Beyond Good and Evil

Dr. Ronnie J. Hastings

1: Education Reform — Wrong Models!

I am a physicist who loves to teach. I am not a teacher who loves to teach physics and math. This is the first of postings dedicated to focusing on the difference between the previous two sentences. I maintain that difference is crucial, for in that difference are the keys of how to reform education and return the US to the worldwide top of the heap in providing the best education for young minds anywhere.

I will try to not sound like a classroom teacher, because, even though I have taught in the classroom for almost forty years, I did not behave like the average teacher who was trained in some undergraduate education curriculum. Why not? Because I was not trained in any education curriculum; I never took a single hour’s worth of education on how to teach physics and math before I began to successfully teach physics and math. My entry into public education, therefore, was not traditional. Consequently, my perspective on public and private education has never been traditional. I received my teaching certificate as an afterthought to my first two years of teaching on¬†probation, because the rules of teaching said I had to have such a certificate. What I learned in education courses getting my certification did not help me to improve my teaching in the classroom; teaching in the classroom, and only teaching in the classroom, helped me to improve my teaching in the classroom.

Not being a product of the traditional teaching training path, I was not considered a good example for young teachers wanting to enter the profession; it was as if there was a concerted effort toward preventing future teachers following my entry path into public education. In all my teaching career, despite all my success and all my teaching awards and accolades, there NEVER was a teacher-to-be to whom I was assigned as a mentor. My class was observed systematically only one time — by the teacher who was going to replace me when I entered my first retirement phase in 2001, Mrs. Emily Price. By that time she had been a certified teacher for years. When we department heads at Waxahachie High School, Waxahachie, Texas, (WHS) were part of the interview process of prospective teachers, any person with a Ph.D. wanting to teach in high school, like I was when I began teaching at WHS in 1973, was never hired, despite the fact I thought they would be successful as I had been. As I have said elsewhere, it was as though the school administrators did not want another “me.”

Consequently, I see things “from the outside,” more objectively, I think. I represent no tradition in teacher preparation, and, so, have nothing to lose in being critical of that tradition. I am near the end of my teaching career, am now teaching in a private school, and, so, have no fear of “losing favor” with the powers in the public school system. We have sunk to the level of education in our country relative to other nations partly because too few speak out. I feel fortunate having the freedom and ability to speak out.

I cannot say I am surprised education in the US is in trouble. From the start back in the 70’s there were so many things I never understood about public education — about why things were done the way they were. I saw these things because I had emerged from a model of teacher preparation different from the models used throughout my 32-year teaching career in the one high school — WHS. The thrust of this post is that these models used in traditional public education are wrong-headed, and, consequently, are the template of failure sapping public education of its ability to fulfill its mission to the minds of students.

How did I survive all that time teaching, yet being from the “model not used?” My courses, basically. It is hard for schools to find people who can teach physics and calculus and astronomy. The wrong-headed modelers had to put up with me. It was only after I retired for four years for health reasons and came back as a “retire-rehire” did I have to clash with the wrong models at WHS. Because I could not conform to those models for the students’ sake, my contract was not renewed, and, soon thereafter, I was able to teach in a much better place for teachers, The Canterbury Episcopal School in DeSoto, Texas.

I began to see my case was but a “drop in the bucket” of a whole lot of teacher “drops” leaving education because of the wrong models. It had been the fact that I, by chance, happened to have come from the best teacher preparation model we know that I came to see all the problems of the public education system that did not seem to bother my colleagues all that much; coming from the best model also kept me in trouble with many of the administrations with which I worked — I asked questions as a professional and acted professionally at my own discretion; most of my colleagues never did the same — the few exceptions were like breaths of fresh air, but breaths that did not last long, for they were not fortunate enough to teach the vital subjects I did.

Every State school system is different, every school district is different, every campus is different, every faculty is different, and every school administration is different, true enough. Yet, there are some generalities that can come close to being universally applied: There are two wrong-headed models employed in public schools — 1) the business/employee model, and 2) the coaching/team model, a combination of which¬†that was employed all the time I was at WHS. I happened to have come into public schools “through the back door” from the third, and best, model — 3) the institutional/colleague model, the model used today at Canterbury.

This first posting on education reform is a call for US schools, for the sake of students and for the sake of returning to worldwide educational leadership, to renounce 1) and/or 2) in their school structure and return to or take on for the first time 3) as their structure’s “blueprint.”

The difference between 3) and the duo of 1) and 2) is the heart of the difference between my first two sentences of this post.

The differences among the three models center on how teachers are seen and treated by the school administration and by the community. 1) sees teachers as employees or workers and the administration at all levels seems to “run” the schools; 2) sees teachers as team members needing a coach and the sports program and coaching staff seem to “run” the schools; 3) sees teachers as professionals who need guidance only when it is asked for and the faculty seems to “run” the schools. As I will point out in the second of this education reform series, it is my opinion 3) implies that in a real way the students actually “run” the schools.

In this, the first of the series, I will describe unequivocally the “wrong” models 1) and 2):

1) The business/employee model: Sure signs of this model are a.) when fellow teachers leave the classroom to become “mid-managers” — business-ese for assistant principals (We teachers at Waxahachie called such leaving the classroom as “going over to the dark side!”), b.) when teacher contracts have an “insubordination” clause in them, c.) when the faculty is arranged in a “chain of command,” and d.) when administrators actually believe teachers work for them, as if the principals were “bosses.” So many teachers I knew actually believed their principals were their bosses. I remember one of my principals looking at me one time and sincerely saying, “You work for me!” It was all I could do to keep from laughing in his face!

Teachers are not workers or employees; they are professionals who work, like all professionals, for their clients — their students. Just as doctors work for and are responsible to their patients and lawyers work for and are responsible to their legal clients, teachers work for and are responsible to those young minds before them in the classroom. No better place to see the silliness of applying the business/employee model to professionals than in the college-level faculties, both undergraduate and graduate. I recall in graduate school an administrator of an institute in which I worked as a graduate student — an administrator trying to run the place with silly rules like signing in and out, as if it was a blue-collar factory. He insulted all the faculty of the institute; they ignored him and laughed at him behind his back; the administrator was “relieved” of his position within a few short weeks. I also recall a WHS principal trying to get the faculty to sign in and out — worked like lead in a balloon, and professional performance in the classroom, on the average, fell rapidly, along with professional morale among the faculty.

In model 1), students are seen as molded objects, as products of an assembly line-like system. It is an incredible failure of 1) not to see students as living, organic, dynamic, ever-changing, different from week-to-week (if not day-to-day) beings. Only the teachers, the faculty, see the students as they really are. Administrators deliberately remove themselves from “the action” of education — from the classrooms, like military officers from the “trenches,” from the battlefield. Like the military, in their attempt to “step back” so as to get the “big picture,” school administrators, following 1), sever their ability to see what is going on in the classrooms; they become self-blinded to the changes going on in students’ minds class after class. Yet, they are supposed to evaluate the teachers’ ability to teach! Just like doctors and lawyers monitor and regulate their own, only teachers should monitor and regulate the faculty, their own. The only adults who know what is going on in the classroom are the teachers. The only way administrators can claim to know what is going on in the classrooms is for administrators to be required to teach at least one course along with the rest of the faculty.

Yet, “education theory” is developed by administrators self-blinded by their distance from the classroom; “education experts” often are people who have not taught in a classroom in years; professors of education in college and university departments of education bestow teaching certificates upon new teachers who are de facto more experienced with the contemporary classroom than their professors — through their recent student teaching requirement inside classrooms!

Great teachers who should remain in the classroom are lured away by model 1)’s pay scale for administrators; administrators get paid more than teachers, even though they are blind to the classroom, and, thereby, what is going on with the students. Teachers who want to better themselves financially have no other way to climb the pay scale significantly than become an administrator — no, excuse me, a “manager.” It is like a great young surgeon stepping away from a life-saving technique he/she has developed in the operating room to run the hospital — all so that he/she can own a bigger, better house. To hell with all the patients he/she could still save! Our best minds need to be teachers, not administrators.

In model 2), students are seen as team members under the direction of a coach of some sort whose word is law. It is a model that fits sports and other competitive activities, such as academic quiz bowls. As a sports fan, I have no problem with this model per se, but when applied to teachers and their classrooms, it is as disastrous as model 1). Questioning what the coach says is not a good idea if you are trying to win a game or a championship, but is a very good idea in the classroom. Socratic-type questioning by both teachers and students is a wonderful tool of learning; if a teacher has not answered the question “How do we know x?” unsolicited, then students should ask of the teacher “How do you know x?” Such questioning becomes indispensable in personal scholarship, both my sons and I have found in our separate educations. I have tried to teach such questioning to all my students throughout my teaching career.

Proponents of model 2), the coach-minded, tend to take inquiry as affronts to their authority. If a former coach becomes an administrator, but still thinks like a coach, he or she is a poor administrator; if a coach also teaches classes, but tries to teach as if his or her classes are teams, he or she is a poor teacher. As a student I have had great teachers that were also coaches, but not many; I have had too many coaches who taught classes as matters secondary or tertiary to their coaching. As a department head I’ve had faculty colleagues who could be both good coaches and good teachers, but not near enough of them. Worst of all, I’ve had former coaches become principals who could not move beyond being a coach. Lonnie Nichols and Don Williams are two coaches who became good principals at WHS — not because they were coaches, but because they went beyond coaching and embraced, at least in part, model 3). One Waxahachie superintendent I’ve had, Billy Bates, was a former coach who became a great administrator because he moved way beyond the mind-set of a coach.

School administrators immersed in models 1) and/or 2) tend to look upon teachers not as colleagues, but as supportive employees, “yes” men and women, members of a loyal team, loyal to the administrators — in other words, such administrators want people who “kiss up” to them. Proponents of models 1) and/or 2) seem not to grasp the principle that respect needs to be earned, not expected, especially in education. If students or teachers do not behave as these proponents think they should, they are “insubordinate” or “bench warmers,” nearly always without ever taking what is best for the students into consideration.

Models 1) and 2), therefore, are not student-centered models. They are adult-created models of education, created for adults within which adults play adult games — games of promotion, tenure, chain of command, and “ladder climbing.” While these games are being played as the primary activity, students and consideration of students are secondary or tertiary in these models. Often accomplishments of teachers and students are labeled as accomplishments of the administrators or coaches — part of the adult game models 1) and 2) promote; administration takes credit for what was actually done by teachers and/or students; I saw this happen many times over the years in Waxahachie.

1) and 2) are actually antithetical to the idea of education in general, public education in particular. Primarily, education has to do with students’ minds and getting these minds in contact with people who are gifted at altering these minds as being possessive of knowledge and skills they did not have before — in contact with good teachers as defined by model 3). The “spelling out” of 3) is the subject of “2: Education Reform…..”

RJH

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