Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dead Poets Redux

[NB: I have still not heard anything from Congressman Flores or his staff. (See previous blog entry.)]

It's 1990. I'm married, 34 years old, unemployed and unemployable. My PhD in musicology has not only failed to get me so much as a job interview for the previous three years; it has also made me "overqualified" for everything else. (As a friend who had sweated blood to get his PhD from Stanford was told by a professional employment counselor, "Get that PhD off your resumé! It would look better if you had spent time in jail than to have a PhD!")

So I have decided that since what I really love to do is teach, and since no college or university seems interested in hiring me, I will look into teaching high school instead. The first thing I realize is that I will never be able to teach music. That may be what my degree is in, but I have never taken instrumental methods, conducting or a single class in music education. Catching up on all that would take more time and money than I have available.

So one fine day that spring I went to the University of Southern California (known locally as the University of Spoiled Children) and took the National Teachers Exam in English. I read a lot, so I figured I might do OK. As it turned out, I did more than OK. I scored in the 97th percentile - meaning, presumably, that I know more about English literature and grammar than all but 3% of the people who are currently teaching the subject. A little over a year later, having taken several classes in education and done my stint as a student teacher, I became a credentialed high school English teacher in the state of California. In the meantime, I spent the 1990-1991 school year teaching part-time at a local private school that didn't require a teaching credential.

Happy ending? Decent compromise? Acceptable stopgap? You be the judge. I'm recounting the following events in response to a story I recently read in The New York Times about the way teachers in public schools are evaluated.

Foremost among the memories this story brought back is the following: I have been student-teaching in a public high school every afternoon for the past four months. The school year is now almost over, and the principal, whom I have met only once before, very briefly, has come to observe my class. Things go well. I am not a natural disciplinarian, but I have learned that I am most successful with this group of students when I give them a little slack - kind of like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, which came out a few years earlier. The students are not all using good posture as they sit at their uncomfortable desks, and one student is actually sitting on top of hers. These students, though, are not "acting out;" they are participating actively in the class discussion. The girl who is sitting on her desk is one with an attitude; I've long since learned that if I crack down on her, she will radiate hostility, but if I let her sit the way she wants, she will actually make meaningful, original contributions. It seems a small price to pay.

What kind of writeup did I get? "Stimulating teacher who still needs to work out some discipline issues?" (There were a few things they never taught me in the PhD program at Yale.)

Wrong. She hated my class, and told me so. In a very brief conference afterward, she let me know that she would not recommend me for a job teaching high school. In other words, on the basis of that single observation - of a class that I thought had gone well - she told me that I had wasted the previous year and a half of sitting in education classes and the many thousands of dollars I had paid to take them. I had gone from being an unemployable PhD to being an unemployable credentialed high school teacher.

Fortunately, the private school gave me a full-time contract the next year anyway. It wasn't my favorite job I've ever had, and now that I've taught college for two decades, I'd never voluntarily go back. I know I'm really not cut out to teach high school, but I gave it my best for a few years. That's how I know that the public school teacher's unions are not just a bunch of complainers out to protect a cushy system from which they have benefited. They know that the kind of "evaluation" on which merit pay, promotion and job security depend is arbitrary, rigid, impersonal, and rooted in meaningless checklists of student behaviors and "outcomes." ("Is Johnny texting under his desk?" "Did Jane get an above average score on her standardized tests, even though she is dyslexic and grew up in a poor inner-city home with an alcoholic single mother?") They know that this kind of evaluation kills effective teaching as surely as third period follows second.

Why would anybody want to teach under such a system? How much learning actually takes place in such classrooms? Do I see a hand in the back?

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