Problems in School – Education (Part 1)
I have a bit of experience with public education. I’ve been through nine years of public education (starting in fourth grade, and graduating from high school). After college I spent about a year working as a substitute teacher. I taught at every grade level and nearly every subject,though I tried to concentrate on teaching high school Math and Science courses. From these experiences I have come to the conclusion that there are two major problems with public education. The first is the quality of teachers; the fact that the emphasis these days is on knowing how to teach, not knowing what to teach. (And the fact that Unions make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers. But that’s another story entirely.) The other is that teachers have no authority; school boards, parents and others have slowly removed all the authority teachers used to have to punish students, and so now the students have no reason to learn, work, or even show the smallest amount of respect to a teacher.
I have several friends who have degrees and a few years experience in education. I remember talking to a friend once and telling her that I felt like I had enough education to teach a high school physics, chemistry or biology class. She disagreed with me; she said having a teaching certificate was necessary because it was so important to know how to teach. Right now that is what most of the laws require. Someone who has obtained a teaching certificate but never taken more than a basic science course can teach elementary school students science. They don’t know the subject they are teaching, but they do know how to teach it. This seems backward to me. Certainly the ideal would be both; the best teachers would have training in teaching and training in the field they are teaching. However, since that isn’t always an option, I think the focus should be on hiring teachers who know their subject.
I remember being very curious in 5th grade. I was always interested in science, and so my science teacher got a lot of questions from me. One day he taught us about sublimation, which is a solid changing directly into a gas without ever going through a liquid phase. I couldn’t picture anything doing this, so I asked my teacher for an example. He told me to imagine looking out my window when there is a thin layer of snow on the ground, and then look a minute later and it has all evaporated. I asked if it would spend just a second as liquid. He said yes, probably. Water actually doesn’t sublimate (under normal temperature and pressure conditions), so his example was ridiculous. As a result I spent the next few years not believing in sublimation. Fast forward to Jr. High; my new science teacher brought up sublimation one day and I raised my hand and said I didn’t believe in sublimation. She was fairly shocked, and told me that dry ice and moth balls both sublimate. Dry ice was something I was able to picture, and so fortunately I was saved from spending the rest of my life believing something ridiculous (like evolution) because my 5th grade teacher didn’t know what he was talking about. He probably read about sublimation in his book and taught what it said without actually knowing what it was. So when a student asked about it he didn’t know how to answer.
When I was in 6th grade I heard about how quickly light traveled, and I wondered if there was anything faster than light. My little mind thought that maybe time traveled faster than light, and so I went around to every teacher I could find, asking them which traveled faster; time or light. Most of the teachers said they weren’t sure, they all told me it was a good question. None of them gave me the right answer, which didn’t occur to me until years later; time is a measurement, it doesn’t have a speed. It’s like asking, ’what is longer, a mile or length’, ’what is bigger, the universe or volume’. Time is used to measure speed. No one in my entire grade school was able to come up with that answer. Why not? They (hopefully) all had college educations. The cumulative intelligence of my entire grade school couldn’t come up with an answer to a question any high school student should be able to figure out. Maybe some of them did know the answer. If they did, they couldn’t figure out a way to explain it to me so I could understand. Which is why, I’m told, it’s so vitally important for teachers to have a teaching degree. Which leads me to conclude that they simply didn’t know.
Another example happened to my younger sister. She came to visit me one summer while I was living near my college. I had access to liquid nitrogen (which is about 72 K, or -330 F, or very, very cold), so I got some for us to play with. You may have seen liquid nitrogen in museum demonstrations or on TV. You can put a balloon in it and the balloon shrinks (because the air inside gets so cold), or you can freeze a fresh flower in it and shatter the flower. We also used it to make ice cream, because it would freeze the liquid mix in less than a minute, and we played with the rest by freezing and shattering things or pouring some over our hands. It’s safe to do as long as you don’t cup your hand. It’s also safe to quickly put your hand in and pull back out. The liquid nitrogen immediately evaporates where your hand is instead of freezing the skin because your hand is so much warmer than the liquid nitrogen. (*Don’t do this without someone trained in safety techniques.)
The next year my sister was in 6th grade, and her teacher brought up liquid nitrogen. She raised her hand and told him she had played with some once, and that she had touched it. He told her that was impossible, liquid nitrogen was too cold to touch. She insisted she had, and he told her she was lying. This is wrong on many levels. First, he obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. Being a 6th grade teacher, the only education he probably had was a degree in Elementary Education. Most Elementary Education students don’t interact with liquid nitrogen during their education. He told her she was wrong. Then, instead of admitting he could be wrong, he called her a liar in front of all her classmates. Even if he hadn’t gone so far to tell her she was lying, he was still teaching students something that wasn’t true. These experiences tell me that too much focus is put on the ability to teach, rather than a knowledge of the subjects. I know there are many very good teachers; there are probably many teachers who do additional research on subjects they are about to teach. However, there are way too many who simply teach from the lesson plan, and then don’t know how to answer any further questions on the subject. This wouldn’t be so bad if they would say they don’t know, then try to find the right answer. However, most of them simply say what they think is probably right, then move on.
This problem of having under-qualified teachers should be addressed by putting a stronger emphasis on teachers studying the subject they will be teaching. This wouldn’t be hard to do; at the college I attended a degree in Elementary Education requires 68.5 major credit hours, then 51.5 electives to graduate. Biochemistry requires 74.5 major credit hours. So there is no reason why Elementary Education students can’t take an additional six major credit hours. After all, teaching is the most important job in the world. It would be quite a simple matter to require an Elementary Education major to take six specialized credits in the topic they’re going to teach. If they’re going to teach Science, take one additional 3 credit Biology class and 3 credit Chemistry class (or Physics, or Earth Science). They should not be teaching science if the only exposure to science they have ever had was the two credit, ”Teaching Science in the Elementary School” and the most basic freshman science class. If they’re going to teach Math, they should take six extra credits of Math classes. Not just “Concepts of Mathematics” and “Teaching Mathematics in the Elementary School.” Knowing how to teach is great, but knowing what to teach is much more important. The point of majoring in education is to learn how to help the students learn what is being taught, to help them remember and internalize the lessons. To this day I remember my science teacher teaching me about sublimation. He was a great teacher; I understood and internalized something completely false.
The next biggest problem is a culmination of problems. A lot of problems come from the fact that most children aren’t taught respect. Students don’t value their education; they have no appreciation for the fact that they are being given an education with which they can do anything. They don’t appreciate it, so they waste it, and often do their best to be disruptive and not allow others to learn. They disrespect teachers; there is violence in classrooms. The teachers have no recourse. So, in the schools at least, the problem comes down to the restrictions put on teachers. They aren’t allowed any deterring punishments. They can’t say certain things because it might damage a student’s self esteem. This leaves their hands tied, it leaves them powerless to run a classroom.
When I was teaching I had an incredibly telling experience with a Jr. High history class. The teacher left a project for them to work on, so all I was supposed to do was give them their instructions and then make sure they didn’t destroy anything for the rest of the period. (Substitute teachers are just glorified babysitters. The only difference is that they are paid less and don’t get free food from the kitchen.) The students at this particular school were always disrespectful and noisy, but this class was especially bad. The students simply would not stop talking long enough to listen to their instructions, and a couple of students in particular were being incessantly noisy. So I sent one to sit in the hall, and another I sent into a small office/storage room connected to the classroom. I had them stay there long enough for me to give the instructions to the rest of the class, then they came back in and worked on their projects. During the last class of the day the vice principal came to my class and took me to the hall. He said several students had complained that I had put one of the students in the closet, and they said I had left him in there for 45 minutes. Classes were only 50 minutes long; I assured him I had only put the student in there long enough to explain the assignment, certainly less than five minutes. He told me if I had problems with a student I could send him to the office, and he said that ’isolation is not an appropriate punishment.’ I promised I wouldn’t use the same punishment again, but there were many things I wanted to say.
First, one of the main purposes of punishment is to deter future misbehavior. If being temporarily isolated is such an undesirable punishment, then the next time I taught him he would listen to me when I told him not to talk, because being obedient would be better than the horrid prospect of being alone in an adjacent room for a few minutes. The purpose of punishment is to be undesirable. If a punishment isn’t something they don’t like, what exactly is the point? The second thing I wanted to say was that I didn’t want to send students to the office. Any time students are sent to the office they are usually kept there for the rest of the class period, so they don’t have to listen to a lesson or complete an assignment. If I’m punishing a student for being disrespectful, the last thing I want to do is reward them with the opportunity to not listen to my lesson/instructions and not have to do the in-class work.
From being in high school I know there are a couple of kinds of students. There are students who care about being respectful; their education is important to them, they work hard, and they typically don’t get into trouble. The students who don’t care about being respectful usually also don’t care about their education. If they are deliberately disrespectful, it naturally follows that they don’t care what teachers and administrators think of them, nor would it bother them to miss class time, so being sent to the office isn’t a deterring punishment. Unfortunately, in the name of progress and fairness, all effective forms of punishment are either illegal or against school policy. To illustrate my point; I sent a student to spend five minutes in a small office because he wouldn’t stop talking after being told repeatedly that he needed to be quiet while I was giving instructions. For this I received a reprimand from the vice principal, I promised I wouldn’t do it again. On the way home from the school I got a call from the Substitute Staffing Office. They told me the vice principal had called and requested I not be sent to their school anymore. Is it any wonder that their school had the most disrespectful students I ever taught?
At another school, this one a high school, I had two difficult students in one day. One came to my desk after class and told me I was stupid for telling her and her friends to stop talking. Another one refused to work. She just kept drawing in a notebook and told me she didn’t know the answers. So I opened her science book for her and told her where she could read to find the answers. She slammed the book shut and walked out of the classroom. When I told her to come back she ignored me. The next day I was at the same school so I sent lunch detention slips to both girls. Neither of them showed up. I called the office and told them; they paged the girls twice, neither of them showed up the whole lunch hour. When I left I went to the office and asked what I could do to ensure the girls received some recourse for their treatment. No one in the office had any idea who I should go to, who I could talk to about making sure they showed up for a detention. I wasn’t going back to the school the next day, so I called their teacher and told her I wanted to make sure they received some kind of punishment. She told me she understood my frustration, but that both of the girls I mentioned were having trouble at home, and so she didn’t feel comfortable punishing them. So, one girl told me I was stupid. Another walked out of my class. Neither received any kind of punishment, recourse, not even a reprimand for treating their teacher so disrespectfully. What do you think happened the next time I had a class with one of those girls? I later taught a choir class with the first girl. She waited until I took roll, then stood up and walked out. She knew that there was absolutely nothing I could do. If she wanted to leave there would be no punishment. I could not physically force her to stay. I couldn’t assign a punishment and expect someone else to carry it out. The teachers only have as much control as the students give them. And that is a major problem with schools these days. The teachers have no power over the students, and even worse, the students know it.
Along similar lines, though it is a bit of a tangent, I also wish teachers could be more honest with students. Students have no idea what a blessing it is for them to have a free education, so they completely waste it. One of my favorite people in the world taught at a high school in New York for a short time. While he was there he had a student who didn’t work hard and didn’t care. One day when he was talking to her she said, I’ll be fine. He said, “If you keep this up you will be a single mom working the night shift at a gas station to support your three kids. If you consider that ’fine’, then yes, you will be just fine.” She was shocked into tears, and told him he couldn’t talk to her like that. She was probably right. If the administration knew, he would probably have gotten into trouble. He shouldn’t be able to tell a high school student that if she fails all her classes and sleeps around she’s going to end up living in poverty, because that’s a mean thing to say.
It’s true, though. People who succeed in America are the ones who work hard. They sacrifice. They don’t do stupid or illegal things in high school. They get good grades, then go to college, then graduate and get a steady job. Teachers aren’t allowed to tell students they are making stupid choices. It might hurt their self esteem. Students should be aware that their choices have consequences, and that some choices are stupid and will lead to undesirable consequences. This is naturally hard for students to comprehend, when their teachers are forbidden from giving them any undesirable punishments. When they live 18 years without consequences, they are naturally unprepared for the world, and the public school systems have failed.
Is there a solution? Well, corporal punishment used to be legal, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about students in the 1940’s being the most disrespectful generation of children. Allowing corporal punishment would be extreme, but it is a fact that children behave better when there is a certain, undesirable punishment for misbehaving. Most of the problems with disrespect stem from students attitudes, and it is difficult (if not impossible) to change someone else’s attitude. So, if teachers in public schools are not allowed to punish students, what is the solution?
Posted on June 12, 2011, in Education and tagged disrespectful students, education, educational costs, Jermaine Carroll, public schools, teachers, unions, vouchers, why I'm Conservative. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.