Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Teacher as Sisyphus

Sisyphus was a king whose sins were punished by being made to push an immense rock to the top of a hill every day only to have the rock roll back down each night. Philosophers and poets for centuries have given various interpretations to the Sisyphus myth, some making him out to be a fool, some a hero.

In the 1925, a German psychoanalyst wrote a book that grew out of his experiences as head of a project in 1919 called Kinderheim Baumgarten, which provided housing and education for 300 Jewish children from Poland, who were displaced after WWI. The title of his book was Sisyphos oder die Grenzen der Erziehung (roughly, Sisyphus or the Limits of Education). (Bernfeld, who was analysed by Freud’s daughter Anna, eventually emigrated to the U.S. and practiced psychoanalysis in San Francisco for several years before his death in 1953.)

Bernfeld likened the task of the teacher to the labors of Sisyphus: arduous work over long periods of time against huge odds, both psychological and environmental. Of course, the modern myth is that Teacher is Zeus – all powerful, able to accomplish any goal, hence if the Teacher fails, the Teacher is entirely to blame; and in the end, there are severe limits to what any teacher can accomplish. (See Endnote below.)

My colleague David Berliner struck a note reminiscent of Bernfeld’s book on the occasion of his acceptance of a Doctorate of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa from Manhattanville College last May. The teacher’s task is sometimes thankless and undertaken against the odds dealt by poverty and debilitating societal forces. His speech was untitled; had he asked me for a suggestion, I would have said,

The Teacher as Sisyphus

David C. Berliner
Regents’ Professor Emeritus
Arizona State University

Good evening. First, I want to assure you all that I will not stand long in the way of your celebration. Only a fool stands for too long between food and drink. So I will be brief, which isn’t easy for a professor, since whenever we get a podium we think we should talk for 50 minutes. Second, I want to thank the administration of the college and the Board of Trustees for the recognition given to me. I am deeply honored, and immensely proud. Third, I want to congratulate you graduates.

I also want to tell your parents, relatives, and friends gathered here today to remember something very important, namely, that the future pay of each of the graduates you care about depends on your ability, and your desire to pay your taxes! Many of these graduates are likely to end up as workers for the common good, helping to serve us all. And those who work for the common good—the police, firefighters, librarians, our teachers and other educators— are all paid from monies collected in taxes. So if you parents, relatives, and friends think you are done helping to support these graduates emotionally and financially, think again! I don’t want to be a scold on this wonderful day, but these graduates will need your support for their entire careers.

Doing the business of education is hard work and emotionally draining work, and you should be proud, very proud, that a family member or friend of yours has chosen to give back to our nation a portion of what they have received. Thank you graduates, and thank you to your families and friends who helped make this day possible.

Now whether you graduates end up working in a public school or a charter school, a secular or religious private school, a public or private college or university, is irrelevant. And even if you work eventually outside of education, no matter where you end up, you all need to protect public schooling. I’d like to tell you why that is.

The Pulitzer prize winning historian, Lawrence Cremin, explained it this way: When the history of the United States is written from the vantage of the middle of the 21st century, and the question asked is what was it that made the United States the preeminent nation in the world during the 20th century, the answer will be found in the 19th century. Cremin argued that it wasn't the Gatling gun, or the telegraph, or the telephone, or Fulton's steamboat that made America great. Rather, it was the invention of the common school. That is the gift that keeps on giving.

  • It was the public schools that gave America some mobility across social classes, providing a modicum of truth to the myth that we were a classless society.
  • It was the public schools that changed our immigrants into patriotic Americans.
  • It was the public schools, along with public libraries, that gave Americans the skills and opportunities to develop the kinds of knowledge that Thomas Jefferson had rightly noted is first among the necessary conditions for a democracy to function.
  • It is the public schools that serve most of our nations’ special education students, hoping to give them productive lives, and hoping to give their parents a modicum of relief from a tougher parenting role than most of us have had to face.
  • It is the public schools that primarily serve the English Language Learners who, in another generation, will constitute a large part of the work force that we depend upon.
  • It is the public schools that serve America’s neediest children and their families.
  • And it is the public schools, in the wealthier neighborhoods, that provide a large proportion of American students with a world-class education.
Whatever your feelings about charter schools and private schools, for the foreseeable future the vast numbers of our students and the vast number of the jobs open to educators will be in our public schools. So for both personal and patriotic reasons, educators and their closest family members and friends need to support our nations’ greatest invention, our public school.

The teaching profession and education, as an enterprise, are not well understood by many. For example, research tells us that it takes teachers three to five years to learn how to be effective with their students, and even then they do not maximize their student’s test performance until about their seventh year on the job.

We are talking about these graduates joining a profession as a teacher, administrator, or teacher educator that takes three to five years to master, and five to seven years in which to become an expert. This is not easy-to-master work. But unless you all support these new graduates by how you vote, and what you pay in taxes, as well as by listening to tales of their successes and their challenges, and by laughing and crying with them as they develop in their careers, we could lose them to the profession. We know that we lose half of America’s newly certified educators within five years. We need to make the profession these graduates have chosen to enter a better one: one in which they will wish to stay. And that requires all of us to reconsider how we vote, whom we vote for, and what we say to each other about education and its role in American life.

I know that some say supporting our public schools is difficult to do because they are not doing their job well. Therefore, these people say, we need more alternatives to the public schools; charter and private schools, as well as support of home schooling.

Let me be sure you understand this issue. In three different recent international tests of literacy, science, mathematics and problem-solving skills in those three areas, the students in American public schools, where poverty rates were under 10 percent, scored the highest or among the highest in the world. And in public schools where the poverty rates were 10-25 percent of the student body, American students scored among the top few nations of the world. Those two groups of public schools, all of which serve middle and upper middle class students, educate about 15 million of our youth (30% of all K-12 students), and they do as good a job as any nation on earth, and a lot better than most other nations.

But they are not our only public school students. Public schools that teach the poor, where more than 75% of the children are in poverty, do terrible in international competitions. Those schools are not doing a good job, but it is hard to say that it is the professional educators that are at faultt when we also have public schools that these same teachers staff that are among the best in the world. It is much more likely that it is the fault of our political system that has plunged millions upon millions into poverty since the early 1980s, not our school system or the personnel who run it.

About 25% of America’s youth are locked into poverty, and in other wealthy nations, like Finland, that rate is under 5 percent. In fact, The U.S. now leads the industrialized world in income inequality and it makes education very difficult in schools that serve our poorest children. Our housing patterns lock students of all social classes into school settings that result in both poor and wealthy students going to school only with students from the same socio-economic class. And that gives us both wonderful public schools, but it also gives us public schools that are very hard in which to teach and learn.

So to help today’s graduates help America – should they end up teaching or managing or providing some other form of assistance for schools that serve the poor – we need to rethink our social programs and policies. If we changed many of the social and economic policies that are not now helping to lift achievement in schools that serve the poor, we could probably do with a lot fewer tests, and less performance pay systems, and less shaming and firing of teachers based on student test scores, and less quick and dirty certification of teachers. It is pretty clear that here in Westchester county, and in New York state, and throughout our nation, we won’t get much better in the schools that serve the poor with new standards, new curricula – a Common Core, in other words – new laptops or ipads, or through school closings, as they continue to do in the little city just south of us.

The best gift we can give to our newly minted educators, many of whom will be working in our public school systems, is a society that gives the parents of the children they teach jobs that pay fair wages and provide basic benefits. That would be the best gift to give our new teachers and administrators.

A brighter future for parents almost always results in kids perceiving a brighter future for themselves. And that makes the very tough job of teaching a whole lot easier. Nothing less than brighter futures for children born into poverty is what we owe these newly minted educators. It will make their jobs so much easier, and they will feel much more successful at the end of their careers.

Please understand, I strongly believe that America should have a diversity of school options. That is good for democracy and it is sensible from a market standpoint to have some competition, to see if anyone in charter schools or private schools can innovate and do a better job than that being done by traditional public schools. But we have learned that teaching is an old profession, though thankfully not the oldest profession, and most of what works well has been discovered already, though I am sure we will see some new wrinkles in instruction coming from all our new technology.

But all educational system are fundamentally about controlling 4 things. Someone, (usually that’s a teacher or a parent or a supervisor), is teaching, showing, telling or yelling something (like how to fix a carburetor, how to solve quadratic equations, or how to color within the lines) to someone else (a student, a child, an employee), in some setting (a classroom, a shop, an office, or on a basketball court).

Four variables: some one, teaching some thing, to someone else, in some setting

There are only four variables for schools and teachers and school administrators to control, so the general public thinks that teaching seems easy. It certainly sounds easy, until you remember that four is exactly the same number of variables that make up our DNA. And just as those four nucleotides result in billions of different people, and great variation even within the same family, those four educational variables result in no two classrooms ever being alike. Class-to-class and year-to-year variations, even in the same schools, end up requiring remarkably different skills to teach and to administer well. Teaching and schooling is hard work because you cannot ever be sure of what you will draw as a class or what the dynamics will be at a school. Although there are identical twins, there are no identical classes and no school settings or school years that are ever like the ones previously experienced.

So each year school administrators and school teachers start anew. Our job is to provide these educators with children who are ready and eager to learn. That should be as true in the schools that serve the poor as it is in the schools that serve the privileged. Of course all children in our nation deserve caring and competent educators, and Manhattanville provides that kind of educator to our schools. But all these educators deserve well-fed, well-loved, and physically healthy children, in order to be successful at providing those children with a high quality educational experience.

So I ask each of you here today to think about the young people your loved ones and friends will be working with, as they graduate and take up various hard-to-master positions in our education system. Do what you can to make sure that these educators you care so much about get the kinds of kid, and the kinds of community, in which they can succeed. If we can give them just these two gifts — healthy kids who come from healthy communities — we will not only make them successful educators, but we are sure to remain one of the preeminent nations of the world.

Endnote. David C. Berliner and I address the myths that threaten America's public schools in a forthcoming book: Berliner, D. C. & Glass, G. V & Associates (2014) 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America's Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education NY: Teachers College Press. Please read it and arm yourself against the false narratives that threaten to turn our nation’s most prized institution into a profit machine for corporate interests.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder

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