Thursday, November 17, 2005

Frank McCourt

Years ago Angela’s Ashes hit the top of the book chart. Unfortunately, I was stubborn and decided that since everyone was reading it, I wasn’t going to be sucked into a publicity hype and read it. Then the movie came out and I didn’t take the time to see it. This week I found out how much I’ve been missing. Frank McCourt was the keynote speaker for the NCTE conference and I can’t remember ever seeing a more lively and engaging storyteller. He just recently published Teacher Man and used this opportunity to discuss the state of teaching in the U.S. and his own experiences in the classroom.

The beginning of his presentation, as he said, was his soap box time. He asked several questions and spend time giving his opinion. Who but the teacher knows best what goes on in the classroom? Teaching is high drama – hunger, horniness, break-ups, arguments, deaths – all these things come into the classroom with the children. To ignore that students have emotions that affect their performance is unrealistic. Teaching and learning is not a mechanical activity; it is a connection between teacher, student and content. The students assess the teacher immediately and are accurate judges of character. In addition, each class is different and each day is different. There isn’t a formula that will work with all classes all the time. Politicians and policy makers don’t understand the intricacies of this relationship and what it takes to get through the other issues to get to the learning.

This leads to the second question: When did we give over the business of education to the politicians? When did the politicians “hijack” the classrooms of our students? During elections, politicians go into classrooms, push the teacher aside and read to the children. This shows that they “know” what it takes to be a teacher and what goes on in a classroom. From this microscopic experience, the politicians take it upon themselves to allocate money, determine curriculum, and create policies of testing – reward and punishment. Why do we allow so much government interference in education when we can’t conceive of doing the same in medicine or law? We must certainly hate our children since we are testing them to death. This is sucking all the joy and creativity out of learning.

Finally, why aren’t teachers on talk shows? Why don’t they get the recognition they deserve? Mr. McCourt stated he was on the morning show on NBC with Katie Couric and asked this question. Politicians, actors, sports figures get recognition both for the good and bad that they do. Teachers have amazing stories – of inspiration, tragedy, and excellence. When the politicians are voted out, the actors are no longer making movies, and the sports figures retire, the teacher will still be in the classroom influencing the next generation. Teaching is not a glamorous profession. It isn’t “sexy”, but it is the most important job of all. The attrition rate for new teachers is tremendous. The issues of educational theory and content management are covered in teacher prep courses, but the real information – how to judge a kid’s mood, tuning in to the critical moments, and how to make a strong first impression – these things are learned through trial and error. There is an unrealistic image created by the media of the classroom experience. Just looking at any famous teacher movie – they have one class, have time to reflect and inspire, have lots of materials, and the kids are eager to learn. The Teach for American program gets people into the classroom as a charity program, but they don’t stay. They put in their time and move on to their real jobs – jobs that pay better and have better benefits.

On the opposite spectrum is the idea that teaching is easy and that it doesn’t take much to be a good teacher. People are insulting when they say, “Oh, you’re a teacher. You have so much time off, all the holidays and summer vacations. It must be an easy job.” Or even worse, the stickers that say, “Those who can – do. Those who can’t – teach. Teaching is a 24 hour a day job. It follows you wherever you go and you are thinking and planning constantly. The salaries are low compared to other profession and the respect is non-existent.

Mr. McCourt’s speech was interrupted several times by enthusiastic applause. Sadly, he was preaching to the choir. Everyone in the ballroom recognized the important work teachers do and the frustrations of working within an environment that does not value our professionalism. Hopefully, with the publication of Teacher Man and Mr. McCourt’s publicity tour, the stories of the teacher will become as important as the latest movie or the hottest sport star. When teachers are valued as much as actors and sports stars, when teachers are supported and respected, it will be the children and the future of the country that will benefit the most.

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