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Teaching Profession Opinion

The Best Thing We Can Do for Children? Let Teachers Act as Professionals

By Lynn Stoddard — March 31, 2004 7 min read
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When given a chance, teachers will prove their great creative competence.

Many years ago, as I began a career in teaching, I learned that what I had been trained to do—use my knowledge, skills, and creativity to meet the needs of individual children—was not what was wanted in the public school system. I quickly found I was a slave to a predetermined curriculum that all children must have, regardless of their vast diversity. I was discouraged from assessing the needs of individual children and choosing a curriculum to meet those needs. The courses of study for elementary school children were developed from somewhere above and imposed on us, to in turn impose on all children alike (but allowing some accommodation for individual learning rate and style). We were expected to do our best to make children as alike as possible in knowledge and skills. A report card was provided. It was to be used in a quarterly report to parents. We were expected to teach and grade each child in the required courses of study.

Have things changed after 50 years? Do teachers have more, or less, control over how they will use the curriculum? Are parents more, or less, involved in decisions affecting their children? If you talk to teachers and parents these days, you will find they have even less voice regarding the curriculum and how it is administered than they did 50 years ago. And those of us who have been around long enough to know will attest to this remarkable condition. Alone among the professions, it seems, only public school teachers have less and less control over what they are expected to do.

Is this progress? Why has teachers’ control over their professional lives been gradually shrinking with each passing year? Why, of all the comparable fields of endeavor, is education the only one stagnating? There can be only one reasonable answer: Our culture has never regarded schoolteaching as a profession. Teachers have never been allowed to practice as professionals, to diagnose and make decisions about the needs of children. These decisions are made for them by people far away from classrooms and given out as directives, manuals, and lesson guides. In the past few years, the pressure on teachers to perform in a certain way has grown very intense. The most degrading and demoralizing mandate can be found in the comforting slogans “higher standards” and “no child left behind.”

A rigid, fixed curriculum, under the guise of more “rigor,” specifies what all children shall know and be able to do at each grade level in each discipline. Teachers are expected to see that it happens. Tests are administered to make sure it does. If teachers ever had any power to act as professionals, the last vestige of it has been eliminated.

What is the solution to this perplexing problem? Education reform has been on the lips of a great many people for a very long time. Yet the more people try to fix what teachers do, the worse the situation seems to get. The solution I propose is fairly easy to conceive. The hard part is shaking off all the trappings of an obsolete system tightly controlled by tradition. Here is all we have to do: stop viewing student achievement in curriculum as the main goal of education, and start giving teachers and parents control of subject-matter content, so that they can meet the needs of a great variety of students.

“Easier said than done,” you say. True, but what if we were to think of curriculum not as a goal, but as a means of striving for a higher purpose? Would this be the key that unlocked the door to big improvements in schooling? I answer with a resounding yes.

We found this to be true at two elementary schools where I served as principal. We adopted, with the support of the community, a mission statement pledging us to develop great human beings who are valuable contributors to society. Then we established three master goals: identity, interaction, and inquiry. These came to be known as the “three dimensions of human greatness.”

  • Identity. Help students learn who they are as human beings and as individuals, and to discover and develop their unique gifts, talents, and abilities to form a vision of personal worth.
  • Interaction. Help children learn how to get along with others and form healthy relationships, and to develop their powers of expression and of thoughtful, caring communication.
  • Inquiry. Expand curiosity, passion for learning, and the ability to ask penetrating questions, and help students learn how and where to search for truth and wisdom.

In our interviews with and surveys of more than 2,000 parents, we found that these three areas also represented parents’ top priorities for their children’s education. Because of this, the adversarial relationship that sometimes exists with an imposed curriculum was erased. Teachers could, with parents’ blessings, target their efforts at the primary needs of students.

This focus on the three dimensions of greatness also allowed teachers and parents to start thinking of curriculum as a means of striving for goals, not as a goal in and of itself. Most significantly, it provided teachers with an avenue to act as professionals—to make and carry out decisions regarding curriculum. They often asked questions: “What content will be most appropriate to help Susan discover and develop her unique gifts and talents?” “How can parents be involved in helping Susan strive to learn who she is (identity)?” “How can we help Susan communicate with kindness (interaction)?” “How can we help Susan magnify her curiosity and her hunger for knowledge (inquiry)?”

Did a focus on developing individual greatness suddenly allow teachers to act as professionals? No, it was a gradual process. A few teachers had the courage to use the report card we developed to assess student growth in these areas of identity, interaction, and inquiry, but others still had trouble breaking away from the district-imposed, letter-grade report card.

Grade point averages should be ample proof that our society has viewed student achievement in curriculum as the main goal of public education. It’s what we have been trying to measure, even though brain researchers are telling us that it’s nigh impossible to measure most aspects of human learning numerically, especially those that count the most, such as emotions, attitudes, personality, and character.

We need to start giving teachers and parents control of subject-matter content, so that they can meet the needs of a great variety of students.

At my school, we developed ways to assess student growth in identity, interaction, and inquiry. We found that there are ways to hold teachers accountable for doing the possible well, as opposed to holding them responsible for the impossible task of standardizing students. Our efforts to evaluate what we were trying to accomplish were amateurish, I’ll admit, and more work is needed there. But the process itself gave a clear message to teachers that they were invited to be in control of the curriculum and to act as true professionals.

It’s comparatively easy to learn how to view curriculum as means, rather than goal, and how to assess and hold teachers accountable for nurturing positive human diversity. Teacher-training institutions already are doing a pretty good job of this—and have been for many years, unless they have switched over to helping teachers learn how to meet the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirements.

When I left the University of Utah 54 years ago to begin teaching 35 5th graders, it was a shock to leave my training behind and begin to try to standardize such a variety of youngsters. I can imagine that it is an even bigger shock for teachers today, having been trained to meet the needs of students, and then being asked to sacrifice those needs in favor of the needs of politicians. What I can’t understand, however, is how smart parents—and especially teachers, who are trained to be professionals—could let such a ridiculous and impossible assignment be foisted on them. Nearly everyone—except, perhaps, the governors and business executives who concocted “higher standards” and “no child left behind"—knows that it’s impossible to make children alike in knowledge and skills, no matter how hard we try.

Colleges of education have a critical choice to make. Either they find ways to help prospective teachers be happy performing as unthinking robots on the education assembly line, or they help them learn how to nurture positive human diversity and draw forth the gifts and talents of each child. With an eye to nurturing greatness, my school started to discern a wonderful human characteristic: Every person, including every teacher, has a unique set of gifts, often lying dormant, that will, when given tender care and encouragement, blossom and surprise us.

When given a chance, teachers will prove their great creative competence. We can help prospective teachers learn how to work with parents and children to unlock the special genius in everyone. This is a challenge and an opportunity that we must not let slip by. Let’s restore teaching as a profession. It’s the single most important thing we can do for children and our country.

Lynn Stoddard, a retired educator, is a writer and consultant living in Farmington, Utah. His latest book, Educating for Human Greatness, was published in January (Holistic Education Press, www.great-ideas.org). He can be reached at lstrd@yahoo.com.

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