I’ve been an educator off and on for about 10 years. The off and on part isn’t because I lack credentials, or lack the ability to hold a job, or because I’ve left for greener pastures. I’ve left teaching over and over again because I cannot make a living doing one of the things I love most, one of the things that I’m really good at. I’m an adjunct college instructor with a Master’s degree in English.
Education, especially post-secondary education, is an odd profession. To practice it, one must be highly credentialed, an expert in both the subject matter and the ability to impart one’s knowledge to or create that knowledge in others. And yet, teaching is a lot like writing: everyone thinks they can do it just as well as the professionals. In no other professional sector do the public and government officials feel free to tell the experts how to do their jobs.
Our society expects much from educators, as it should, but it doesn’t really think our job is that difficult, and it doesn’t really trust the professionals to do it as well as we know we can. If they did, there would be less bureaucracy, less demand that we quantify the unquantifiable, and less legislation governing our practices in the classroom. Imagine legislating the methods Boeing engineers have to use to develop new aircraft. Absurd, right? But what teachers at all levels do in a classroom every day is just as complicated and complex. We’re engineering minds, something both far more malleable and far more friable than any material aircraft engineers work with. And yet there is more jiggering of the work environment and requirements by non-experts than in just about any other profession, except, possibly, doctors providing women’s healthcare.
No other profession gets told how to do its day-to-day job as much as teachers do. Imagine telling a doctor or nurse how to dispense healthcare: what pills to prescribe, what tests to run, what course of treatment to follow. To be sure, insurance companies attempt to do this with their pay guidelines, but doctors often successfully buck against it by appealing to their own expertise. Who, after all is the doctor? Now, imagine telling an engineer how to build a hydroelectric dam. Imagine telling an airline pilot how to fly the plane. That’s what people do with teachers, even teachers who are literally masters and doctors. If universities are becoming obsolete, and I argue that they are not, it’s because they’ve lost their focus because of pundits and the inexpert, not their usefulness.
David Brooks, for example, makes me apoplectic when he talks about education. He confuses information with knowledge, lecturing with teaching, test scores with learning. His enamoration with MOOCs is especially worrisome. Online education cannot possibly replace the human interaction necessary to real education. At best, it can fill in a few gaps and make basic information more accessible, but no computer, no podcast, no on-line video will ever replace real-time, personal teaching. A reasonable facsimile of personal teaching can be done successfully online, live, and often is in places like Maine, whose university system uses teleconferencing technology of various kinds to unite students in remote parts of the state with classrooms at various university centers. That may be part of the new model, but it cannot be allowed to entirely supersede the old one. If the only educational interaction is a recorded one between teacher and student, students still lose. Lively, real-time, in-person discussions are also necessary. So are study groups. And so are late nights in the dorm or a café or a bar chewing over with your friends the ideas you’re learning.
All of these experiences are endangered now when people like Brooks—who is not a professional educator, but an occasional adjunct in the original meaning of the word—talk about moving universities on-line and replacing teachers, instructors, and professors with videos and on-line classes. Learning is a collaboration between teachers, students, administrators, parents, communities. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum all alone in a room. Standardized tests don’t produce it or even encourage it and neither does a standardized curriculum, because people aren’t standardized. We may have a set of concepts that we agree all students should know and be able to navigate, but how those concepts are acquired varies wildly from student to student, grade to grade, subject to subject.
What educators do looks easy, it looks simple, it looks like anybody could do it, and that’s because most of us are good at what we do. Bad teachers, contrary to popular opinion, don’t last any longer than bad middle managers do and don’t affect the overall performance of the system. Students can survive a bad teacher; we all have. We’ve all worked for a company with deadweight employees. Did the failures of that company get blamed on all the workers? No? Funny about that. Because when children fail, it’s always our fault, never the fault of poverty, lack of resources, and lack of institutional support. Not the kids’ fault, not the parents’, not the rigid curriculum we’re forced to used, not the tests we have to teach to, not teaching kids what to think instead of how to think, not the lack of books, libraries, computers, pencils, paper. It’s our fault. Not one single teacher, but every teacher.
On top of this is the outright hostility toward teachers who dare complain they are underpaid and overworked. People in nine-to-five jobs (and I’ve worked those, too) can’t seem to get past the idea that teachers get three months of “vacation” during the year, and that their day “ends” at 3:00 pm. I’ll be the first to say that there are a number of perks to the academic life, but none of them involve a two-month vacation or a day that ends at 3:00 pm. This is true whether you are an elementary school teacher or a college professor. The actual perks are that we get to do something we love intensely; that we’re intellectually challenged every day; that we are more our own bosses than most people working in offices. We have sabbaticals when we do pursue projects we can’t get to at other times; we have more than the average job security if we have tenure (but often far less if we don’t).
One of my fellow teachers recently described her summer work this way: “I’m really enjoying researching and prepping Volpone now. I’m using sources and influences such as Ovid’s Golden Age, Classical Legacy Hunting, Aesop’s fables, Bestiary tales such as Reynard the Fox, Morality plays and Commedia Dell’arte. All very rich and fascinating. Hopefully the students will find it just a fraction as interesting as I do!” And they do, because she makes it fascinating. That’s what good teachers do: open our minds to ideas and works we never would have considered ourselves, even if we had known they existed.
But if we don’t have tenure, or if we’re not on a tenure track, as nearly 75% of our college professors now are not, we have zero job security and opportunity to pursue our own new ideas. Many of us (for I am one of these professors), must scrounge for a new job every semester, and because we are barred from teaching full time at one college or university (to save on paying benefits, you know), we must scrounge for appointments at more than one university. This means most of us spend as much time on the road as we do grading or prepping for class—which we are also not paid for; only our hours in the classroom are, apparently, billable (imagine a lawyer only billing for time spent in court). We don’t advise, we don’t have a voice in university governance or curriculum development, we often don’t even have an office where we can meet students, or the most basic of office support. That means students can never develop intellectual relationships with us, turn to us for meaningful long-term assessment of their work or guidance in their careers, or even for a recommendation letter. If they want to take another class from us, they probably can’t, because we are stuck teaching—not in our areas of expertise—but introductory core and general education courses. Personally, I love those courses, but I would also love to teach a class on, oh, apocalyptic science fiction from the 1950s through the 21st century, to map how our ideas of the apocalypse have or haven’t changed, and how this reflects society’s biggest fears. That will probably never happen in the system we’ve got going now.
Here’s the current destructive game plan for education in this country from K-college: Defund public education and then blame the failures of the system on teachers so it can be privatized to push a curriculum where students are truly badly educated, so they’ll end up either in prison (another privatizing “industry”) or as unthinking, docile cogs that the rich can exploit for profit. This sounds like a radical, reactionary, nut-job conspiracy theory, but it’s what we’re already beginning to see happen. The students who come into my freshman composition class are terrified by the idea that I will not give them the answers for the test, whatever that test is. They have not been taught to analyze or think for themselves, and know how to read only in the sense that they know what the words are individually and in sentence form. They can decipher instructions, but not extrapolate principles or discern subtext.
The last thing an oligarchy or plutocracy run by a minority of wealthy people (the 85 top earners, for example, who now control as much of the wealth as 3.5 billion people) wants is a thinking, intelligent populace to challenge them. If you want unthinking, interchangeable widgets, build a factory—or a charter school. If you want thinking, truly educated students, give professionals the resources—and respect, which includes a decent living wage—they need and get out of their way. And, if you have never spent a moment on the teacher’s side of the desk, stop pretending that you know better than the people who have spent their careers there.