Fred Niedner: Standards, styles change, but the reasons for teaching never do
May 11, 2012 3:49PM
Updated: June 13, 2012 8:04AM
This time of year, few activities prove more satisfying than mowing the lawn. Fresh air, exercise and lush greenery help make it so, but more than anything I love being able to see exactly what I have accomplished. True, next week I must do it again, but for now I have clearly succeeded at something.
Those of us who find our vocation in teaching can rarely say that. Even in this season when we finish our grading, march graduates across a stage and hand them a diploma, and listen as commencement speakers urge them to dream big dreams, we can find ourselves tongue-tied if asked precisely what we did to and for our students.
How do you measure the awakening of curiosity or the budding of wisdom? Marks on the wall behind the bedroom door tell how tall a child stood at 5 years, then 10, and 16. But where is the mark that gauges maturity? With what eye-chart does one test for the kind of vision it will take to solve the problems people will face or write the poems folks will need to read in 2050?
We attempt such measurement nowadays, urged on by mandates from somewhere higher up. “Assessment” has become the new buzz-word among educators. Along with practices like strategic planning, it comes from the world of profit-making, and it stands as a sign of how thoroughly most educational efforts and institutions, from preschools to elite universities, have morphed into businesses.
Are we getting enough bang for our bucks? The bean-counters want to know. Indeed, those who claim to understand all the bottom-line reckoning that will happen in the next few years predict that the business of education will change substantially, perhaps radically, and soon. To ensure future viability, schools must become efficient and inexpensive. Eventually, they may have to guarantee their graduates income levels and lifestyles that justify spending time and money on education.
Perhaps that’s only a nightmare, and future schools will yet have teachers like Mrs. Graves, who all through my eighth-grade year, for 20 minutes right after lunch, read to us from novels like Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia.” Although I can’t recall learning geography and science that year, achievement tests likely showed that we did. However, those tests could hardly assess what I do remember gratefully after all these years, namely, that my world grew larger, and its textures richer, every day after lunch.
I hope there might also be room for the likes of Doc Gienapp, a curmudgeonly professor of classical Greek who walked into my first-ever college class, dropped his briefcase, gazed around the room and announced, “My job is to send half of you packing.” We could tell he meant it, and his prophecy pretty much came true, though not, we eventually learned, because he wanted so many to fail. His mantra was, “You have got to know,” and he never let up.
The same professor taught art history. One day, while inducting us young Philistines into the mysteries of a Renaissance painting, his voice choked. Tears filled his eyes. He loved that art, and he hoped we would love it, partly because he loved us — enough to scare us half to death sometimes. We thought differently about Greek after that. Instead of fodder for quizzes, the exotic words became pictures and metaphors, windows on the world that English can’t quite match.
That’s what I dream of while mowing my lawn, schools filled with people falling in love, over and over, caught up in learning that can’t be reduced to a number on a graph in an assessment report.