When I tell relatives and friends that teaching high school biology is one of my career aspirations after my four years at Harvard, I inevitably receive the universal response, "That's great," almost immediately followed by, "We need better teachers, we need more teachers." Regardless of educational background, age or relation, people always follow initial words of encouragement with the same short-winded critical recommendations for the American educational system. Are these laconic deprecations simply jabs at a long history of failed schooling or a growing cynicism about a class of teachers and administrators that may be perpetuating a teaching style of mental stagnation?
Conversational critics of public education are willing to express dissatisfaction with schools, but few can be prodded into proposing and expounding upon reform ideas. Suggest taking on a classroom for a year to them and you'll probably elicit a predictable response: hearty laughter as if the proposal was a joke. Even though education should be an all-encompassing investment, one in which every citizen nurtures, encourages and excites children by the process of learning, parents and the public at large rarely have a meaningful reciprocal relationship with the public school environment.
The contradiction comes full circle when these same critics are quick to point out the abundance of vacation time and a decent, stable salary as attractive benefits to the profession. These are valid assertions, and many teachers enter the field for such selfish reasons. But I like to believe that the majority of the mentors in our public schools are there for the opportunity to help children understand their surroundings, past and present, in order to acquire knowledge and cognitive skills for use in future situations. The teacher, when confronted with the challenge of entering the classroom, embraces the daunting task instead of giggling nervously at it.
I was a lucky student growing up, for there was a teacher in my household. My mother taught high school chemistry for more than three decades, a year of which was spent with 120 kids in addition to her own son spilling into her classroom daily. The co-existence of the mother-son and student-teacher relationships made that year particularly interesting. Because the parent was the teacher, there was no communication barrier to overcome. At home we could talk about assignments or concepts as if engaging in regular conversation. The school building was as much of a home as the structure we both lived in outside the school day. The situation was a special dynamic to experience, making me wonder why a non-parental, child mentor bond couldn't strive to approach the familiarity of the bond I shared with my mother in the classroom.
For a six-to-seven hour daily time commitment, students deserve the personal attention that every teacher in the school can give them. It was easy for me to open up to faculty members in high school because of my mother, but at lower levels, I do not remember feeling comfortable at any time to speak with the teacher or discuss with classmates. This feeling of isolated individualism carried over into the academic realm. Rarely were we encouraged as students to ponder methods of inquiry in depth at an early stage in the learning process. Only on a cursory level was investigation and imagination fostered--there was always rote memorization, an atmosphere of discipline and a strictly structured day to inhibit free thought.
High school was not too different, but by that point students forged ahead socially and academically through their own motivation. When the drive was lacking, however, problems did spring up: some kids were academically stunted, others were pushed through to maintain graduation rates and too many students were nothing more than bodies passed by in the hall or names attached to faces that were seen and not heard in class. Teaching has to become personal in order for education to be functional. I felt more comfortable with the teachers I could stop in the corridor and have a chat with than their inaccessible counterparts who were never spotted outside class or after school.
As a participant in the Undergraduate Teaching Program (UTEP), offered through the Graduate School of Education, I get the chance to learn about the meaning of public education and the teaching profession. Also, I will teach in a public high school, the most exciting aspect of the experience. Even though I'm less than three years distant from my own high school experience, hindsight and maturity serve as new lenses through which to look at the classroom.
This viewpoint, from the stance of an "invisible" observer and interactive helper, is wonderfully educational. I strongly encourage every college student to spend a few days in a public school, whether as a tutor, teacher or observer. Schooling will be so different from how you remember it. Teaching styles, classroom dynamics, aptitude classifications all show the variation that goes on within a school, emphasizing the uniqueness of every kid and the strengths and weaknesses of the approach to public education. You will see why individual attention is needed.
In the span of a day, I saw a student play Game Boy during physics, another sleep during Earth science (teachers were aware of each situation but did not act upon them), a biology class act out DNA replication and chemistry students engage in a lab. Only one teacher pursued conversation with students about extracurricular activities. The variation is surprising.
You most likely never thought very much about the objectives of high school while in attendance, probably because you were just interested in getting out. Think about it now. Think about how the class where you had to regurgitate facts wasn't captivating and then about the interactive course with debate and deduction that made school bearable and even interesting from day to day. Did the teacher make the difference? As Harvard students, we were the lucky ones who blossomed under the American education system. But what about the other children in the nation, especially those in the middle ground who rarely receive attention?
Public schooling is probably the last topic swirling around in your cluttered head, but it never hurts to think about it. And it definitely doesn't hurt schoolchildren if everyone gets involved on at least a cognitive level. Education is supposed to be the stronghold of our citizenry. How can it be if a small number of people are actively involved while the rest just criticize?
Peter A. Hahn '99, a Crimson editor, is a biochemistry concentrator residing in Mather House. He will be student-teaching biology at North Quincy High School next fall through UTEP.
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