Fixing Education Starts at Home

Getting schooled: The re-education of an American teacher—By Garret Keizer (Harper’s Magazine).

In “Getting Schooled,” Harper’s contributing editor Garret Keizer returns for a one-year stint to his old job as an English teacher at a rural Vermont high school, and in the process offers an account that should give pause to those of us who frequently cite teachers as the problem in American education.

A Tough Job

Keizer makes clear that being a public school teacher is damned hard work even for the diligent, and too many of us who have never served a day at the head of a classroom are prepared to overlook that brutal fact.

I was nearly faint with hunger by the time lunch rolled around, for I ate my breakfast most days at 4:00 a.m. Not infrequently I would put in a twelve-hour day before heading home to work several additional hours after dinner, only to wake up the next morning feeling unprepared.

My immune system proved even rustier than my pedagogy. During the course of the school year I caught several colds plus one case each of flu, pneumonia, and conjunctivitis.

Keizer suffers unspecified chest pains and nightmares, and discovers that his life outside of teaching has evaporated.

To be sure, most jobs come with stress attached, but I know from my own peripheral experience with education (parent and Cubmaster) that Keizer’s experience is not only typical, his is not even the worst. By his own acknowledgement, his working conditions probably looked pretty good to many teachers in America’s blighted urban schools.

Pulling Punches

Keizer’s is a moving story, so much so that we can almost overlook his sleeveworn politics. He rightly delivers a thrashing to the hypocrisy of GOP politics that seems bent on dismantling public educations and making teachers scapegoats in a failing education system, yet strangely overlooking the importance of stable families to student success.

Unfortunately, Keizer undermines his credibility when he pulls his punches with liberals for politicizing curriculum by inciting bitter culture wars, and when he ignores the systemic destructive protection of incompetent teachers. The virtues of his small rural Northeastern district obscure the politics of self-interest that pervade the school systems of the nation’s largest cities, including the entitlement mentality of urban teacher’s unions and the too-close relations twixt administrators and vendors. Worst of all, he misses the irony in his imprecation to his students to resist manipulation by the powerful even as he delivers his own demagogic anarch0-syndicalist call for the students to “destroy Carthage.”

These failings, though considerable, should not take away either from his main point (teaching is tough) or his more buried one, that quality education depends on a stable and supportive home environment. Even this most liberal of educators believes that our first focus in improving education must be to strengthen the family.

The Parent-Teacher Partnership

There is no single initiative that will cure the maladies afflicting America’s primary and secondary education. Schools need more money, bad teachers must be dismissed, good teachers must be rewarded, and the entire teaching profession must be made once again attractive and prestigious, if not lucrative, and waste and corruption must be driven out of the school districts. All of these are essential preconditions to fixing our schools.

But the hope that American schools will meaningfully educate students depends upon the role of the parent and family in education. This is not to say that every American parent must become an Amy Chua-style Tiger – I would argue tiger parents are the bane of Chinese education as much as they are the boon. At the same time, we must remember that we are all our children’s first teachers, that this role is permanent, and that we do not delegate it.

A great education begins with good students and involved parents. All too often I speak with parents who labor under the misconception that their responsibility ends when they get the kid to school and, in the case of private schools, write the tuition check. This is nonsense. Sending your child to school does not outsource your responsibility as your child’s teacher, and as a partner with the professional teachers in the classroom.

Teaching is a tough job, and not everyone has the mix of talent and temperament to do it well. Those not suited for the rigors of the profession need to be shown the door. But those left behind deserve to be treated better than babysitters or the sole educators in our kids’ lives. While we are fixing the teacher situation, we need to start working on the parent situation. Otherwise, we will wake one day to find that, as with our universities, our students too often fail our schools rather than the other way around.

3 thoughts on “Fixing Education Starts at Home

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  1. I like the set up of your site. As a teacher in Georgia, I enjoy reading about what we call “education” in America. I’m very familiar with Keizer’s struggles. I disagree with the suggested solutions to our failing schools. We must turn education upside down for any hope of learning. Obviously, I can’t explain completely here, but welcome rational discussion on the matter. Thanks for being the first to include me in “Related Articles” in my new blogging debut. Best regards!

    1. Thanks for your comments, “Bartelby.” I am not doctrinaire about the solutions I propose. Frankly, they leave me a bit unsatisfied. I agree with what Daniel Pink wrote in his book Free Agent Nation about our educational system: that it is a relic of an industrial age that has passed us by, and is thus increasingly irrelevant. As such, arguing about teacher pay does seem a bit like the old deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic act. At the same time, I am weary after three generations of well-meaning “progressive” educators have turned American students into guinea pigs for every educational fad that has come down the pike, something I believe is half of our problem. I’ll be following your blog with interest.

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