Monday, January 19, 2015
I've never seen the movie "The Professional", about a hitman who takes in an orphaned 12-year-old Natalie Portman, but I know it is a thriller in which everyone is out to get him and I can only assume he escapes alive and all evil is vanquished and the child with whom he has been charged to care for gets the protection she needs. I'm not as handsome or as cool as Luc Besson, nor can I handle heavy firearms the way he can, but there are times in my role as a teacher that I can kinda relate to this guy.
I have a job to do, and I have a very particular set of skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you - Oh wait, that's Liam Neeson. Anyway, I have indeed been trained very well for what I do, and throughout my career I have earned the respect of students and colleagues and repeatedly been validated that I am good at what I do. And there are millions of other highly trained teachers in this country who are also very capable, if not better at what they do than me. So why is it teachers are leaving the profession in droves? Why do less than 50% of teachers survive five years in the field?
The children I am charged with - girls the same age as Natalie Portman in "The Professional" - are in danger. Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I am using them as a metaphor mostly because it amazes me that they are the same age as Natalie Portman in that movie; in reality I teach at a very affluent independent school in which few of the kids are struggling. But I do feel under siege as a member of a profession that has been disparaged, ridiculed, and blamed for the problems in education in America. Much has been written about how problems in the education field came about. A very good summary of the story of the teaching "profession" is The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein, and I recommend anyone who thinks they know how to fix education read that book before jumping into the debate. I also recommend anyone trying their hand at fixing education try working in education for at least a decade before claiming they know what's right.
Well, I have now been in education for about 14 years, beginning with teaching undergraduates at UC Berkeley many years ago, then moving on to public high schools - both a large traditional school and a small charter - for nearly a decade, and now teaching middle school girls at a private school. I've witnessed many different approaches, studied many more, and I want to hold a discussion on how to fix education. Though I hope this discussion can leave politics aside, I know any time money and social issues are involved, politics sticks its nose in.
I first will be focusing on returning professionalism, assuming it was once present, to the teaching profession. What does it mean to be a professional? Are teachers really professionals? Why do they leave the profession? What can be done about it? And frankly, why does it matter?
My next entry: Ask me what I think about tenure (Hint: I've never had it.).