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In The Press

April 01, 1987 7 min read

“For a superachiever in the U.S.A., public school teaching is a curious choice of professions.’'

So writes John Barth, author of such novels as Giles Goat Boy, The Sot-Weed Factor, and Chimera, in an article in the Nov. 1986 issue of Harper’s.

But the article is not another critique or examination of the teaching profession. It is the true story of a particular “superachiever,’' a former English student of Mr. Barth’s at Pennsylvania State University, who, instead of entering one of the many more lucrative professions open to the talented, has opted “to teach.’'

“Aha,’' says Mr. Barth, after she tells him of this decision during a chance meeting in Boston some five years after she has left his tutelage. “At Boston U.? Tufts? Northeastern?’'

“Nope,’' she responds, “in the public schools.’'

In the article,"Teacher: The Making of a Good One,’' Mr. Barth, who says he has “chalk dust on the sleeve of [his] soul,’' tells how Shelly Rosenberg, who graduated from Penn State with the highest academic average in the university’s 100-year history, came to be a teacher. He describes the challenges she faces in the classroom, and the rewards such work bestows upon the dedicated.

And, as the story unfolds, the reader learns how Miss Shelly Rosenberg became Mrs. Barth.

In the psychological development of children, playing is no game, according to Bruno Bettelheim, the prominent author and psychologist.

Writing on “The Importance of Play’’ in last month’s issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Bettelheim said adults must learn to respect the way a child plays if the child is to be allowed to evolve into a happy and healthy adult. Playing, to a child, “is a real-life experience,’' Mr. Bettelheim asserts, and, “if we wish to understand our child, we need to understand his play.’'

Children, Mr. Bettleheim writes, unconsciously use play to act out and resolve conflicts, to prepare themselves for the future, to discharge aggression, to learn how to set and abide by rules, and to learn to distinguish good and evil. At times, such play might seem disorganized, awkward, or senseless to adults, who may try gently to “correct’’ their children or teach them the “right way’’ to use a toy or game.

But such actions, according to Mr. Bettelheim, are mistaken. “If adults want to see a polished game of baseball played according to the rule books, they can turn on their television sets.’'

Mr. Bettelheim says that young children who cheat--take an extra turn or ask to start over when they are losing a game--are not necessarily learning that it’s permissible to bend the rules. Instead, he suggests, they are temporarily reverting to an earlier, more natural form of play that is guided by their whims.

“If the adult insists that the child continue playing when he is likely to lose, he will be asking too much of the child’s still weak controls.’'

Accordingly, Mr. Bettelheim also advocates giving children spielraum--German for “free scope, plenty of room.’' He writes: “The days of most middle-class children are filled with scheduled activities--Boy or Girl Scout meetings, music and dance lessons, organized sports--which leave them hardly any time at all to be themselves.’'

In a discussion of the use of toys in play, Mr. Bettelheim says children may treasure toys which they identify in some way with their parents. For example, young girls may sense the feelings of connectedness that a mother, remembering her own childhood, may have with a doll.

And parents deprive their sons of valuable play experiences if they do not allow them to play with dolls. “If parents are worried that doll play may feminize a boy, all they need for reassurance is to watch how boys play with dolls, because it is very different from the way girls play with dolls,’' Mr. Bettelheim writes.

Similarly, he says, toy guns do not necessarily foster violent behavior in children. But to that assertion, he adds a caveat: “If a parent encourages his child to shoot a toy gun at someone, even at himself, in a normal play setting it is a mistake--he is not taking the child’s play seriously enough.’'

Taking a child’s play seriously, Mr. Bettelheim says, also means that adults must sometimes learn to make an effort not to interrupt a child at play, just as they may not want a child to interrupt them at work.

“In more than one sense, play is the child’s true reality,’' Mr. Bettelheim writes, “and we have to respect it as such.’'

In the early grades, boys may approach learning and formal education differently than their female peers, argue two Michigan researchers in last November’s issue of Educational Leadership. And, they say, educators who ignore such differences may be failing the young boys they seek to teach.

In their article, “The Early Education of Males: Where Are We Failing Them?,’' Anne K. Soderman and Marian Phillips point out that boys account for 70 to 75 percent of the children who are classified as emotionally impaired or learning disabled, and a similarly disproportionate share of the children who are recommended for retention.

“Either nature has played a cruel hoax on the young male of our species, or we are erring significantly in our planning for and evaluation of male children in our educational system,’' they say. “Given what we know about the psychosocial, cognitive, and developmental differences between young males and females and the current trend to ignore these differences, the latter is probably the case.’'

Because of hormonal differences between the sexes, males exhibit greater aggressiveness--even in infancy--than do females. Such tendencies, the authors says, are reinforced through early socialization. But they cite a recent study that suggests, they say, “that males today may be taking traditional masculine attributes such as independence, pride, resilience, self-control, and physical strength to extremes, turning them into socially costly attributes. ... Being masculine today means being ‘ram-tough’ and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that most classroom teachers aren’t willing to tolerate these behaviors.’'

In comparison with young girls, boys also experience slower growth of the left hemispheres of their brains, where language and speech functions develop. Such a delay “may somehow be linked to the young male’s greater risk of developmental disorders of language and speech, stuttering, and allergies,’' Ms. Soderman and Ms. Phillips write. The former is an associate professor of family and child ecology at Michigan State University. Ms. Phillips is an evaluation specialist in the Lansing Public Schools.

Differences between the sexes in their rates of physical growth and in early academic-achievement levels may also cause educators to unfairly label males early in life, the authors contend.

They conclude:"We need to know more about how young children develop and to create the assessment, curricular, and evaluation tools that will enhance their human development.’'

For helping dozens of children of migrant farmworkers into college, George Shirley, a government teacher at Alisal High School in Salinas, Calif., received the school’s employee-of-the-month award, scores of appreciative letters from students, a standing ovation at commencement--and a pink slip from the local school board.

Mr. Shirley’s story is told by John Hubner in the Nov. 2 issue of West. It relates how a former legal-aid lawyer, with the help of the school’s college counselor, Pam Bernhard, helped students fill out applications, write essays, and win scholarships. Through their efforts, some 83 students out of a class of 225, most of them Hispanic, are attending four-year colleges, compared with 20 to 30 who go on to college in an average year. And listed among the schools these 83 attend are Princeton, Harvard, and Williams College.

According to some colleagues, Mr. Shirley was fired because he offended the school’s administration by using irregular methods to help students. For example, over the principal’s objections, Mr. Shirley used the official school stamp to certify that Manuel Lopez, who graduated 12th in the class after missing the 5th and 6th grades “because he was working in the fields,’' had actually graduated in the top 10. The action was taken to make Mr. Lopez eligible for a scholarship at Bard College.

Other colleagues insist that the administrators punished Mr. Shirley for forcing them to pay an additional $3,200 to send 19 students--instead of the usual two or three--to Washington as part of the Close-Up program. Still others, like his friend Pat Egan, an English teacher at Alisal, insist that he was fired “because he was successful.’'

Mr. Shirley, who describes himself to Mr. Hubner as bitter, and says he does not know what he will do. “I haven’t figured that out yet,’' he says. “I miss teaching and I miss those great kids. I try not to think about it because every time I do I get depressed.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1987 edition of Education Week as In The Press