Losing the Art of Teaching To the Science of Instruction

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For the first time since September of 1944, when the school bell tolled this fall, it did not toll for me. In June, I retired after having taught English at a Connecticut high school for 37 years. It was time to go, and I am more than a little apprehensive about what the future classroom is beginning to look like.

I went into teaching because of the men in whose classrooms I had had the privilege to sit. Each had a strong emotional commitment to what he was teaching. At Deerfield Academy, there was Bob McGlynn, who believed that every boy in his class was capable of writing clearly, correctly, and with a certain style. His laid-back attitude disguised a profound belief in the importance of the word.

At Yale University, there came a moment in a large lecture hall when R.W.B. Lewis broke down, unable to continue his reading of a poem on the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

And many years later, there was George Creeger, the best teacher I ever had, at Wesleyan, gloriously lip-syncing to "Rigoletto."

It may have been my destiny to teach, but these master teachers taught me that passion for a subject, whatever it is, can carry you far in the classroom.

Fortunately for me, when I graduated from Yale in 1961 salaries were very low and there was a severe shortage of teachers. My magic letters were TEP (Temporary Emergency Permit). My diploma and enthusiasm got me through an interview and I was hired. And I turned out to be a pretty good teacher, at least according to fellow teachers and administrators, many students, and their parents. My town once chose me as its teacher of the year, and I was a semifinalist for state recognition.

But today I couldn't get through the front door of a public high school in Connecticut. I wouldn't even be interviewed.

The process of becoming a teacher has become such a labyrinth of teacher-preparation courses, lesson planning, practice teaching, observations, and mentoring that a simple major in English at Yale would not qualify me to do what I did for all those years.

What is most troubling is that the art of teaching has become the science of instruction. A teacher's classroom is seen more as a laboratory where every move the instructor makes can be observed, recorded, and evaluated.

The corollary to the managed classroom is the testing mania that has invaded public schools. In Connecticut, as in many other states, there are state-created tests almost every other year, culminating in the Connecticut Academic Proficiency Test, or CAPT, in the sophomore year of high school.

Student progress, like teacher performance, can be measured on a regular basis. The results are published on a town-by-town basis so that everyone, especially realtors and home buyers, can know who is moving ahead and who is falling behind. Woe to the students and teachers in those towns that have declining scores. Students are products. The capt has replaced SATs as the measuring stick and every teacher better know it.

The English section of the CAPT is actually pretty good: a short story followed by six essay questions. The problem is that teachers teach to the test, and students are turned off and frequently hostile to classes that are more like laboratories than active classrooms where discussions of literature are spontaneous and where both teacher and students share a sense of discovery.

The operative word today is accountability. The state holds each town accountable for the success of its curriculum as determined by a state-created test. The town holds the teacher responsible for the success rate of his or her students. And of course the student must pass the test for the transcript to certify that he or she is a success.

Fear becomes almost visible in the room. "You'd better pass this test, or you won't get into college or you won't get a good job." "Your students better pass this test if you want to go on teaching." "Your teachers better get good scores for the town or your contract as superintendent (principal) may be terminated."

Although these words are never spoken, they are always in the air. Safety for the teacher resides in preparation formulas and techniques. You can always go by the book.

Iwas always interested in results, too, but mine couldn't easily be measured. Did my students develop a better attitude toward reading? Did they become more confident when they sat down to write? Did they pick up a book after they graduated? I'm not sure these outcomes can be measured. And because they can't, I became something of an anachronism.

Am I pessimistic about the profession to which I devoted my life? Not completely. In the past few years, I have seen some wonderful young people who have negotiated the maze to become teachers and I have seen firsthand how good they are in the class.

My fear is that the pleasure they take in their teaching will be leached away by a system that is so driven by measurable results. Teaching is a wonderful mystery. Who knows why certain classes work and others don't?

The best days for me were those when my students and I were on the same journey and none of us knew exactly where it would take us. I fear that science will replace the art that was on my side of the desk.

The magic is gone, and so am I.

Clayton Curtiss taught English at Trumbull High School in Trumbull, Conn.

Vol. 18, Issue 12, Page 30

Published in Print: November 18, 1998, as Losing the Art of Teaching To the Science of Instruction
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