Education Opinion

Uncovering What Was Lost: The ‘On Teaching’ Project

By Christina Torres — May 02, 2018 2 min read
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The first thing that struck me was just how much I don’t know. I was reading the words, and in the back of my mind thought, How had I never heard this before?

That’s the unique and important experience that Kristina Rigza and The Atlantic have put together in their new series, ‘On Teaching,’ which seeks to talk to veteran teachers, as many of them will be retiring soon.

The concept itself is fascinating. As the editor’s note points out, “In the next five years, most of America’s most experienced teachers will retire. The Baby Boomers are leaving behind a nation of novice educators. In 1988, the average teacher had 15 years of experience. Less than three decades later, the average teacher had spent just five years leading a classroom.” We’re in a different era of educational professionals, and hearing from the generation currently moving towards their retirement is essential.

It points out something else important, though: as the nature of the educational professional shifts, the amount of turnover leads to a loss of generational knowledge. We lose so much when people quietly leave the profession—not just about teaching practice, but the important stories themselves that these educators created and bore witness too.

The first piece in the series is a perfect example of that. It tells the story of Rebecca Palacios, a teacher in Corpus Christi, Texas, and an essential desegregation court cases of the 20th century. Not only was the story in and of itself amazing, but I was surprised (and a little upset) that I had never heard it before:

Prior to the 1970 ruling, Corpus Christi officials argued that Brown only applied to black-white segregation. It wasn't until Jose Cisneros and 23 other fathers—all members of the United Steelworkers union—sued the district for isolating Latino students in inferior, underfunded schools that the courts recognized Mexican American students as a minority group with their own history of discrimination in education. In establishing that Latino children deserve the same protections as their black peers, the Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District ruling had far-reaching consequences for every school in the nation: It prompted additional rulings that eventually extended Brown's protections to all historically marginalized students of color.

This essential aspect of Brown v. Board is something that, while I had thought about, had never learned more about in my years of schooling OR in my teacher preparation program. Later, Palacio shares some essential knowledge about teaching itself:

The hardest part about teaching before I retired was seeing the disintegration of support for public schools," Palacios said over lunch at a local restaurant, during an all-day training session for preschool teachers she organized in collaboration with the district. "What I've seen over time, especially in the last 10 years, [is that] there are so many new, unfunded demands and programs. STEAM [science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics] initiatives, for example, require resources. You can't talk about granite if the kids haven't seen granite. You can't talk about water pressure, water displacement, or buoyancy without water droppers, PVC pipes, or water tables that make up these experiences."

I’m excited to see where this project goes. Mostly, though, I’m excited work is being done to not lose the stories of the generations that came before us.

We live in a world where, sometimes, it feels like educational buzzwords and the newest fads overtake our concept of “good education.” Innovation is great, but to think it exists in a vacuum, and that no great work was being done before, exhibits a lack of humility that will only hold the profession back. When we do that, we doom ourselves to either speak without a full understanding or weight of our words or force ourselves to create ideas that have been implemented already for decades. This is particularly true in communities of color or historically disenfranchised communities, whose knowledge and stories have often been ignored in the eyes of traditional education.

So, I’m excited to consider how to uncover what was lost this summer. How can we reach out and hear the stories of the generations before us? What can we appreciate, and how can we take those lessons and move forward?

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.