Education is the field I know the best from a professional standpoint. I began my full-time career teaching English to high school students in a big Catholic school in Connecticut. From there I went to West Africa with the Peace Corps, where I was supposed to train high school teachers. I found that all teachers lacked classroom materials and that many teachers were themselves largely illiterate; I focused on writing and producing books and materials for classrooms and on basic literacy. I kept thinking, as I had when I was teaching high school, “If only I could get them earlier!” By the time my students were teenagers or adults, so many opportunities had been missed and so much damage had been done that I always felt as if I was playing catch-up.
So when I returned to the United States, I found a job teaching first grade in a small Quaker school. It was a wonderful environment of small classes and great freedom to design an education to fit the students. Even they, though, were often prevented from learning by a broken home, lack of attention from a single parent, or unaddressed health issues. At the end of that year, I became pregnant with our first child and for the next seventeen years mostly stayed home and taught my own four children. I had finally got students as early as I could!
Seven of those years my family and I spent in Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia. I opened an adult learning center and taught English to residents of our remote town in the Tien Shan as well as homeschooling my own children. Since then I have taught writing and other subjects in home school cooperatives and all subjects in elementary grades at a classical school in Indianapolis. Currently I am an associate professor of English at a community college.
This seems like a checkered career, I know, but I have enjoyed and benefited by it, and I would defend the unconventional path I took. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in English and Medieval comparative literature. I took no education courses, although I knew I wanted to teach. However, I taught in some capacity all during that time: ballet and swimming in the summer I graduated from high school, tutoring and assisting professors in college, and test preparation classes once I was done with my Master’s degree. The Catholic school was willing to take me on without a teaching credential since they could already see from my experience that I was committed to teaching. The more experienced teachers I worked with allowed me to follow them in a sort of unofficial apprenticeship, visiting their classes, looking at their syllabi and assignments, and asking them about grading, classroom management, and dealing with parents. I loved learning that way. Every new thing I absorbed I immediately put to work, and every question or problem that arose in a real classroom had an immediate response from real people working alongside me.
I have also enjoyed and benefited by teaching all ages, toddler to septuagenarian, on three continents. If I had relied on a teaching credential to find work, I would have taught only one age group in only one type of school. As it is, I have a broader understanding of learning itself and how the human brain absorbs and uses information. I have been able to avoid the metaphors that our current education system imposes on its participants.
I’ve had to make adjustments to reach different nationalities and different ages, of course. The most absurd example of this happened on the opening day of first grade. I knew that I would be teaching my pupils to read and had my phonics lessons all planned. On that day, a little boy came up to me where I was eating my lunch.
“My mom put a note in my lunchbox,” he said solemnly.
“I see she did,” I responded as he held the paper in front of me. “That’s nice.”
There was a long, awkward pause. “I can’t READ!” he said, exasperated.
“Oh, right! I knew that. I’ll read it to you, then.”
He looked at me as if I was crazy, and I can’t blame him.
I’m grateful I never had to go through a conventional education program at a university. Studies have shown that teachers who major in education have less knowledge of subject matter than those who major in a discipline. I was not impressed with the education students I met at the college where I studied. I now believe that many of them made caring and devoted teachers, at least of young children, but I’m not convinced that their four years of study had much to do with that result.
Of course, given my unconventional path, my career choices have been limited – that’s been a blessing, too. Although I have not taught at public schools (except dual credit college classes), my four daughters have attended them for varying lengths of time. They have had a few really excellent teachers and enjoyed aspects of the public school – but they were nonetheless largely in survival mode. The excellent teachers could have done more if their environment had been different, and even my science-crazy daughter doubted that the joy of having a laboratory was compensated for by being hurried and distracted for thirty-eight minutes when she was trying to learn.
I include these details as credentials, to show that I have broad experience in education and sufficient reason to draw conclusions from my experience. In the classroom as well as in life I have concluded that human beings are not machines or bundles of chemicals. In order to be educated, students don’t need to be run through a factory. They need an education that reflects what it means to be human, and they need the conditions and people to make that possible. If we apply the conclusions I describe in the post called “Beyond Metaphors,” we can imagine an education system that looks radically different.
Students need people more than they need technology; laps, not laptops. They need to hear, see, and feel people that they will imitate in every way, not just acquire information from. The educational establishment’s giddiness about Chromebooks and MOOCs has to be tempered with many hours of face-to-face interaction with a few real people.
Students need physical contact and physical activity, more than just the “hands-on learning” that is fashionably advanced nowadays as a way to break up a lecture. They need to be physically touched by trustworthy adults, a hard thing to aim for in our unhealthy society.
They need the opportunity to respond to the natural environment that has shaped their evolution; to get outside in all weathers, work hard, play hard, and be silent outdoors. They need knowledge about their environment and skills for surviving in it.
They need their education to reflect the values of their culture; therefore they need to live in a society where there is a functioning culture. That may mean that they identify with a smaller group than the nation-state. Local communities, flawed though they may be, are still the natural cultural unit for children. So there must be local communities – real ones, not just random houses where the long-distance school bus stops.
They need silence and exposure to beauty, to listen to music and to learn to draw. They need to be accompanied through the joys and tragedies of life by great art and by real people. They need words and stories, jokes and timeless literature, nursery rhymes, oral histories, and lots of books and time to read them.
They need to see themselves as part of a vast universe, unique but mortal, and to be loved but held lightly by the adults around them.
An education like that won’t result from a few tweaks and a change of textbook publishers. We have to undo our whole way of thinking about education. The process may be unsettling, but the results will be worth it. Join me for the next few weeks as I pick apart the things many people take for granted in our schools.