Education Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: No substitution for experience in good teaching

Exemplary teachers who persevere long enough to earn legendary status share an edge sharpened by their lengthy careers in the classroom. Mastering a difficult craft involves an exponential series of decisions, each of which has to be made and tested under pitilessly non-theoretical conditions. For such sustained practice to endure, let alone thrive, professionalism is required, and only professionals can fully understand what that means.

Real mastery in teaching, while recognizable, is difficult to quantify objectively. As with each class itself, it somehow manages to be greater than the sum of its parts. The actual process of learning is likewise difficult to deconstruct. Unfortunately it also lends itself to politics via societal tides and whims. Since academia in involved, the minefields of reputation come with the territory, and experts are ubiquitous, particularly outside the classroom itself.

Despite all this, and over 30 years ago, learning theory has already reached certain solid conclusions which were then validated by advances in neuroscience. The pivotal importance or neural pathways in the developing brain reinforced what we already knew about how we learn.

The good news is in the data itself. The bad news remains: there is no magic wand, there never has been, and it is unwise to gamble on one appearing any time soon, artificial intelligence or not.

So where, exactly, does competence morph in authentic expertise? We all know that it does happen, but the proof is notoriously difficult to quantify. Books, articles or workshops with promising ideas for an across-the-board fix of public education offer a good way to seize fleeting fame and many sweeping initiatives have been based on less. Innovation is frequently conflated with being a goal in itself. A:; change needs is fuel, and that is happily and tirelessly provided by Theory. Practice is expected to take a graceful back seat.

Through all this, practitioners have stubbornly persisted int heir mission. Here some important distinctions need to be pointed out. For example, STEM courses have long since been prescribed and scripted to improve standardized test scores. Math and science teachers, therefore, are allowed far less leeway than their colleagues in other subjects.

How much actual learning takes place? How do we know? The easy answers are easy for a reason. If it were that simple, why are we still searching? Technology has been evolving at lightning speed for some time. What are the long-term effects of brain development? We don’t know. We are just left with our old and familiar faith in progress, with or without empirical evidence to back it up.

When the uncomfortable question of long-term brain development arises, which it seldom does, it is quickly labeled as “action research” and set aside to deal with later.

Except later is now.

Electronic solutions, by their nature, will continue to proliferate. What they are incapable of providing is human insight into individual students as well as an intuitive grasp of their aggregate identity. Lacking this crucial ability, any and all top-down reform initiatives are doomed to hit-and-miss results at best.

Any genuine approach to dealing with the ongoing crisis must be on a microcosmic basis involving individual educators in our school districts. Any attempt to make matters go backwards is, of course, delusional. Society itself is an impossible target and its plethora of educational initiatives may in fact constitute the long awaited arrival of the fabled perpetual motion machine.

Given this reality, a special type of individual is needed. Fortunately, teachers are born, not made. When I was a department chair and had to assess candidates, a quick test told me which category I was dealing with.

I would declare: “A teacher has to find a balance of idealism and cynicism.”

If the person we were interviewing didn’t get it, I knew there was no point in trying to explain how pure idealism leads to crushing disappointment, and that cynicism comes with the job to the point of being synonymous with showing up. Cynicism is the heavyweight of occupational hazards. So, idealism drives your teaching, while cynicism makes it possible for you to survive. A basic ratio.

I know you are out there, you next wave of teachers stepping up, probably because you hear the call.

I part with one more observation: Done properly, this profession has never been a job. It has always been a mission.

David and Tami Munford

Middlebury

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