I wrote this piece when I was the National Teacher of the Year in the United States and traveling extensively to represent classroom teachers and the needs of our students. Sadly, what I describe in my encounter with people who profoundly influence education policy in the United States has not changed. In fact, I would argue that classroom teachers have less influence today to speak on behalf of our students than we did several years ago. A teacher’s voice does not travel past the classroom door and such silence stills effective education reform.
I felt like a fly on the wall listening to numerous state governors, a state senator, a Harvard professor and author, and a moderator talk about their experiences at an education conference. When I finally spoke up, one by one they left the table.
Education conference discussion
I am a fly on the wall sitting at a table. Seated at a round table are three state governors, one state senator, a Harvard professor and author, and a strange little man who assumes the role of group moderator. The strange little man asks the group to talk about their experiences at the education conference. The ex-governor from the South begins to talk about how the traditional school model is not working and the problem of too many teachers who do not understand what they teach. Teachers, he complains, are not prepared to teach in 21st century classrooms because they possess, in his words, “only 20th century skills.” He does not provide specific examples or elaborate upon his theory but the other guests at the table nod their heads in agreement.
Pats on the back
A governor from the Midwest first pays homage to the governor from the South. He tells us that his “good friend” is “right on target” about teachers not prepared to teach in 21st century classrooms. The governor from the Midwest thanks the governor from the South for presenting “the best talk at the conference.” Not to be outdone, the governor from the South responds by telling the governor from the Midwest that he “presented the best talk at the conference.” When both men are done patting each other’s backs, the Midwest governor complains that teachers, particularly math teachers, don’t know their subject materials. Again, the other guests at the table nod their heads in agreement. All is civil.
The third governor hails from a cold northern state but his words have a scorching tone. “The problem with schools,” he says, “is a lack of accountability. Schools need to be guided by specific core curriculum standards and data-driven assessment.” The governor continues his diatribe. “I don’t understand why schools are not managed more like businesses.” This time the guests nod their heads vigorously, not unlike those small bobble head dolls seen on car dashboards.
Order and disorder in classrooms
The next education expert to speak is the professor from Harvard. He gives a mini lesson about the role of chaos theory in education. His new order of thinking – or New Age way of thinking – argues that seemingly unrelated events occurring in the classroom (the boy coughing, the girl raising her hand, and the teacher writing on the board) when taken together form a pattern of continuity and purpose rather than chaotic or random events. The 21st century teacher must be able to recognize these events as purposeful moments in time and space because education is connected to the rest of the universe. Wow. I will forever wonder if I did something to upset a time and space continuum the next time I admonish a student for not covering his mouth while coughing. Teachers do recognize that order and disorder exist in classrooms and that educating children is often an uncertain endeavor, but we do not have time to reflect on such esoteric thoughts when breaking up a spit ball fight.
The strange little man tries to fuse all the promulgated ideas together and asks the group to consider the following question: “Where do we take education from here?”
A teacherless classroom
The state senator from the West is asked to go first. She is a diminutive lady and pauses to reflect upon the question. “I think we need to consider the role of teachers in the classroom,” she replies in a soft voice. “We are headed toward a teacherless classroom and must be guided by this fact.” A teacherless classroom? I look around the table and hope one of the esteemed guests will ask her to clarify or possibly expand upon her statement. Instead, the guests just nod their heads in agreement.
The strange little man interrupts. “I agree. Technology is making the traditional classroom teacher less relevant-possibly obsolete. Soon students will be learning at home from online classes on their laptops.” I silently question who will be teaching the online classes.
The senator continues her line of reasoning, asserting how the rapid infusion of technology in classrooms is better understood by students than teachers. Teachers are best suited to facilitate the dissemination of knowledge through interactive technology rather than try to teach ideas and concepts using traditional methods. A Brave New World suddenly enters the discussion and the senator’s vision of a utopian classroom is greeted with comments such as “indeed” and “without question.”
The Harvard professor tugs at his chin with his right thumb and index finger and compliments the senator. “In the future,” he says, “students will be learning at home using their computers. School buildings and classrooms will not be the primary learning environment.” Really? Could any sane person envision millions of school children staying home and learning a full curriculum online? I foresee a stay-at-home mom or dad spending most of the day trying to keep their children away from Facebook.
The senator from the West is very pleased that her comment about technology replacing teachers is embraced by the people seated at the table. So far I have not been asked to speak or comment. I remain a fly on the wall at the table. How weird and familiar it feels to be an invisible teacher listening to politicians and academics speak about teachers and the teaching profession. I try not to move lest they notice me.
Change is needed
The governor from the South changes the direction of the conversation and boasts about how he personally raised test scores in his state by challenging the “status quo of education.” He forgot to mention that he lowered the passing grades for state assessment tests – a status quo practiced by quite a few states.
The strange little man grabs a large strawberry from a fruit dish and gnaws at it. I have never seen a person eat a strawberry with two hands. “I think we all agree that changes are needed,” he declares to the group.
“That’s why we are here,” the senator replied.
The politicians and academics enjoy a dessert of pastries and fruit. I can’t keep my eyes off the strange little man nibbling on the strawberry like some backyard squirrel. The group discusses the need to drastically modify classroom management and teaching practices. They talk about curricula and how children learn best when they are provided meaningful activities. We are reminded by the governor from the South that teachers must be proficient in content knowledge.
My turn to speak
Once again the strange little man grabs the reigns of the discussion and now alerts the group of my presence. He deposits the strawberry’s calyx on a plate. I am no longer a fly on the wall at a table as the others look upon me.
“What do you think?” the senator asked.
Where do I begin? I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending non educators disrespect my colleagues and profession. I listened to a group of disingenuous people whose own self-interests guide their policies rather than the interests of children. I listened to a cabal of people who sit on national education committees that will have a profound impact on classroom teaching practices. And I heard nothing of value.
“I’m thinking about the current health care debate,” I said. “And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms.” The strange little man cocks his head and, suddenly, the fly on the wall has everyone’s attention.
“I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.”
An uneasy silence cloaks the table. The governor from the South looks at his watch, the governor from the North bows his head, the governor from the Midwest stirs his coffee, the diminutive senator stares at me, and the strange little man grabs another strawberry. One by one the lunch guests leave the table.
A fly on a wall
I return to being a fly on a wall at a table.
I wonder how many other teachers have been treated in such a manner.