Friday, December 09, 2011

Blame it on Women's Lib

America spends more per child on schooling yet gets nowhere near the results of its main competitors.  One of the big reasons why is that in the U.S. teaching is a low status profession with comparatively low wages. 

I believe that my generation was the last to have gotten really excellent teachers on a consistent basis in primary and secondary education.  I went to P.S. 203, a new school at the time, starting in second grade.  I can't recall my second grade teacher (thought maybe it was Mrs. Jacobs).   From third to sixth grade my teachers were Mrs. Minsley, Miss Siepe, Mrs. Stone, and Mr. Sachar.  I recall in third grade Mrs. Minsley having to absorb additional students - our class swelled to something like 42.  While my memory (and student perspective) on this is failing me now, I believe the unusual step was taken to have those students who were skipping 3rd grade to be in that classroom for part of the year.  That year my mom (who is still alive) was recovering from breast cancer.  Somehow, that made me star in the class play as the Sheriff of Hokum County in Bandit Ben Rides Again.  Mrs. Minsley managed it all.  Mrs. Stone was a family friend.  I recall it strange when she and her husband came over to the house, being in her class.  At school she drilled us hard in the multiplication table.  I am grateful for that, even now, though I might not have been too happy about it at the time.  In case the point isn't obvious, most of the teachers were women.  It was unusual to have a male teacher in grade school.   Further, with the exception of Miss Siepe who got married sometime around then, most of them were very experienced.  Teaching was their profession, not just a stopover till they started a family. 

I haven't kept track of my contemporaries in any significant way, but I don't know anyone who became a teacher in grade school.  Several became college professors. So it's not teaching per se that was taboo.  Many of my contemporaries were encouraged to be either doctors or lawyers - enter a profession that offered a good and stable income. 

So people my age who went to public school have a form of cognitive dissonance.  Their education served them well, but they made careers for themselves elsewhere.  They can't understand.  If the system worked then, why doesn't it work now?  

When I taught an honors seminar in fall 2009 I had one student, male, who wanted to become a math teacher.  He grew up in Chicago, not the suburbs.  That was unusual in itself.  I think his dad was a policeman, but on that I'm not sure.  He was a very balanced kid, with high aspirations like the rest of them, but also quite easy going.   One or two other kids were thinking of teaching for a while a la Teach for America, but that was as a stopover, not a career.

If we are really to mend the system the way this article suggests, there are a lot of cultural changes that would need to take place.  I'm skeptical that we can do this.  But we should try.

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