Teacher, Heal Thyself: Fixing the nation’s education crisis requires elementary thinking
After navigating St. Joseph’s Prep, Fordham University and the United States Army, inspired by several Jesuit teachers who had kept writing to me when I was far from home, I joined the Jesuits. Four years later in 1961, I found myself standing in McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, N.Y., before my first class. I had only my novitiate, two years of philosophy and a short summer workshop behind me to prepare for the job. Was that enough to outsmart the 14-year-old mind?
We had heard the old teacher adage, “Don’t smile before Christmas,” but our principal had armed us with a trick to establish our authority right away: Create an opportunity to publicly chastise a student to let them know who is in charge. For example, as class begins, a student near the door will probably get up and close it. Quickly snap, “Who told you to close that door?”
Alas, one of my students did just that, and I corrected him for all to see. I went on to teach the class. Afterward, the offending student, trembling, came up to apologize. It dawned on me—perhaps on the class as well—that I was a stupid jerk. I would not try that again.
Jacques Barzun, in From Dawn to Decadence, described the Jesuits as schoolmasters “unsurpassed in the history of education.” They knew that “born teachers are as scarce as true poets,” so they devised a “preparation that included exhaustive learning and a severe winnowing of the unfit at every phase of a long apprenticeship.” My apostolate had begun.
Besides teaching religion, English and world history (of which I knew little), I moderated a literary magazine and made some friends for life. Someone gave the school a horse, so I organized a riding club at a local stable. After ordination I taught at five Jesuit universities, was dean at two and taught journalism part time at three secular universities.
The Society of Jesus, along with the teaching profession, has changed a lot since 1961. That year there were 27 Jesuits teaching at McQuaid; today, in a community of six, two Jesuits teach at the school. Meanwhile at the 30 new Cristo Rey high schools around the country—mainly serving financially disadvantaged students of color, of whom 88 percent go on to college—the pupils also learn social skills and work one day a week in business offices to help pay their tuition. About a third of these schools are Jesuit enterprises. Today there are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities and 63 high schools, but lay persons have widely assumed leadership in both. Fewer young Jesuits are available to get doctorates and pursue tenured positions.
Nevertheless, Jesuits remain united on the goals of their schools. In Jesuit Schools and the Humanities Yesterday and Today, historian John W. O’Malley, S.J., lists the “five hooks” that unify Jesuit teaching:
1. It releases the “fly in the bottle,” that is, it helps students escape the bondage of unexamined assumptions.
2. It helps students understand our pasts, where we came from.
3. It communicates a commitment to “faith that does justice.” That comes from Cicero’s “We are not born for ourselves alone.” Our talents are given us to serve.
4. It offers a study of the great literature so we can fit words to thought—that’s called eloquentia perfecta.
5. Its humane letters sharpen students’ aesthetic sensibilities—teaching prudence to make wise decisions. These principles remain relevant today.
Common Core Work
Today the teaching profession can, at times, be compared to a gym in which the teacher is a boxer past his prime getting battered against the ropes. Fights concern the federal government’s attempt to raise the academic standards through programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. The long-term goals are to produce an educated work force even as the United States falls behind other countries both in its schooling and in the industrial marketplace. An emphasis on economics and technology satisfies those who see the school system as a training ground for their factories and corporations; but humanists who see the English enrollments sliding consider it intellectual suicide to push aside the liberal arts—literature, art, philosophy, history—which feed the students’ souls as well as teach them to think, write and speak well.
The main instrument for national reform is the Common Core, initiated by the National Governors Association. The resistance to the Common Core is broad. Many parents are confused by the new curriculum which followed the new standards, especially in math, and a new onslaught of standardized testing. Unionized faculty dislike being evaluated by state-administered final exams. But political opposition to Common Core standards comes from the Republican-dominated Senate, most Republican presidential candidates, lobbies and those states which see the federal government as some kind of alien power.
Perhaps the real crisis in education centers on a decline of teaching as a profession. We all know great teachers who have transformed our lives; but too many teachers today are guilty both in their laxity in the classroom and in their failure to raise and enforce the standards of their profession. Both documentary and experiential evidence paints a picture today of mediocrity. College professors encounter high school graduates who have never read a book, who can barely write a sentence, who know no grammar, cannot stand up and speak and have no intention of doing the next assignment.
A common belief is that college students should study two hours outside of class for each credit hour. That would come to 30 hours a week, but as a rule they study less than 12 hours. During a formal visit, one group of college students told me with a straight face that their teachers were so good that they learned everything in class and so never had any homework. On my professional visits to all the Jesuit universities, I found very few students could name books that had influenced their lives. Lawyers tell me that newly hired colleagues lack sufficient writing skills.
The responsibility for these lapses falls upon those teachers who—out of laziness, timidity, ignorance of their field or a misguided desire to be loved—fail to challenge every student to do his or her very best. This includes chairpersons and deans who do not demand high standards, visit classrooms, study syllabi or publish the grade distributions by departments. Little do teachers realize that in the long run students will admire the professors who cared enough to challenge them and despise those who gave them the easy A’s.
Too many schools of education and education majors are considered academically soft. In 2014 the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research group committed to restructuring the teaching profession, released a report on 836 academic institutions housing teacher preparation programs, evaluating them on the core components of teacher preparation, including course content and practice teaching. Only 26 elementary programs and 81 secondary programs got top rankings.
The weak schools disregard the basic methods of reading instruction. As a result, only 30 percent of American children learn to read beyond the basic level. Only 15 percent improved teaching on how to control classroom disruption. Worse, many classroom teachers have not been tested in the subjects they are assigned. In 509 institutions, 44 percent of the education graduates received honors, compared to 30 percent of other students. As a result the word spreads that getting an education degree is an easy college path—when, considering the responsibility of forming young minds, it should be the most rigorous.
A program which stands out as an alternative to some dubious education programs is Teach for America. Modeled on the Peace Corps, for 25 years it has recruited young college graduates to teach in predominantly disadvantaged neighborhoods. In 2013-14 it sent 11,000 recruits to 38 states. The program has succeeded also as a growth experience and resume booster for the young former teachers who move on to successful public and political careers. Now, however, there is a 13 percent drop in applications, indicating, perhaps, that short training periods are not enough and the temporary young teachers who may leave after two years might not be the answer to the problem of mediocre teaching. One letter to The New York Times suggests this reflects a bigger problem, “a lack of respect for the teaching profession.”
In some cities a miniature civil war simmers between charter and public schools. On one level the battle is pedagogical. Among New York City’s 1,800 public schools with 1.1 million students, there are 197 charter schools serving 82,200 students; 34 of those schools are part of the Success Academy network, which outclasses the others in test scores. But the network’s unique pedagogical philosophy raises questions that both underline and undermine its success.
Pressure on faculty and students is high. Faculty teach 11 hours a day and post lists of which students are doing well or poorly. Teacher turnover is high, either from exhaustion or in opposition to what the departing teachers consider excessive regimentation of student behavior. Stringent rules require that students sit up straight and direct their eyes during class, move silently through the corridors and control their bladders to the point where many wet themselves rather than interrupt a test in response to tension (“At Success Academy Charter Schools, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics,” The New York Times, 4/7/15).
To the network’s critics like Diane Ravitch, the charter movement “undermines the public’s commitment to public education.” Others charge that high test scores at charters are an illusion created by excess test preparation, that charters accept few students with learning difficulties and suspend troublesome students whom the public schools hold onto, and that they benefit from conservative outside backers of the privatization of education.
The number of charter schools in the United States has nearly doubled in the last year, from 3,400 to 6,700, growing especially rapidly in Washington, Maryland, California and Florida; and a long article in The Washington Monthly (June/July 2015) reports that in New Orleans, 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, 92.5 percent of public school students attend charter schools—a move described by Tulane University economist Douglas Harris as “the most radical overhaul of any type of any school district in at least a century.” A New Orleans political writer whom I taught writes to me that his son attends the same school his father attended as a child, but it is now a charter school and the son’s reading and math skills far surpass those of his father at the same age. The boy is in first grade and reads French every night.
What Must We Do?
The following suggestions emerge from readings, consultation and experience.
1. Teaching is a religious endeavor, so we should bring it to both our public and private prayer and share our lights and shadows with colleagues. In the Journal of Catholic Higher Education (Winter 2015) articles place the core curriculum in the context of striving for intellectual excellence. Mark W. Roche describes his seminar “Faith, Doubt, and Reason,” in which students read theology, philosophy, literature and sociological studies, attend plays and view films, write 60-page papers and take two one-on-one oral exams. For solidarity, students and faculty could participate in at least one weekend retreat each year.
2. Support the Common Core. If America is to become one family from many, there are values everyone must share. I have read the proposed literature syllabi of over 250 books and texts for grades 6 to 12 and am delighted to see Walden, Richard Wright and Longfellow, while I would save Dostoyevsky for college. As one young teacher wrote to me, “I think it is wonderful that a 17-year-old girl from the upper West Side and a 17-year-old from Bed-Stuy would both be entitled to read and explore in class a treasure like Jane Eyre.”
3. Know each student well. Our novice master told us to pray over our class list. I had each student fill out a 3-inch-by-5-inch card with name, address, phone number, email, names of family members, parents’ occupations, previous schools, jobs, employment, travels, hobbies, skills and life ambitions. Then I shared the same about myself. On the card I kept a record of our meetings through life: their children, jobs, moves, books they wrote and family deaths. I tried to interview each one for at least 15 minutes in my office. Just one question: What can I do to help you?
4. Decorum counts. In class we present ourselves on time prepared for a serious 50 minutes. No hats, hoods, food, drinks, chewing gum or cellphones in sight. A daily one-page paper from the students is accepted only in the first minutes of class. I once had a young woman who placed her purse on the seminar table and got out her mirror and makeup and started painting her face in class. No.
5. Discussion works when everyone is prepared. Preparation is guaranteed in one of three ways: 1) a quick five-question quiz on a blue-book page on the assigned reading; 2) a one-page (exactly) essay analyzing the reading; 3) a one-page, single-spaced outline of the reading on a strict format.
Either split the class into small groups of four or five students or form a tight circle of 25. Give them five minutes to buzz with their neighbors and then draw them all into the discourse, everyone speaking once before anyone speaks twice. Do not ask questions to which you know the answer; if so, they will be trying to read your mind rather than express theirs. Sum it up and prepare for tomorrow’s class.
6. Tenure matters. Tenure has a bad name because it is sometimes carelessly or unjustly administered. In high schools and universities, tenure is meant both to protect the institution from the harm that an unqualified teacher could do and to protect the freedom and the future of a person who has integrity, generosity, scholarship and superior teaching skills. But first the teacher must be thoroughly tested in three areas: teaching, scholarship and service.
The scores of students on standardized tests should not be decisive. The background or attitude of the class may be beyond the teacher’s control or responsibility. During the first six years, the senior faculty and administration should visit classes and mentor and evaluate the candidate.
Some high school teachers write serious books. The others should demonstrate their scholarship by articles, public lectures and attending conferences. Service is committee work, advising and just being around for games, retreats, concerts and shows. All members of the tenure committee must sign the reports (majority and minority) presented to the candidate and the administration.
7. Technology in the classroom? Teachers should not become overly reliant on technology. Jacques Barzun told a theater full of teachers they needed only two tools: a blackboard and a piece of chalk.
8. My novice master told us we had to love our students. My impression at the time was that only God’s love could energize us to handle the workload. But over 40 years I learned there was much more to it than that. Vanessa Rodriguez’s The Teaching Brain stresses that teachers must constantly examine themselves to accomplish the unique teacher-student interaction that constitutes teaching.
I interviewed teachers and students to track down the one indispensable quality a teacher must have. I started with novelist Richard Ford, who teaches at various distinguished universities between books. Immediately, with certitude, he replied: “Empathy.”
A young man who had met Ford and who had been teaching a few years at a Jesuit high school and is now entering the Jesuits, had the same response, only after working through the spiritual preparation that allows one to love well. It means, in effect, that students and teachers are equals in intimate communication. Last year the McQuaid 1964 graduating class invited me to their 40th-anniversary reunion. I told them that I had come to them 40 years before directed to love them; but it was they, by their openness and sincerity, who made it possible. They were easy to love.
Books That Teach
Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America (1945); Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching (1950); Mark Edmundson, Why Teach? (2013); Garrett Keizer, Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher (2014); Elizabeth Green, Building a Better Teacher (2014); Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (2014); Vanessa Rodriguez with Michelle Fitzpatrick, The Teaching Brain (2014).