02/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Solution to the Education Dilemma

Sometimes the simplicity of ideas slips by us because they seem to insult our very reasoning. As humans we feel called to create vastly complex and costly solutions to every one of our basic problems. Yet, this solution, which is simple, cheap and easy to do in every school across this vast country, will insult or anger many people. But, I can tell you, from my own personal experience, that this will work and will solve more problems than it creates.

Let's turn to the essentials of the education discussion. First we talk about a teacher problem. Then we talk about a problem of neglected children. Then we talk about the failure of No Child Left Behind. Then we talk about corruption. Then we remember the problems of this economy. Then we talk about unions. While talking in this vicious cycle of recrimination and finger pointing, what we do not talk about is the way in which we need to build a new system. The only way we can do that is to build it from the ground on which it needs to be built on -- the children in the system.

The way to do that -- the one that I suggest -- is based on how I felt when I became a teacher and the obstacles that stood in my way. First came my recognition that it was a blast to teach. My first taste of teaching came in the midst of some very trying times for me but I can tell you, given a child to teach, I had no problems. I had a child to teach.

I came from a privileged suburb north of Chicago. I was also privileged to have a highly responsible English teacher, Mrs Hill, who saw a need in less privileged schools and figured out a way to address it. Her solution was to take a number of students from her English class every week down to Cabrini Green, one of the worst housing projects in Chicago to tutor. This was in 1966. Each of us was assigned a younger child to work with. Unfortunately, I do not remember the name of the child with whom I worked.

What I do remember is his size, way too small for his age, seven, and his unbelievably infectious smile that happened to be there pretty much all the time. We each sat with our assigned student for about an hour or so. We worked with them on whatever it was they said they needed help with. I remember helping him to work on his math problems. We drilled the tables. I made it a game to keep him interested. I also enjoyed it. I felt that he and I were involved in something that he needed, and that I did too. I also began to realize what a thrilling time a teacher can have when your own creativity can be called upon. He liked music and so we constructed a game that involved keeping track of a specific rhythm to help him remember the math tables.

I knew the kinds of poverty these kids lived with. It truly startled me. What was even more startling to this young group of white kids was to see the reaction of some of the young men to our constant appearance on their turf. We had crossed gang territory and more than once this brave, young (23) Mrs. Hill stood in the doorway, her body blocking the entrance to our room so that some young men intent on disturbing our time with these kids could not come in. At the time, I did not really understand what was happening.

Of course, Mrs. Hill did understand. She made no big deal of it and we continued to go down on our school bus every week. To say that Mrs. Hill was a role model is absolutely true. While my efforts to teach were hampered by a number of other problems, her influence was there from the first day I was hired to teach at a small college in New Jersey.

What Mrs. Hill made clear to all of us as we worked with these young children was that we were all natural teachers. We were helping someone to learn the things that had made an impression on us and so we were able to transfer that to them. There were no tests to tell us what kind of an impact we were having. As far as I know, there was no follow up to any of it.

Yet in me, there was an urge to teach born from that encounter with that young boy. This urge still rings true for me.

Though it took me a long time to find my way into a teaching situation, once there I was ready on day one. Most of what it takes is this: a role model, an early experience that excites you and the opportunity to teach in a more mature setting with people able to guide your development.

What it takes to keep teachers is more of a problem than many want to own up to.

Too many people resent the role and the schedules that teachers have. Too many people have had awful experiences in school and blame the teachers for all of them and for their own lack of academic enthusiasm. From that balloons out the frustration of paying for teachers through property taxes. Added to that is the perception that teachers have too many vacations. The anti-union sentiment then gains steam because unions are viewed as these monolithic beings that never want to hold teachers accountable for their performance, much like the Catholic church's attitude towards itself.

Without going into the messiness of these resentments, it is fair to say that unless you have ever taught, you do not realize the need for some pretty basic things that these resentments try to ignore. One of them is the need for job security. Learning to be a good teacher takes a long time. Learning how to husband your own personal resources, not to be burnt out, means that vacations to restore yourself are essential. One needs time to refresh from standing in a room full of people all day long with the responsibility for all their needs and making sure that each one feels important and is given the attention he or she needs. A teacher has to do all of this with some time to prepare the lessons, do the research, write the tests, read the homework, grade and then do grades at the end of each marking period (and this is an abbreviated list). This is the toll of the job.

Burn out is a very real issue. It can happen at any time. It can happen mostly because of the following problems: teachers are not given the tools needed to teach; teachers are not supported financially to meet personal goals; teachers are not afforded the real time needed to replenish a depleted intellectual as well as emotional being that must be nourished. Without this nourishment, a teacher would burn out too fast. Institutionally, the governing boards that oversee all of this are not as sensitive as they need to be to what makes a good teacher.

No one can go to school these days with the thought of becoming a teacher and take on that kind of debt without some certitude that they will like teaching. But if we were to begin to prepare them now, to open up the schools to peer mentoring and tutoring with the pledge that good teachers who understand why this is important are in charge, then we can begin to nurture a new system. This system would be based on a real apprenticeship that leads to real obligations that prove your mettle.

No longer will we be asking people to take the risk without knowing what they are getting into. They will have begun their studies of pedagogy at a much younger age when these lessons take much better. They will already know what it is to walk into a classroom and it will not be a default choice for too many teachers because they did not have any other options.

What we want are teachers who feel at home in front of a classroom and love to be there. Whether they are teaching in a public high school, an elite university, a vocational school or a professional school, we still want those who have something to offer besides just the basic knowledge of their material.

There is an art to teaching. But more than that, there is something humanizing about kids getting a chance to see if this kind of involvement works for them. What the outcomes will be, we cannot know yet. What we can know is there will be some initial resistance to the idea and there will be good reasons not to pursue it. What is also clear to me is that I benefited immensely from having that role model early in my life. I taught for a good number of years and would have continued had I not been burned out.

Having no union and no support network as a teacher, I had none of the advantages teachers who are called to this profession need. Had those been in place, I would have continued. I loved teaching and helping people understand the material I taught. Of course, the best part of being a teacher is that I learned so much more by teaching a subject than my students ever learned from me. That benefit cannot be replaced outside of a classroom.