My Soapbox

“The secret in education lies in respecting the student.”

(I should remind everyone that I am a former public school teacher disillusioned by the system who made the decision to be a stay at home mom for 24 years and was fortunately able to provide my children with a Montessori education through their Ninth grade years.)  

Just the other night I sat at the kitchen table with my 18yo son, a senior in high school, and watched as he spent hours doing homework for his AP level Environmental Science class.  As a former Science teacher, the idea of a class devoted entirely to environmental issues at any level excites me.  I imagine current events that spark heated debates among impassioned students.  Eager to share in what my son is experiencing, I look over his shoulder to read what he’s working on…a list of definitions.  Always the optimist (see first blog post), I assume the teacher is laying the groundwork for her students, giving them the vocabulary they need in order to engage in the intellectual back and forth discussions that are soon to take place.  This makes sense to me until my son reminds me that the class is in its sixth week and this is a regular pattern of homework for him.  Leafing through his spiral bound notebook, he shows me week after week of the same thing.

The more my son shows me, the less I want to see.  My vision of students inspired to make a difference in their world slowly fades away with the flip of pages in a notebook.  Lists of words taken straight from the glossary of a textbook.  The assignment- to write out the definitions, no typing allowed.  Questions, the answers in bold at the beginning of each new section, also must be handwritten.  I assume this requirement is to keep students from using the copy and paste function on a computer.  Adding insult to injury, to answer the majority of the questions a student needs only to rewrite many of the same definitions that have already been written during the previous assignment.

I have so many questions that I’d like to ask this teacher, who by the way has the title “Dr.” in front of her name suggesting to me a passion for her subject.  I’d start with asking her what caused her to lose that passion?  Why she is giving busy work to AP level high school students.  Why is it important for them to spend hours handwriting definitions that could easily be copied in minutes?  Why are they asked to summarize current event articles that are chosen by her and not articles that interest them?  Articles, by the way, that are not challenging, controversial, or thought-provoking.  Why has the curriculum for this AP level class not changed for years?  Students pass notebooks down from one year to the next and the content has stayed the same.

The problem here is not one single teacher.  I believe most people who decide to teach do so because they have a passion for their subject and a passion for learning.  Idealistic individuals with a desire to make a difference in this world, young teachers have creative visions of energetic classrooms filled with students eager to learn.  But something happens to us when we are faced with the reality of our current system of education.  As teachers, we lose our passion.  Over time, we give up.

The problem is huge and complex and overwhelming.  The problem starts in the university where aspiring teachers are taught the same methods for teaching and discipline that have been taught for generations.  Methods designed to manage students, not to inspire them.  Methods for designing teacher-led lessons, not student-directed learning.  Methods to control student behavior, not methods to demonstrate mutual respect.

As a result, our educational system produces in large part, students without a passion for learning.  Trained for twelve plus years to reproduce what is placed in front of them, never asked what excites them, most of them don’t know.  It’s no wonder our children graduate and wander around for years trying to determine what they want to do with their lives.  They’ve not been giving the opportunity to explore what excites them.  They don’t have an understanding of their role or the important part they play in the world community.

The current system lacks respect:  respect for the teacher, respect for the student, respect for learning, respect for passion, creativity, and energy.  We are caught in a spiral and it will take a group of passionate individuals to break us out.

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