Thursday, February 1, 2007

In Praise of Elementary School Teachers

When I was in college in the early 60's we used to look down on the future elementary school teachers who were education majors and got stuck in all those boring ed courses. So when I found myself teaching in an elementary school in 1967, I was expecting the worst. Instead, I found a group of women who could do amazing stuff with kids that were often difficult to teach and manage. I was in awe of their ability to control the same kids that often swung from the fluorescent lights on my classroom. While these women ranged widely in age, a significant number of them were recent college grads like myself who really seemed to know their craft. Apparently, some of those ed courses had an impact. I on the other hand, came out of 6 weeks of summer training that catered to men avoiding the Vietnam War. Luckily, I had the opportunity to do a lot of team teaching with many of these women and it is from them that I began to learn these kills I needed to survive as a teacher.

I hear an awful lot of high school teachers express certain, ahem, negative attitudes towards teachers of pre-teens, especially when it relates to the lack of union activity. The self-contained classroom can be so all-enveloping, so that is not surprising. But they also tend to blame elementary school teachers for the lack of skills kids go to high school with. But in elementary schools you sometimes see 5th grade teachers blaming 4th grade teachers and so on down the line. Until you get to kindergarten and then the blame goes straight to the parents.


Here is an interesting post by Cloyd Hastings (hastingsc@cfbisd.edu). I cannot agree with his critique of high school teachers, but then again, I have never taught in a high school. But he is sure on target with much of his praise of elementary school teachers.


Originally I was a secondary teacher with a subject area master's degree (not an MS in Education either). I attended college in the late sixties and early seventies and did indeed feel that those of us trained as secondary teachers were intellectually superior to elementary education majors. Of course, this was feed by the professors from my major area of subject.

However, fourteen years as an elementary principal taught me a great deal of respect for not only the various skills we ask elementary teachers to possess, but to also to appreciate and to recognize that most of them are easily as intelligent as I once thought myself to be. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many educators, elementary teachers as a whole are vastly superior teachers compared to the average secondary teacher and hugely better than nearly every college professor. I have received extensive training in classroom observation techniques to include rater reliability. I have formally appraised both elementary and high school teachers. My opinion does have direct observable experience to support it.

The classic problem is that too many people, both outside and inside education, believe that more subject knowledge makes one a better teacher. While there is certainly some correlate between subject knowledge and good teaching, it is in no way a linear correlation in which more subject knowledge predicts better teaching.

It is my experience that many high school teachers hide much insecurity in their teaching ability behind the mask of subject knowledge. This masking of their insecurity too often causes them to reject staff development opportunities designed to improve the art of teaching. At their core they know that they are neither effective nor efficient in communicating their knowledge with the array of students that enter their classroom. Too many of them are social Darwinists believing it is their task to only "teach" to the brightest and best--defined as those students who can demonstrate increased knowledge of the subject matter when presented in the fashion the teacher delivers instruction, generally through lecture.

Most elementary teachers recognize that teaching/learning is an exchange process in which every student in their classroom is expected to have a general level of mastery of the knowledge and concepts discussed. Most elementary teachers know that this process is more of an individualized experience than a mass application. Therefore, it is the teacher's responsibility to address the various needs of her students and to adopt and adapt various instructional techniques in order to meet the diverse learning styles of the students in their care. Elementary teachers, as a whole, operate with a no child left behind attitude well before NCLB was ever conceived.

While it is true that student load size counts (a high school English teacher may have a 150 or more students throughout the day, while an elementary teacher tends to have the same 22 students all day), it is not impossible for secondary teachers to learn more about the individual students in their classrooms and then adapt their instruction based upon this knowledge. When most of us look back upon our own education, we remember best and with greater fondness the teachers who knew and motivated us at the individual level. Personally, my three most influential teachers were one middle school reading teacher, one high school English teacher and one college history professor. Each of these teachers was highly knowledgeable in their given discipline, but what made them influential was their personal intervention in my life. Yes, I learned more content from them than other teachers, but I did so because of their encouragement and personal belief in me.

The smartest person I have ever known was a friend in college who was a math major. His genius has made him a wealthy man because he has started and owns highly successful businesses based upon his conceptual knowledge of math that he has uniquely applied to meet real world needs. However, when he came to me to assist him in passing English and history, he told me that he thought I was the bright one. My point is that how we define intelligence and then label others as intelligent is far more subjective and relative than some want to believe. For my money, elementary teachers who have the emotional intelligence to reach out and change students’ life and learning every day are among this nation's very brightest and best.

"Instruction does much, but encouragement does everything."

-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Cloyd Hastings, Ed.D.

Director of Assessment & Accountability
Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD

1 comment:

  1. Hi. Thank you for your wonderful blog. I am a teacher at Brooklyn Comprehensive Night High School which is also being closed. You can read about it on my blog -- www.saddleshoe.blogspot.com.

    Actually, I could use some good advice from a Chapter Leader, even a former one. My UFT Rep is a close friend of the principal. This woman was placed in our school to close it and our UFT Rep is more interested in what school he might go to next than in defending the school or its faculty. We had a terrific principal for 16 years, but she got cancer. Our previous UFT Rep also retired. Anyway, I have a meeting scheduled with my principal and I need representation. All I could get was Charlie Turner and he is so busy (and I share your questions about him). In addition, my principal cancelled the one time that he was available. She scheduled another meeting -- I called Charlie, but I still don't know if he can make it. Can she force me to meet with her without representation?

    Any advice you can offer would be great. I can be reached at bcnhscollege@mac.com

    ReplyDelete

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