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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Back and Forth in Education

When the school bell rings to introduce the start of another day, does it arouse the feeling a boxer experiences when he hears the bell announcing the first round of a championship prize fight? Do you find your palms beginning to sweat? stomach tightening? anxiety building up? tension rising? adrenaline surging?

     If the features within the school are not enough to stimulate nervousness, fatigue, or self-doubt, then the reforms sweeping the nation in the guise of teacher competency tests, learning standards, merit pay, mandated curricula, high stakes state-wide exams and the funding crisis spawning lay-offs and budget freezes, certainly will.

     It's easy to feel pressured and cornered. Teaching is a demanding profession but there is no need to spring from the corner each morning with clenched fists like a boxer. Although stress can't be eliminated from teaching we can reduce the influence of a self imposed element that contributes to stress. We may be guilty of convincing ourselves that things are bad and getting worse by comparing education today with a nostalgic, fuzzy look back at past events and issues clouded by selective retention. Erasing the notion of the "good old days" by which the present is measured and found to be bad will alleviate much of our concerns. Think about it, today may very well be the good old days of future reference.

     You don’t need to travel very far back in time in search of these good old days, 15 or 20 years are sufficient if you are equipped with an objective memory. However, we will journey back all the way to 1882. Armed with an actual article from the New York Times of October 2, 1882, and a textbook on teaching published that same year, we will look at teaching from the perspective of a teacher of the present who found himself in a classroom of 1882. The tale begins...


     I will now seek to recount the events which unfolded and provided me with a strange experience late one evening.

     It all began when I became involved with a fascinating book of Mark Twain's, "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." My interest prevented me from focusing on an assignment I had for a graduate class in education.

     The tale that Twain spun related to the "transposition of epochs and bodies" in which a gentleman from Connecticut, Hank Morgan, was struck on the head one day in 1879 and found himself regaining consciousness in the year 513. A member of King Arthur’s Round Table confronted him as soon as he regained consciousness. The story continues by explaining Hank's experiences from his introduction to his captor, Sir Kay of Seneschal, through his ascent in influence with the King. All the while Hank interacts with the sixth century society from a nineteenth century point of reference.

     I became so involved in the book that I was very reluctant to put it aside and return to my assignment. Time was the convincing factor. It was nearly midnight and the paper had to be on the professor’s desk in eight hours.

     The subject of the report, an examination of practices of educational administration as expressed in an 1882 textbook by Dr. Albert Raub of the State Normal School of Lock Haven, Pa., was not thwarting my growing sleepiness. I struggled to keep my eyelids from closing. My fingers were awkwardly grappling with the keyboard in a frenzied hunt and peck fashion, but I labored onward.

     With one eye maintaining a vigil on the clock as the other guided me along the keyboard the frequency of errors increased dramatically. I was exhausted. My head seemed like it weighed a hundred pounds. My eyelids were nearly shut. I could no longer…


     "Wake up young man! Surely you don't expect the children to see you catching some shut eye on your first day of teaching." The man's barking surprised me as much as if a voice had beckoned me from heaven. "Sir! Is it your wish to engage in insolent behavior on your initial assignment in this revered profession?" the voice bellowed again. "If so, your first day of teaching and your last day will be one and the same. I can assure you that the esteemed Board of Education of the fine schools of Schenectady, New York will not tolerate this laziness."

     The sense of authority that delivered those words prompted me to respond with the alertness of an army recruit at reveille.

     "I hope" he went on, "that you will do a better job than your predecessor Mrs. Johnson. She was fired because she became pregnant! It's up to you to pick up where she left off so the children do not lose what they learned in the first four weeks of school."

     Well, I thought, there is some relief amid this confusion. I sure didn’t have any intention of becoming pregnant. I cleared my eyes and scanned my new found environment. It looked like a classroom. The room was a pale, institutional gray. It was supplied with several hardwood desks which were attached to the chairs and secured to the floor. These desks were in pairs to accommodate two kids at once. The blackboard appeared omnipresent. It seemed to stretch from floor to ceiling and occupy an entire side of the room. And there was a ... calendar.

     But wait a minute, October 2, 1882! This must be someone's idea of a joke. John Campsoni! Yeah, this is John's style. He always played pranks on people back in college. He's the guy who took apart my VW bug and reassembled it in my apartment while I was out of town during Spring break. I have to give him credit, this room certainly seems authentic.

     "And another thing,” the gentleman stated loudly, “your decorum is much too deviant. Following today’s lesson you will be required to meet with me and discuss your apparel. Here, study this list of qualifications so you will herein be advised of the governing principles of this system," he said as he shoved a number of papers before me.

     As this unknown man spoke I looked down at my outfit; a pair of khakis, short sleeve sport shirt sans tie, and casual shoes. Hardly what you would call inappropriate for teaching but a sharp contrast to this man's starched long sleeve white shirt, bow tie, and smartly pressed wool suit.

     My attention was riveted to this man. His stern eyes glared down at me from behind the spectacles that rested on the nose sitting above his handlebar moustache. My suspicion of John Campsoni waned as the man before me gave an impression of an all too real fixture rather than an accomplice to one of John's pranks.

     This strange event was frightening yet I mustered the courage to attempt an explanation of my appearance here.

     "Well" I began, "ah, I really don't know what I'm doing here." The words crept out slowly from my mouth. They were not very well received. My presentation was met with a sharp retort.

     "Do you wish to engage me in repartee? I think not or your career will be as short as the sleeves on your scruffy shirt. I did not become superintendent of schools by allowing some wet behind the ears Normal School graduate to speak back to me. Young man, teaching is a demanding profession. It requires strong men, individuals with sound physical, intellectual, professional, and moral constitution. As such these strict expectations create tremendous responsibility and therefore nervousness and anxiety among neophytes is typical. Now straighten yourself up in that chair and present yourself accordingly, the little ones will arrive in an hour."

     With that stated, he left, striding briskly by the reading charts, numerical frames, and geographical boards that lined the wall. I could hear him muttering to himself as he departed, "These poor products that the schools send us are getting worse each year." Once he vanished I sat there, resigning myself to the situation, with the beat of my heart piercing the silence of the room. So much for teacher in-service I thought. This is different than the interactions I've have had with superintendents back in 2010. The time difference hung mysteriously over my head.

     I walked to the window to examine my surroundings and put this twilight zone experience in perspective. Sure enough, the streets were void of the  multicolored cars of 2010. The clothing of the people walking along the streets indicated that it was a different time, a different era. Somehow I was standing here 71 years before I was actually born.

     There's nothing to do now but make the best of a confusing situation. With that in mind I looked upon my "classroom" with scrutiny. The desk before me was unlike the Round Table that Hank referred to in Twain's classic story. It was sparsely furnished - only some papers in addition to the list my new boss provided me. One of the sheets contained the inventory of the room.

     Might as well get acquainted with the classroom of 1882. There was a set of weights and measures designed to accustom the students with the "practical part of Denominate numbers." The metric system was accounted for by a set of weights and measures. The listing included a variety of cones, cylinders, spheres, etc... to enable one to have the resources to instruct geometric forms. Geography was represented by the presence of outline maps, globes, and geographical boards on the inventory. The globe hardly resembles that which my students of 2015 would recognize. With the exception of textbooks and library books, that was it insofar as instructional support systems. No cell phones, tablets or computers, learning kits, scientific calculators, microscopes, interactive whiteboards, distance learning portals, electronic based learning centers or a multiplicity of manipulatives that could be discovered in a classroom of the 2015.

     The school library, according to the packet of information, listed "cyclopedias" and a variety of historical works treating children to the history of Greece, Rome, France, Germany, and the like. These volumes were followed by the masterpieces of British and American poets, and the prose of Irving, Hawthorne, Scott, Carlyle, and more. The last note on the library... "A taste should thus be created for the elegant in both prose and poetry, while the vitiated taste created by the cheap, flashy literature of the day might be anticipated and supplanted."

     Nowhere on this list of library books could one find Judy Blume type books on the problems confronting adolescents, or the 'Children's Book of Divorce', or 'Never Say Yes to Strangers,' and other works reflecting the changing society one experiences in the in 2010. Perhaps to a teacher of the far off future who interacts with children of a society beset by drug abuse, child pornography, children of broken homes, and missing children, etc... this period of time might seem as mythical as that visited by Hank Morgan when meeting the knights of Camelot.

     Lest anyone forget, these children of the 1880's faced perils of their own. Child labor laws 
were not protecting children from long hours sweatshops or other means of employment in unsafe conditions. The street alongside the school provided proof of this as small I listened to youngsters hawking dry goods.

    One can assume from the list of names on my class roster that many of these pupils are among the wave of European immigrants that traveled to the industrial areas of the U.S., like Schenectady, with the clothes on their back and a dream for the future. No, these children were not welcomed with the support of a host of social service related school programs directed by guidance counselors, social workers, or psychologists. Nor were they greeted with the open arms of bilingual programs in Italian, Russian, German, and the many languages representative of the surnames of the kids on the roster. The school is monolingual - English. The students would become ingredients to that well flavored soup in the 'melting pot.' Sink or swim. Survival of the fittest.

     My history of education professor would be proud of me for remembering that the problem of assimilation, along with an absence of child labor laws and other acts protecting the interests of children, like special education PL 94-142, integration measures, native language instruction... was a contributing factor in the tremendous drop out rate that was characteristic of this period. Hence, only the brightest and those who did not have to leave school to work and help the family economy sustained their school attendance. No room for the slow learners, learning disabled, attention deficit disorder...

     Finally, at the end of the inventory was mention of a procedure for securing teacher apparatus. The instructor was first advised to create a need by "addressing the citizens of the district, showing how much better the work of teaching may be done with the apparatus than without." Another avenue available to the instructor includes "an entertainment by the school children that will usually secure the attendance of parents and friends, and when it is known that the proceeds are to be devoted to the purchase of apparatus, the patrons will attend all the more willingly." Does this fundraising need and technique sound familiar to educators in the financially pressed 2010's?

     Rummaging through the desk produced additional information on memorandums. The schools of the 21st century apparently do not have the market cornered when it comes to bureaucracy. A glance at the clock indicated that I had enough time to read on. "School Ethics - Duties of the Teacher" read the page held before me. Of particular interest to me as I pursued the data, was the section entitled 'Duties to the Pupils'. In regard to moral wants it explained, "It has been argued against education that it makes men rogues, but this cannot be said of the education that gives culture to the child's moral as well as his intellectual nature."

     This section was followed by the physical wants of pupils that included a note of caution that "care must be taken also that intellectual tasks not be permitted to break down the child's nervous organization." "WOW!" I exclaimed to myself, "my kids back in the future would certainly plead their cases that homework is dangerous to the nervous system."

     I continued my examination with interest. The next part of the outline involved itself with the teacher's duties to the teaching profession. I was enlightened by the following remarks; "No man whose teachings cannot be strictly followed or whose character and habits cannot be profitably imitated, should be permitted to enter the schoolroom as a teacher. Great care must be taken that teachers do not become egotistic, and thus bring disgrace and disrepute on their calling."

     And now for the document handed me by my 'instructional leader.' The information contained much advice on the "do's and don'ts" of teaching.

"The Teacher Must;

1. Take sufficient exercise in the open air, that his blood may be pure and life sustaining.

2. Preserve an even temper, that the noise and worry of the school may not cause undue nervous excitement and exhaustion.

3. Give proper attention to bathing, that the skin may be kept in a healthy condition.

Although the list related many other words of advice one may obtain the flavor of the theme by the information above. Staff development had clearly not reached the technical level it would evidence over a century later. The use of the term 'he' also lends insight into the profession.

The proximity of a corner store I had observed in my view out of the window and the time I had before the students would arrive allowed me to run out and purchase a paper and gain more knowledge about my new era. The New York Times. "Well" I stated in the manner of a discoverer, "at least I know that today is October 2, 1882."

     The paper had a great many amusing articles and advertisements that seemed so distant in prices and conveniences to that which one would find in a newspaper of 2010. One article in particular aroused my curiosity. On page 6, column 1, "Advances in Education." This would certainly provide me with a perspective on the teaching profession of 1882.

     The government presses had just turned out the report of the Commissioner of Education for 1880. Among the facts listed was data on the pay of teachers. I quote Commissioner Gen. John Eaton, of Tennessee, "It must be admitted that with all the defects in training and in modes of appointment, the teachers are better than their wages." The article stated that "California and two or three other states provide by law that no distinction be made in the pay of teachers in regard to sex, but this has not resulted in increasing the pay of women to any great extent." And a final note to female teachers everywhere, " appears that more than half the teachers, not only of public but private schools, and in advanced as well as elementary grades, are women. The commissioner questions whether a continuance of this excess will not involve a sacrifice of some of the conditions essential to the development of strong, self reliant characteristics, and the early knowledge of affairs which is especially important in the case of boys."

     As I finished the article I noticed that the time was rapidly approaching when the students would visit me. I put the paper away and leaned back in my chair, mulling over the significant differences that exist between the teacher of 1882 and the teacher of 2010.

     Just then I was shocked by the sudden sound of bells. My whole body shook in response to this burst of noise. I sprang to attention and sat right up in the chair. Instinctively I reached and picked up the phone beside me.

    "Michael", the voice sounded familiar. "Michael" he continued, "don't forget that you're supposed to pick me up on the way to class today. Do you have your paper ready?" It was a classmate of mine in a summer graduate course I was taking at Texas Tech. In fact, I remember that I was working on the project for the class when I ... when I ... when I don't know what happened. I looked down at my hand which was clutching some papers. In order that I might make some sense of this weird feeling that had come over me I slowly raised the papers and began reading.
     The first article was a recipe for making the surface of chalkboards black. However the second paper certainly stood the test of time much better. It was a word of caution to teachers written in 1882 by Dr. Albert Raub of The State Normal School of Lock Haven, Pa. The message remains appropriate.

     "Few are so repulsive to child nature as those who are gloomy. The teacher who is stiff and pedantic, who is sullen and morose, who is gloomy and dejected, is out of place in the school room... The teacher will find many things to try his patience, many things to vex and cross him; many things that will discourage and irritate him; but through it all let him keep a cheerful countenance. Let him join in hearty laughter whenever there is an opportunity. No one needs more to look on the bright side of life... Let your entrance into the school room be such as to convince your pupils that you are both good humored and good natured.

     Despite the advances in theories and technology that are now reflected in education, the fads and the buzz words, the issues and events, some things have not changed. Stress and burnout may be the source of concern now (as evidenced in the many workshops devoted to the subject) but one can see that it is an element that has shadowed practitioners for many years. Although this does not prevent stress from taxing toady’s teachers, it does point to the fact that stress existed even in the "good old days." Let's be careful and avoid adding to our problems by comparing these 'hard times' with the past and thereby multiplying our troubles.
     Let the school bell toll the arrival of a fresh, new day instead of another prize fight.

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