The educational meliorists will go to heaven too, right along with the revolutionary teachers (some will say they'll get there first). They're the ones who still have time for the public schools, who know that, when one agrees to teach everybody who shows up, miracles are going to be thin on the ground. They're also the ones who, at the end of the term, haven't decamped for private schools or other alternatives. They'll be back tomorrow, back next year, trying to make things better, still watching for the little lights in the great dark.
Sometimes, though, I quarrel with their optimism. Let's look at Nellie Jacobs's recipe for fixing defective teachers. It urges parents to "become the prime advocates for their children." "To be effective, parents need to educate themselves...[They] can learn to approach the teachers effectively at any level." Given the complexity and bloody-mindedness of the educational bureaucracy? Good luck. It is a case of resistible force meeting an immovable object
I must be fair here. At the end of her book, Jacobs devotes several pages to a discussion of the difficulties of culling dud teachers, especially those with permanent contracts and unbumpable seniority; those without tenure are, of course, easily disposed of, by many means. But it is hard to know what to make of her generalizations about the power of teachers' unions. Are they as effective all across the country as they are in Ontario? (This book was published before Mike Harris's Tories announced their plans to do away with many Ontario school boards and to radically alter the way in which that province's education taxes are collected and spent. Teachers' unions in Ontario may be in for a nasty shock.) But lest we think that teachers are merely the bad guys, Jacobs also lays out for us the pressures under which they labour and the grading they undergo regularly as part of their job.
This primer on local educational organizing is partially useful. But it does not deal in any detail with the prime difficulty of all such actions: the fact that parents usually have to do all the organizing for free, after work, when they're tired out. The teachers who are committing the faults the parents and their children wish to correct have the advantage of an entire bureaucracy or set of bureaucracies to back up the status quo. When the need arises to keep things as they are, a great number of suits can work all day long to that end, earning excellent salaries. Further, a school year or semester is a very short time in which to try to change the ways of a teacher who's bedevilling a kid, let alone to get rid of that teacher if change does not occur quickly.
Jacobs taught elementary students for five years before becoming a parent. I suppose she implicitly expects us to believe, however, that parents can fix teacher-student glitches at middle schools and high schools in the same polite, quiet, rational way that can indeed work with teachers and principals of schools attended by younger kids. "Many teachers [require] that both parent and student sign not only the term reports, but also tests, essays, and projects as they are returned." Teenaged children who are pleasant to be around and who are minimally biddable can assist in effecting such an etiquette, but it won't be installed permanently if they aren't getting along with their parents, are secretive for any reason, or just want to lead their own lives and work out their own problems in their own ways, even those problems involving a rotten teacher.
Jacobs is definitely on the side of the angels. She divides unequally (and here she's right) the responsibility for a good education, laying most of it on the teacher and less on the parent. She does admit that all the educational good will in the world won't occasion any learning if students don't want to be taught; but this is a book about teachers, and kids' shortcomings aren't mentioned much.
Jacobs anatomizes minutely the Good and Bad Teacher, gives examples. I loved the Grade 2 teacher she cites who says goodbye to each of her students at day's end, hugs them or shakes their hands. (My Grade 2 teacher was also pleasant, but she made one of the Van Boyen twins put his gum on the end of his nose and stand on a chair in front of the class, for a long time.)
If a kid brings home sensible but negative reports about a teacher, says Jacobs, parents should start with the direct approach: a decision taken, after the grading process (she provides a huge checklist that can be filled out by parents and children), to talk with that teacher. If this doesn't work, the parents should take their complaints ever higher, perhaps eventually withdrawing their children from a school if they can't get rid of the teacher's bad habits or the teacher. Then the alternatives are obvious and even more tedious: putting the children in another school or teaching them at home. The options are fleshed out; all presume the availability of much time and money.
My wife observed, concerning this book, that to grade the teacher in mid-year is to close the barn door after the horse has left the building. The correct thing to do, in these days of mobile children and multi-optional education-we are city parents-is preparatory research. The best form of this? The skinny from other parents.
Jacobs advises sussing out the schools too. Look at the support staff, she suggests. Are they friendly? Do students feel at ease with them? She also urges parents to volunteer in their children's schools, noting accurately that teachers and principals give more credence to the suggestions of those parents they encounter more frequently than just on meet-the-teacher night. The best schools and even the best teachers are indeed known to many politically sensitive parents, who, when they can, line up to enroll their children in these institutions.
Schools, my wife says (and I agree), are more important than their individual teachers. If one or two bad teachers are working in an otherwise splendid school, and one's kid happens across them, that's life, and maybe the kid has to learn a little about it. A parent's job then is to provide educational backup and other support at home, to counteract the dismal classroom experience. Home schooling? Yes, in part.
And that brings us back to Jacobs's kindly conclusion, which we could perhaps have predicted: a plea again for all parents to become deeply involved in the education of their children, well beyond signing off a term's list of grades or baking cookies for a fundraiser.
All the intensity of high school life is packed into Ken Dryden's synopsis of a semester at Thomas L. Kennedy Secondary School, in Mississauga, Ontario, a suburb west of Toronto. During the 1993-94 school year, he just sat in classes (Grade 10, for the second semester), listened, and watched; went to parents' night, read the school paper, walked around with teachers, with kids, with the principal and the caretaker, talked to parents. He says he became almost invisible. The text bears him out, in part. There is an authorial point of view, but it's not easily centrifuged from the reportage. Dryden does not give us his own part of his conversations with the teachers and students, just the words they have with each other. He interprets, certainly, and quotes; and you know he's been sitting with a student, watching the lunchtime euchre game, and hearing the low-level dozens the teachers do on each other in the staff room, standing with the principal when he hustles latecomers into class. The results of Dryden's research are a sequence of simply told, deeply moving stories, far more effective than any shelf of policy manuals and reformist exhortations.
Dryden follows teachers and students of core subjects-English, math, science, history. He sketches quickly the lives of a few kids, a little U.N. of them; sometimes the detail is excruciating. One girl is back at school after having been shot in the subway, through the neck, for having mouthed off to the wrong boy. Other students' less than stable living arrangements are set out. These children carom back and forth like pinballs among extended-family members, rush to part-time jobs, take a week away here or there to holiday with a split-off parent. The time for the quiet reflection, the dreaming necessary to intellectual growth, doesn't go out the window; it never was in the room.
Dryden finds plenty of humour during all these works and days, quiet, wry understated fun. "Parents night..Finally, a chance for parents to put a face to a name, for teachers to witness the awesome power of genetics." He quotes a science class's discussion of the difference between parallel and series electrical circuits, "...where if one [light] goes out, they all go out. `Why?' she asks. `It's like Christmas lights,' says Doug, just back from his ski trip. `Right,' says Cathy excitedly. `But why?' `One goes out, they all go out,' he mutters; he remembers. `Yes, yes, but why?' `Murphy's Law.'"
One of Dryden's throwaway phrases concerns those schoolkids who simply get it and those who don't. (There's a parallel here with Jacobs's brief reference to those students who cannot or will not be taught.) Overall, though, he's not too discontented with much of what he sees. The school he visits doesn't rescue the kids he talks about; the teachers don't either. The kids somehow rescue themselves, if that is their good fortune. At best, the teachers teach them the intellectual component of that rescue (they don't just teach their subjects, Dryden is relieved to relate).
He finishes the book with a brief essay in prediction, hypothesizing what this school will be like a decade hence. It sounds wonderful: kids taught in cohorts by groups of teachers (who also do home visits and have found more time for each kid within each classroom), so ideally the technics of learning become the students' possessions forever, in every subject, in addition to the details germane to each subject. This little utopia is, in truth, radically subversive. "People began to realize that in politics, in business, in family matters-in a democracy-hierarchies don't work..Teaching is the act of putting someone else at the centre: the student, the son or daughter, the employee, the citizen...Structures-political, family, corporate-need the learner at the centre. Habits of hierarchy still remain, but political and corporate leaders, parents and friends, now realize their need to be good teachers. He who can does. He who does must also teach."
Ted Whittaker, a former teacher, often nudzhes his children about their schooling. They know of course that he is just interested in their own good and therefore are delighted that he is so concerned about them.