Teaching, like abortion, is a hot political issue which, if you’ve never faced firsthand, you can only discuss in the abstract. That doesn’t stop all and sundry from having passionate theories. At best, these theories are naive and twee (“Teachers should shake hands with every student as s/he enters the classroom!”); at worst, they have the power to kick the shit out of public education (property taxes = school funding; vouchers; charter schools in the strip mall where kids dick around online at their own pace; more standardized testing testing testing). The only people with credible opinions re: what teaching involves and what students need to be successful in school, are teachers. And we disagree. A lot. But our disagreements are fired up by concrete experience, not theory. If you’ve never stood in front of a room full of kids and tried to get them to engage with– to WANT to engage with — a complex concept* that their still-developing prefrontal cortexes** struggle to grasp…well, go ahead, have an opinion, but know that you see through a glass, darkly.
All schools — public, private, charter — struggle to teach students what they need to know to survive, and it’s because we have no idea, really, what the jobs of the future will be. I’m a nascent example: I started a career in print journalism in 1996, eight seconds before the world went online. The Internet, in 1996, was like a cute little newsroom pet with its adorable modem trills and burps; its real-time weather reports and dancing cats. And then? It rose up and ate us in our sleep. I raced ahead of every job I ever had like Wiley E. Coyote as the cliff crumbles behind him, trying to get to a paper that wouldn’t fold or become a pamphlet. By the end, none of my old jobs existed anymore — it was all wire services and freelancers. Print journalism had its heart cut right out of its chest.
We live in exponential times. As fast as the world changed between 1996 and, say, 2001? That’s nothing compared to what’s going happen to the 18-year-olds who walk in and out of my door every day. I prepare them as well as I can, but we all know they’re about to climb onto a rickety socioeconomic trapeze. This affects different kids in different ways: Some get motivated and work harder than ever; others give up entirely. They feel helpless, and they’re marking time.
So, yeah. We’re all wondering what comes next in education. If we had more blue-collar jobs that paid a living wage, education would be less fraught: Kids could drop out at 16 with solid options — electrician, plumber, auto mechanic, etc. There would be no shame in leaving school early if academics just weren’t your thing, or if you didn’t want to rack up $100,000 in undergrad student loans.
And whatever happened to apprenticeships? Apprenticeships would be 37 kinds of awesome right about now. I would totally go for ironworking, because that way I wouldn’t electrocute myself, have a car jack fall on my head, or have to investigate the depths of strangers’ bathroom pipes. My dream job, however, remains “Kitten Shepherd.”
*Or, hell, even a simple concept that they’re just not interested in. I dare you to make a teenager care about punctuation the week before Christmas or the prom, or if he hasn’t had enough sleep the night before, or if he had a fight with his girlfriend on the way to school, or if he subsists solely on Hot Cheetos and Coke, or or or…
**The “executive function” part of the brain responsible for long-range planning, risk assessment, empathy, and understanding that it is wiser, if not better, to attend Senior English than to lick a psychoactive toad.
COMING NEXT: Part 2 — Teaching: What It’s Like When It Is Like A Movie, But Not the Movie You’re Thinking Of