Who Is A Teacher?

Copyright © by Len Holman, 7/28/10


  America’s educational system needs an overhaul—some might say it needs to be junked--and it seems the brunt of the blame for our inability to find a high school senior who knows the multiplication tables lies most heavily on teachers.  It’s not the rigid, rule-bound and foolish system, it’s not the outdated structure, it’s not the ideas inherent in the education itself, it’s the teachers.  So, the thinking goes, we replace all the bad teachers with good ones and presto!  Better students who will make Chinese schoolchildren weep with shame.

  There is a small problem with this line of reasoning.  No one knows what a teacher IS.  No one knows how to train one, and no one knows what kind of measurement will determine the success or failure of one.  There are theories, of course.  There are always theories—and buzzwords and phrases like “cognitive-based research,” but no one really knows.  It is clear one of the parts of the education system—the teacher—is the least understood part of a system which is constantly being fiddled with, but which produces no music while it burns.

  Let’s imagine that there is a marvelous, high-tech machine, a small box with a scanner on the front and a small light on top.  It is a machine to discover who is a teacher and who is not.  It will be aimed at people who have degrees and certificates and who stand at whiteboards and go to faculty meetings to bitch about students who don’t read the assignments—when they come to school at all, and it will be aimed at bag ladies and plumbers and people who talk to their imaginary friends, and if the machine detects a teacher—a real teacher—the little light goes on.  What do we think will happen when we take our device out for a test?  Some of the degreed people at those white chalkboards will make the light go on; some of them will not light up our machine.  The light will go on for some bag ladies and drunks staggering across the railroad tracks and that old guy who yells at kids cutting across his lawn to get to school.  In short, teachers are to be found everywhere, but not necessarily where one might think to look.

  So, the machine goes on for “real’ teachers.  Who are they?  Teaching is thought to be a skill by the “experts,” and teaching programs, but in reality, it is a craft (at worst), an art (better), or blasphemous, mind-boggling magic (best).  In my 25 years of teaching I have seen men and women with enough degrees to paper several walls of Grand Central Station, but could not teach, could not show the students what the content was, and had no rapport with the young men and women in their charge.  But they had the paper—the degrees, the certificates, the diplomas.  I worked as a fry cook for many years and one of the men I worked for—a man with no education, a prison record, and a grudge against whoever he happened to meet—was one of the finest teachers I ever met.  He trained all the cooks in his place, and all the waitresses and busboys.  He didn’t scream, didn’t rant, didn’t threaten loss of employment.  He had the gift, the knack, the magic.  How did he do it?  I asked him; he didn’t know.  I couldn’t see that he did anything extraordinary, but this cantankerous old man was well-liked and respected by his employees and the place ran with the smoothness and beauty of the roll of the hips of a veteran hooker.

  But if teaching can’t be taught, and if teachers are so necessary to the system of education, then how does our society find these people?  What we’re doing right now is the equivalent of throwing thousands of rocks at a carburetor, hoping a couple of them hit, and then hoping that of those that DO hit, some will adjust that carburetor to maximum performance.  There can be no system which chooses the best teachers because 1) the best teachers aren’t all in the system and it’s just a matter of poking around in Education until they’re found, and 2) the “best” teacher is only best in a particular situation, under special circumstances.  Imagine Socrates being the instructor in a shop class, or Marie Curie in a Home Econ class, or even the Buddha teaching ex-cons about filing for welfare and food stamps.

  No, the answer is pretty straightforward:  eliminate the current systemized, structured, “professional” education.  No one learns much in a system where you’re forced to go and forced to sit and forced to read and write.  This tortuous “chalkboarding” will not get the desire results, and as our educational system slips further behind the Third World, we need to go to a contract, apprentice system.

  Someone wants to be an engineer?  He or she advertises for a teacher, interviews several, makes a choice based on the same criteria one might use to find a good caterer, then gets busy with learning.  If it goes badly, the student fires the teacher and gets another one (as per the terms of the contract).  If the teacher deems the student duller than a butter knife, he or she would have the right to cancel, with the advice to the student to seek employment in the sewage business.  Soon, the “expert” teachers become known because their students know what they are doing and the companies which hire them get good employees.  Bad teachers will not get work and will go into other lines of work, such as plumbing or cupcake baking or perhaps hiring out as clowns for birthday parties.  No more tenure, for there is a contract between only the teacher and the student, and if one of the parties doesn’t live up to its terms, end of deal.  No teacher could hide behind an institution’s bureaucratic structure.  And no teacher could earn a living without producing a good “product.”

  A lot of jobs will be lost, chaos will rule for a while, but the society will gain in birthday clowns and better cupcakes, while our mighty nation will have quality people who actually know something and will contribute to our society and the world.  It’s win-win.


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