old time teachers

That’s what we are now, I guess, to today’s kids. We were educated to be teachers more than 40 years ago, before MTV, before rap, before Marshall McLuhan, before school shootings, and definitely before the Internet. We saw ourselves as professionals and dressed and behaved accordingly. We spent a lot of time preparing for our classes and saw ourselves as the guiders of young minds — inspirers and role models. And we worked hard to make learning exciting and fun for our students.
Some of us eventually moved into other fields; most of us are retired, now. Schools and kids have changed so much that I know I could never handle one of today’s classrooms.
That’s not the case for my old friend, John Sullivan, who, although retired from the CIA and a published author, still manages to do substitute teaching. The other day, I got this email from him:

Earlier this month, when I began subbing, I hadn’t taught a high school class since I was in graduate school in 1969. During the time our two sons were in high school, I became aware that things had changed, but this awareness didn’t prepare me for this new age high school.

One of the two schools in which I subbed is the same high school from which our older son graduated, and there are still some administrators and faculty there whom I know. The student body includes the entire socio-economic spectrum as well as students who, according to the principal, speak 75 languages. There are hints of Blackboard Jungle there, but only hints.

One of the teachers for whom I subbed left a note about one of the classes, to wit: “John, this is the class from hell, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.” I went into the class a bit nervous, to say the least, and was very surprised at how well it went. At least half of the kids are Latinos, and for whatever reason, we hit it off. I talked to the teacher the next day, and he kept pointing out that he just couldn’t communicate with them, and he was obviously afraid of them.

One of the seniors in one of the AP classes I had is a borderline genius, has a serious stuttering problem and has been accepted to Harvard. A girl in a Freshman AP class came back from lunch, and in reply to my quetion, “how was lunch”, said, “It was ok, but some Jewish guy tried to stick my head in the toilet.” When she said she hadn’t reported it, she also said, “I took care of it. I beat him up.”

The only semi serious problem I had was with a disruptive Afghani kid, but it worked out.

One of the bigger adjustments I have to make is the almost slovenliness of the male teachers. Some of them are unshaven, dress like rag pickers and look more like students than teachers. The desk, and working area around the desk of the teacher for whom I subbed yesterday looked as if it had been hit by a tornado. Papers, books, CDs etc. were strewn everywhere.

All of this being said, and as tiring as it was, I have gotten some great feedback from the kids and other faculty with whom I worked. At the end of my last class yesterday (a Freshman AP history class), the kids gave me a spontaneous ovation. I liked it.

I’m sure that there are some young “old time” teachers out there, and I have the utmost respect for them. I watch my daughter, who is home schooling my grandson, carry on the tradition of this family as she stimulates a love of learning and a curious intellect in our energetic six-year-old.
Encouraging changes in the teaching and learning of today’s schools is an essential part of President-elect Obama’s plan for improving education. But government can only do so much. The dedication of parents and teachers to creating and providing exciting learning environments is key. And school bureaucrats need to retool themselves into committed educators as well.
Meanwhile, teachers like John will continue to make a difference, one classroom at a time.

2 thoughts on “old time teachers

  1. I retired after almost 40 years of teaching in the public school system a little over three years ago. Education needs major change because students are not being taught to think critically. They are learning to take tests but then forget what was crammed into them.

    Many teachers I know are frustrated, know how to teach, and wish they were allowed to do it. NCLB is a disaster and needs to be abandoned or at least overhauled. I could go on and on, but won’t. You and John said it quite well. Thank you!

  2. I agree that government can not make the change. I think a grassroots movement has to evolve where parents, adults, students make a collective effort to create the necessary environment for our children to learn. Hats off to people like your friend. He is the sort of people we need.

    Last week I had a two-hour discussion (debate) with a grade 12 class, who are involved in a social classroom community (Ning). So far, they haven’t learnt the difference between repetition of facts and presentation of personal opinion and argument. I kept on telling them it is necessary to show the reader what they think and not the information they know. It was an upward struggle, let me tell you.

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