What’s a Teacher to Do?

BY AARON BARLOW

When you rely on the numbers, you count out the people. How often have we heard that? How frequently do we remind ourselves that it’s the people—in our case as educators, the students—who matter most, the individuals and not the numbers that reflect the aggregate?

Yet our actions continue to be toward the group and not the person. The students and not the student.

The individual relationship between a teacher (or an administrator) and a student cannot be quantified. Therefore, in our mania to use numbers to justify everything, we are forced to toss that aside in favor of what counts. Or, more accurately, in favor of what can be counted.

To the detriment of individual student success.

Yet we no longer trust individuals, nor are we willing to. Our faith lies in data, and the strength of data lies in its numbers. You can’t extrapolate from one, so the needs of the one are ignored.

Which, paradoxically, is just why the one is so much more important.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge explains this, at start and finish of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will. …

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

The power of the Mariner to tell his tale, to hold the Wedding Guest rapt, is the power of the teacher—but it is no power of numbers. It’s the power of eye contact and one-on-one interaction. To be unleashed, it requires faith—yet faith in the teacher, in teacher ability to braid the lesson with the student, has deteriorated.

The loss of faith in teachers is driven by politics and greed, not by the actions of the teachers themselves. Anti-union sentiment (teachers have long been well organized), desire to move education (which involves a great deal of funds) into the profit-making arena and determination to transfer the cost and responsibility for training away from employers have led to a movement to “reform” education by reducing the role of the teachers to that of facilitator. In the model developed, education is reduced to performance on an array of universal tests. No longer is learning part of the equation.

Yeah, you say, so what? We’ve heard this before. We started hearing your alarm way back in the Reagan years when A Nation at Risk appeared.

A long-term problem is no less a problem.

For three-and-a-half years, until I had to step aside to focus on book projects that are also part of my job as a tenured professor, I spend an inordinate percentage of my time simply talking with students. I had taken on an advisement role that, over time, threatened to overwhelm me. Though I loved the interaction, it was exhausting and pushed aside others of my duties.

For all of the student-support services of the modern university, many of our students feel alienated from a system whose representatives are more focused on tasks defined from above than on the students themselves. It doesn’t matter the institution or the department, be it an academic one or a registrar’s office or financial aid, employees are more focused on activities than on students. That is, they plan and they execute, but they don’t stop to talk and to listen—and that’s what students need most. No program can replace the time spent responding individually to the unique needs of a particular student. Yet it is programs that our colleges and universities, now driven by a corporate structure of top-down management, demand.

Years ago, I had a friend, a general practitioner, who sold his medical practice to a group, thinking that would free him up from the business end of medicine, allowing him to concentrate more on his patients. A couple of years later, he abruptly retired. When I asked him why, he explained that he was no longer able to decide how much time to spend on a particular case, that he had daily quotas of patients to meet. No longer could he pore over a chart at leisure while talking with the patient but had to move each along, assembly-line fashion. He didn’t want to work that way so, because he was of an age to be able to do so, he quit instead.

The situation in education today is comparable. Teachers leave because it is not rewarding to work with students as groups only—and success is no longer something they can create in individuals—and be rewarded for. Only at the top levels of education, at the very elite colleges and in the final stretches of doctoral programs, do students get the kind of attention they all need, the personal attention that can turn a floundering striver into someone who shines.

Trying to change that, today, is a thankless task. For person-to-person interaction doesn’t schematize well.

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