Last week Gerald Conti wrote his resignation letter. After almost 40 years, he will no longer teach (except as a substitute). He will no longer serve. He insists that “I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists.”
His reasons for leaving: “data driven education” that contributes to “testing and evaluation systems that are Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian.” Yes. True — in the interests of good schooling, students, teachers and good administrators are being relegated to the status of marionettes who must perform or at their peril be labeled Basic or incompetent or bad managers.
He believes education has “become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven. Process has become our most important product.” He implies that schools are becoming another example, perhaps even an arm of “corporate America.” Yes, True — the desire to make our classrooms better places to learn has brought on the rise of the metric kingdom. Every child must be measured, his or her skills and knowledge weighed behind the high, dark walls of State Education fortresses. Students, teachers and principals must be held accountable. If the metrics do not chant, “Yes, you are worthy”, the great bureaucratic eye of bodiless officialdom will snap, come alive, and fasten its baleful gaze upon us: ” You are Basic. You are useless. We will find sharper blades.”
For those and sundry other reasons, Mr. Conti claims that teaching has left him.
No. In this I believe Mr. Conti is grievously mistaken.
Teachers may still speak and write. Teachers may still fall in love with books, ideas, a language, music, art in all its beauty, mathematics in all its configurations, all of the sciences, and history. Teachers may still fall in love in every chaste way with their classes who, year by year, bring themselves to those classrooms and wait for us to show them that, in spite of great difficulties, in spite of poverty or danger, or turmoil at home, or all the demons of childhood and adolescence, they are not indistinguishable; they are not instruments in arcane calculations. They are not cohorts. They are not part of a corporate collective.
Teaching is not analogous to a temple, and while teachers and administrators should fight to never be marionettes, we must also not be priests. There are among us, tweakers and cheaters, the professionally clueless, the indomitably stupid, but these are subsets only. Most teachers come to work each day at least partially aware of how fortunate they are to work with children, to have the privilege of spending a good part of their lives in their presence.
Most teachers understand that they are artisans (not artists). We practice a craft with others. There are no teachers without students (and parents). We work within the blessed reek and noise of gritty human beings like us, only younger. We have no cause to hold ourselves aloof. We should never say that teaching has abandoned us; to do so makes us sound as if we spend our days contemplating our beatified selves.
All teachers struggle because, done well, the job is so demanding. No_one_ever_becomes_its_master. Ever. Teaching does not leave us. We leave because we grow tired or the job doesn’t fit us or because we cannot adapt or it doesn’t pay enough or because we cannot grow a thick skin.
Most of us enter the profession because we want to do something good for others, and we like children. We quickly find out that our moods and attitude matter a great deal in helping create a classroom where they might succeed. We cannot despair, especially in the face of efforts to dehumanize children and our work.
When we close our doors each period, thirty faces look to us to hold their ricocheting attention; they sometimes dare us to amaze them. We must not meet their challenges unsmiling. We have the best job in the world because it asks of us every day that we never lose hope in children and in their potential to amaze us. No amount of wealth can purchase a gift of such value.
Teachers have the benign power to draw a line in children’s lives who might one day remember that, “I was such and such before Mr. or Ms. X’s class. I became this after.” Who else will contest the desire of dusty functionaries to package and segregate them? Who else is better prepared to counter such insidious attacks than us with our patience and enthusiasms, with our necessary virtue of seeing each child as an individual? We may fail but we must fight. There is too much at stake. In our shambling, sometimes clumsy ways, we may never give up on showing kids the possibilities inherent in loving something bigger than themselves, and thus of seeing the real promised lands.