Discussing education with non-teachers
Over the past several months, I have had blogging discussions with people like Rory, KDerosa, Crypticlife, and Steven. (Please forgive me if I left you out, but those are the first names that came to my mind.) All of these people are intelligent, passionate about the subject of education, and all of them disagree with me a lot. I have found my discussions with these gentlemen, and also people like Elizabeth, who chimes in once in awhile, challenging and generally enjoyable. But I have also often felt frustration when I've gone back and forth with them, because they are not teachers. I know how bad that sounds on the face of it, so please let me explain.
Teaching is a demanding job; I don't think even most of our critics would deny that. And I think most people would agree that there are aspects of any demanding job that are only understood by those who actually do it. Two of my sons are involved with computers. I'd like to tell you exactly what they do, but I don't understand their jobs even when they explain things to me slowly and avoid using big words. I doubt that any of their neighbors would ever try to make even minor suggestions about how they should do their jobs. The same can be said to some extent for people who are doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, and even carpenters and plumbers. But that is not the case for teachers.
Most people have gone to school, and they weren't there for just a little while. Anyone who has gone no further than graduating from high school has spent much of thirteen years of his or her life in school classrooms. We shouldn't be surprised that many people who have done that feel like they have a pretty good handle on what goes on in a classroom, and what it's like to be a teacher. As a result, I think there is a tendency for people who aren't teachers to believe that they understand what happens in the classroom a lot better than they actually do.
Some people can be quite obnoxious about it. A couple of weeks ago, I was watching Fox and Friends early in the morning, and in their "fair and balanced" manner, they were interviewing another conservative ideologue who they presented as an expert. The "expert" began to trash public schools, as conservative ideologues have a want to do, and he finished by saying, "If you're only going to learn one thing, let it be this: they're government schools, not public schools."
Public education critics seem to feel particularly clever when they call public schools government schools, but it actually shows how little they know. They do this because, they say, the public has no meaningful control over the schools. Anybody who works in a school knows how idiotic that idea is. Anytime any parent complains to the school, administrators react, and teachers feel pressure. If three or four parents complain about something, the school goes into crisis mode. Anyone who says that those of us who work in schools don't feel tremendous pressure to keep our publics happy simply have no idea what they are talking about. Nevertheless, this has become a popularly accepted notion.
The expert that I saw on Fox and Friends is an idiot, but the bloggers that I mentioned earlier are not. This post was actually inspired by KDerosa, who made the following statement in a comment on my last post in response to a complaint I made about non-performing students: "I do not understand why teachers never consider the possibility that maybe the problems they see in their low performing students could actually be caused by their own teaching." In fairness, I'm taking KD's statement out of context, and misunderstandings are always possible, but this statement seems pretty clear. Now, KDerosa is obviously intelligent and articulate, and I've never seen anyone who can match him at researching educational issues. But that statement was clearly made by someone who does not understand the mind and the perspective of a teacher.
As I said to KD in my reply, I don't know any teachers who don't consider that--and consider it before almost anything else--anytime their students perform poorly. I think every school goes through cycles of good and bad students. A couple of years ago, my high school was at the top of a very good cycle of students, but the last couple of years we have definitely been on a downward trend. Right now, our school has a lot of frustrated teachers, and almost every one I've talked to about it has told me that they've sat in their rooms at times and wondered, "What am I doing wrong." A lot of people in the public might have trouble believing this, but when things are not going well in the classroom, the first person a teacher looks at is himself. As I've already indicated, KDerosa is not a stupid person. But despite his obvious intelligence, there are some things about being a teacher in a classroom that he'll never quite understand.
I am not saying here that people who are not teachers should never criticize education, schools, or teachers. I have learned a lot from KDerosa, Rory, Crypticlife, Steven, and and Elizabeth, and they've also forced me to clarify my own thoughts. And despite my "special understanding" as a teacher, there been some arguments I've had with them where I've felt like I've been throttled. Let's face it, the fact that they aren't teachers gives them a perspective that teachers need to hear. I am not asking them to shut up (Like they'd listen to me if I did!), and I'm not asking them to concede any arguments to teachers just because they're teachers. All I am asking is that they recognize the fact that because of our experiences, those of us who teach do have some understanding of education that a non-teacher can never have.
One person who might end up bridging the teacher-non-teacher blogging gap is Rory from Parentalcation. Rory has indicated that he is thinking about becoming a teacher, and I really hope he does. First of all, he seems very passionate about education, and with his unique background, I think he'd be terrific. But I also hope he does because I'd love to hear what he would have to say after seeing things from our side.