February 15, 2007

My Philosophy of Education?

“Students learn and achieve more when they work with professional teachers who are fundamentally committed to each and every child’s success and willing to not just deliver effective instruction but also to share and connect with the students at a personal level.”

That needs some unpacking.

“Students learn and achieve more”
This should be the primary goal of education in general and teachers specifically. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that today students are achieving less. Some students do not master even the most basic skills after many years in the classroom. The current trend is to make sure that all students can pass the same test at a level called “proficient.” Making sure that everyone passes a standardized test at this level of proficiency requires that the level considered proficient be very, very low. Furthermore, most of the limited available resources (teachers, money, electives) must then be focused on bringing the lowest students up to proficient. This draws resources away from students already proficient and in search of excellence beyond proficiency. Remedial courses using titles like “review” and “prep” are filled with underperforming students who have been removed from their electives. Some experts believe that this is not the best practice, that students need a reason to come to school beyond the three “r’s,” but practical administrators and superintendents are making the changes that they feel are necessary to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, and those changes are seeing test scores improve.

“when they work with professional teachers”
Teaching is a highly challenging very difficult job that requires a wide variety of skills and training as well as an endless supply of patience. Many people do not consider k-12 teaching to be a “professional” occupation. However, anyone who spends anytime in a classroom, even in a simple observation, can see just how much is required of an individual who chooses teaching as his or her vocation.

“teachers who are fundamentally committed to each and every child’s success”
I think that anyone who makes the decision to become a teacher, then satisfies all of the requirements of earning a credential and finally makes it into a contract position is fundamentally committed to every child’s success. But how do we define “success?” The global definition of “success” in education has changed significantly. It’s easy to define educational success in high school as the attainment of a diploma. It’s far more difficult to understand what that diploma represents, and what it really means for the recipient. Disappointingly, it seems like the diploma means less and less every year. Once, a high school diploma meant that the bearer was more than adequately prepared for just about any entry-level job available. Students graduating from high school had adequate experience beyond the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. In addition, they had sufficient vocational experience making them attractive ready to work job candidates. Only those interested in management, medicine, or law needed further education in order to succeed in those professions. Today, not even a bachelor’s degree gives an individual the endorsement a high school diploma once represented. Many college graduates find themselves in need of a master’s degree in order to get them a “decent” job interview. Is that because the world today requires smarter and better-trained people? Sure, but it also means that the high school diploma does not represent the type of appropriate training and education that it once did.

“and willing to not just deliver effective instruction”
Effective instruction is not fixed, standard, or unchanging. The most effective instruction works for the student population being educated. As that population grows and changes, the instruction methods and pedagogy that goes with it needs to grow and change. I once taught next door to a teacher who had taught the same subject in the same classroom with the same materials in the same manner for 25 years. He was successful at some level, but his unwillingness to change with the students meant that over time he lost some of his effectiveness as a teacher. This is not to say that all veteran teachers are ineffective. The opposite is clearly true. Those individuals who survive 25 or more years in the classroom are doing some things very, very well with and for students. My ideal approach to teacher training and staff development would include inviting successful, experienced, veteran teachers to share their best practices for effective instruction with newer teachers. I believe that experienced working classroom teachers know what works for kids better than the most thorough research analysts and the most celebrated PhDs. Too often the experiences of the population of veteran teachers are dismissed in favor of the techniques and trends developed by the good people at the university.

“but also to share and connect with the students at a personal level.”
Public education is too big. We need to get small. We don’t need to reduce the size of our campuses, or even the number of students on those campuses. We need to continue to reduce class sizes and provide more opportunities for teachers to get to know their students, and for students to really learn about their teachers. The standard staffing ratio at my high school is 35 students to 1 teacher. A handful of classes are 20:1. I know of other schools who staff at over 40:1. This is nuts. High school is not college. College students don’t need their instructor’s attention. High school students do. High school students get easily lost when their teachers do not or cannot learn who they are and what is important to them. Students must personally invest in their own education. Teachers cannot help reinforce the value and importance of education to a student who they are unable to spend any time with during class because the student is 1 of 40 who need help during a 55-minute class period. Kids today are starved for personal attention and need adults to validate them as human beings.

If you have not taken the time to articulate your own Philosophy of Education, take some time and write it down. It may change the way you greet your students tomorrow, and ultimately make you a better teacher.