Friday, August 8, 2008

Death to the Gatekeeper

Okay, I was wrong; I did have something to post today. Take a look at this article by a 20-year veteran TV writer who decided to leave it all behind and become an English teacher:

[A]pplying to a teaching-credential program has taken me months of pointless, numbing, bewildering toil. I've submitted stacks of applications, online and on paper, along with college transcripts and letters of recommendation. I've written a five-page letter of "self-reflection," completed 45 hours of early field experience, endured a TB test and had my fingerprints taken to prove that I'm not a convicted felon.

And that's just the start. It gets worse and more humiliating as it goes on, ending with this:

I understand the idea of "standards-based" education. But the standards to which I'm being held here are not high standards; they are just a high pile of standards, a mountain of detritus generated by various acts of legislation whenever new statistics come out showing that California schools are failing, that teachers are fleeing the state, that high school students can barely read. In a system so broken, why are they trying so hard to weed out anyone who, in spite of everything, still wants to come in and change a child's life.
There is much sad wisdom in that quote, especially this part: "The standards to which I'm being held here are not high standards; they are just a high pile of standards."

Actually, it's not a high pile of standards; it's a high pile of bullshit. It's a high pile of tasks. A real standard is not a chore or a task; you should be able to demonstrate in many different ways that you meet a standard. For example, if we had real standards for high school graduation or college entrance, a student would be able to get her degree or enrol in college regardless of whether or not she ever attended high school.

Set me a standard and give me a chance to show you I meet it. What's the standard? Ability to write a long and literate essay on a topic of your choice? Bring it on. Ability to solve complex equations? Throw some at me. Let's go. Who cares whether I sat in a crappy classroom for four years or worked by candlelight at home? All that matters is that I can walk the walk.

But obviously that's not where we live. We don't really care about standards--because they're elitist by definition; because they're hard to meet, and god forbid we should demand the hard of anybody; because they take ability and talent, not simply endurance.

What we do care about is hoop-jumping. If you've abased yourself sufficiently to show that We are boss and You are dirt, then you can come in. If you've jumped when we said Jump, then you're our boy. Oh, and don't forget to write that check. One has to pay one's dues.

I think back fondly to my first teaching job, at a wacky little private school for troubled kids who had simply not fit in at any of the normal schools they had attended. There was nothing normal about this school...or its teachers. And whenever we needed to hire a new teacher, the headmaster would look through the resumes and dismiss the ones that smacked of Credentials. "All I care about," he said, "is whether they know their stuff and love kids."

And, really, that's all it should be about, isn't it? Show me that you know and love your subject area--inside-out and upside-down, not just what's in the syllabus--and show me that you love hanging out and talking with and listening to kids. Everything else you need, you can learn.

If we stopped creating un-manageable classrooms full of too many kids with too many different problems and not enough time to do anything meaningful with them, we wouldn't have to spend so much time simply trying to "manage" our classrooms. And then maybe we could reach out to those 20-year veteran TV writers more easily and say, "You want to teach kids? Go ahead--teach."

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