Fish with Fur: Natural Selection of Teachers
About five years ago I read Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform by David Tyack and Larry Cuban (Harvard, 1995). It’s a great historical overview, written before the Dark Times, and I recommend it.
The thing that still sticks out most for me from that book is their argument that education reform, small- or large-scale, cannot be successful without a great degree of support and compliance from teachers. Ultimately, we are the ones who run this place. We don’t get to decide where we’re going, but we’re flying the plane. You need us.
We wanted to go to Las Vegas, but you’re making us go to your aunt’s wedding in Syracuse. Well, guess what, asshole…we’re not going to either. We’ll tell you we’re going to Syracuse. Oh, yeah…and you’ll believe us. But really we’re just going to fly this thing out of gas over the Andes and one of us is going to end up eating the other one.
Tyack and Cuban were right. If reforms are to work and teachers are to do what the people who decide these things want them to do, teachers have to be on board. If they aren’t happy, they won’t go along and it simply can’t happen without their buy-in. But there is an important unstated assumption in this argument. The assumption seems to be that teachers, for better or worse, will stick around long enough to be able to thwart any changes they don’t like.
What Tyack and Cuban didn’t count on is that teachers might leave or be removed from the profession en masse rather than go along. They hadn’t considered the possibility that any reform effort could possibly be so broad, unpleasant, well-funded or persistent as the one we are seeing now.
The result is that the reforms are changing the demography and character of teaching. The organism of the teaching profession is adapting in a natural selection-y sort of way; changing itself to survive in the changing circumstances of its environment. Teacher satisfaction is sinking like a stone. Teacher turnover is greater and the profession is becoming younger.
What’s gained might be measured in energy, enthusiasm and smarts. Teaching is attracting a larger number of highly motivated, extremely bright young people, in particular through programs like Teach for America. An influx of hard-working smart people is certainly not in itself a bad thing.
But what’s lost, through attrition and disillusionment and atrophy, is the experience of veteran teachers. If they are not able to immediately adapt to the New and Unproven Model of Everything, they are presumed to be of little value. They know it, so they select themselves out. If they can’t leave, they stay and work less well. They don’t do their best work because nobody works best when he knows he is not valued. They certainly don’t become the effective and valuable mentors they might have.
At my school, the veteran teachers don’t even bother learning a new teacher’s name for two years because they knew they probably won’t be sticking around. And they began to envy the younger teachers who could afford to walk away from a shitty job. The older teachers also tended to keep their heads down out of fear rather than assuming their role as informal leaders and elder statesmen and women in our school. They did not want to draw unwanted attention to themselves from above; even when they saw things being done that clearly didn’t make sense and confused, intimidated and demoralized younger teachers. At our school, the teat of sustenance and vengeance was at the top and nowhere else. A giant, humorless, nasty whip-cracking nipple in pumps.
In addition to older teachers leaving if they can and otherwise disengaging-in-place at their schools, we have the near certainty that the young, smart, driven teacher probably isn’t ever going to be a veteran teacher. Two and through. Maybe she’ll go 5 or even 7 years. But my sense is that not many people go into teaching anymore thinking that they will make it their career. And most of the ones who think they may make a career of it will burn out sooner.
The institutional memory and experience of the teaching force will continue getting thinner. In time, the only teachers with many years of experience will be those who thrived during the Dark Times. Everybody else will continue coming in for two and five year rotations. Do we want that?
I think some people do.
But what if, on our evolutionary journey, the organism of the teaching profession has gone down some horrible dead end of a shriveling twig on the evolutionary tree? What if we’re turning ourselves into something like a glow-in-the-dark rabbit or a fish with fur?
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Now that I think about it, that might be the state motto of West Virginia. (Connor, can you back me up on this?)
ps: I’ll be making my selection of winners from the contest a couple weeks again in the next couple of days. I’ve been busy. You can still play if you want.