents, and students would work to master the subject. But with the calls for parents to “demand better”, teachers were pitted against parents and students. Previously, reported Mrs. C., some parents had expressed difficulty at motivating their children to do their homework; but they appreciated her talking to them about their children’s difficulties. Now, she said, she continues to talk to the parents of students who don’t do the required work - but more often than not, she is told that it’s her responsibility to get them to do their work. Last week, she said, a month before final exams, parents are asking her what she’s going to do about their failing children. “I’ve been talking to you all term about them not doing their work,” she said, “and keeping up with the homework throughout the year is important for this class. There’s not much that I can do at this point, especially if they haven’t started to catch up.” One parent had met with her during parent-teacher interviews to tell her that his daughter, always a C student in math, “needed an 80%” in calculus, “and it’s your responsibility to make sure that happens.” Meanwhile, the student in question never showed up for extra help, despite Mrs. C.’s own invitations. Parents are demanding better.

I’m loathe to chalk up social trends to single causes, but once a attitude has been sanctioned, it spreads quickly. And, at the college level, I’m seeing the effects. This past year, I’ve been astounded by the number of my students who openly express a belief that there is no correlation between their grades and their understanding of the material. If the class average is low, it’s my fault, and I should scale the grades. If I were any good at teaching, they wouldn’t have to spend so much time on homework; the least I could do is give them the grades they need to get to the next course - at which point we repeat the process with the next teacher for the next course.

A mere few weeks into my most recent teaching position, I commented to someone that I liked my job, but it was often exhausting and stressful and that I didn’t think I’d be able to teach math university students who couldn’t add fractions for more than another few years before burning out. Hopefully I can snag a position where my students will be at least vaguely proficient in the prerequisite material (I’m reminded of a former precalculus student who, when reminded by a subsequent teacher how to compute the equation of a straight line, objected: “but we did that LAST term, not this term”), but I’m not terribly optimistic. Maybe it’s time to start looking at other options now.