Education Reform: Fix Our Teachers, Then Fix the Rest

Education is a complex entity. Everyone needs it. It is empowering, it is selfless and no one can grow without it. But, on the flip side, public education in America today is seen from many different angles as a broken system. Public schools hinder creativity or schools make cookie-cutter educations for everyone or schools only teach to a test. Schools don’t teach creative thinking, schools were made for an industrial workforce that we are beyond, schools strip students of their individuality and the complaints go on.

School Sucks

However, schools are not some broken system. Schools are like they are for a reason, because that is what a school is. School, no matter how you spin it, will never be awesome for students in any grade, especially, elementary and middle school students. Why? Because they are students and it is school! 

School sucks. You could have some new-age free-classroom where students learn and manipulate whatever they want, but they would be lost without a good teacher and without a good teacher, school would suck.

The argument lies in the poor education and preparation of the teacher, not the broken state of our public schools. Many teachers are inadequate for the student’s needs in the classroom because they do not try to work with what they have to make things interesting. Universities and colleges need to work to prepare teachers by giving them more in-field training and learning situations as well as offering more rigorous training in subjects that are taught in schools (learn from Finland). Teachers who are not masters in their subject have no passion for it and passion is one of the most important subjects teachers can pass to their students.

Note, I use the term "master" here liberally. I do not mean holding a "master’s" degree. I mean a "master" in the sense that a teacher knows their subject and has intrinsic interest in it.

In southern New Hampshire, the schools use the math curriculum Everyday Math in elementary school. I saw this system in action during my student teaching and first year working in a school. This is a by-the-book teaching approach. It is uniform, it is taught in all the schools and all teachers should follow the format. Many teachers I encountered saw this approach and gave up. They saw it as teaching “for the test” and they had no choice but to go through the motions with the script.

This is what’s wrong.

Give the System a Chance

Having a “system” is not limiting the creativity of teachers or the creative possibilities in the classroom, it is giving a framework to make sure students are all learning the same thing and have been taught certain important information by a certain age. It is the teacher’s job to make it come alive for the student and to be able to manipulate their teaching to suit the needs of the student and to challenge the student.

Tests serve a purpose, whether there are too many of them is open to debate; but, tests do provide some critical information for students in their formative years. Elementary and middle school students have many dreams, but they need more guidance and structure than anything else. Arguing that schools need to allow more student creativity is a great talking point, but it lacks substance, especially when there is no alternative plan. In a TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson asserted just that. Schools are failing students by limiting them into a structured day. But, Ken Robinson offers no solution.

Give a Kid Some Structure

Students, especially elementary and middle school students need structure and most of all; they need a teacher who is a master of his or her subjects. Teachers are often pegged as a marginalized group, and in some ways they are, but often they are an unchecked group. I would challenge any person to think of one teacher that changed their life. People always remember their best teachers and in those classes, the system was never broken. It was just taught in the right way. Check out this piece on fourth graders solving world problems for an in-class, creative lesson that is done right. Even though there is a “system,” it does not mean we have to call our education a slave to it.

Good Teacher, Bad Teacher

In a Huffington Post article, Jennifer Fox points out much of what people find critical in our schools. She looks at subject matter she does not recall, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and tosses it as not relevant:

"I stared at the homework assignments realizing I could not remember anything from any of the topics. Nothing. Looking over the assignments, my back tightened. I hated Gilgamesh. In fact, I don't think I ever read past the first two chapters. I loathed most of the reading we had to do in high school, and because of that, I didn't complete most of it. And English was my favorite subject!"

This is the kind of quote that is fueling my defense of the school system. It is not broken subject matter or inadequate subject matter for today’s students. The school curriculum, while not always perfect (no one is perfect), does compile much of what we consider to be classic literature and essential math, art, music, history and science topics.

It is the job of the teacher to make these subjects both alive and relevant. It is the teacher’s job to expand the subject to show its connection to other subjects. It is a teacher’s job to explode a student’s in-school boundaries and make learning a living connected thing. Thus, it is not the system, more so it is inadequately taught subject matter. I did not get anything out of Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, but I went as far as enjoying Macbeth in tenth. Why? The teacher.

A school that is revamped and overhauled will only be as successful as those teachers working in it. There is nothing wrong with re-imagining the school (I don’t entirely agree with this guy, but he does have a solid plan for how to change schools and he’s done the leg work; kudos), but a re-imagined teacher education needs to be imagined first. Teachers need to be prepared and mastered in a subject (once again, not a master’s degree, just know their subjects well) if they are elementary education, they need to go back and review constantly. It is work, but that is the truth.

Own Thy Subject

Teachers have a big responsibility and among those responsibilities is the teaching of critical thinking. Teachers need to continually challenge students to challenge subjects and constantly connect. So often, a subject is left disconnected and the word “why” never comes up in a teacher’s discussion. The “why” does not magically come up when we completely change a school system, the “why” comes up when a teacher knows how to teach with it and show students how to use it. A good teacher forces the connection. They force students to make information relevant and when the students truly understand the subject, they make it their own. Any teacher can do this.

Teachers need to be challenged in college and be continually challenged in their jobs. Before we call the whole system broken, remember that standardized tests and benchmarks and curriculums exist for a reason (this debate is not about the amount of standardized tests, but some are necessary). That is the framework and it is an important framework to measure what American students learn. A teacher in the 21st Century needs to redefine his or her role within the framework.

Any teacher you remember as your best teacher did it.

Systems don’t fail students, bad teachers do.

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Adam Hogue

Adam Hogue is currently living, working and writing in Providence, RI. For the past two years, he has been living and working as an expat in Gwangju, Korea. He has been a contributing writer for Policymic with articles being shared by NPR and Salon Magazine. He is an avid reader who enjoys good humor. While overseas, he traveled through Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and New Zealand. Adam has a strong belief that the essay and #longreads will never go out of style.

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