The recent celebration of "International Women's Day" brought me back to the teachers of my childhood. With the never-ending conflicts arising out of "Education Reform," I thought it might be helpful if I were to recount my memories of some of my own grade school teachers of the 1950's.
My kindergarten teachers at PS 85 in the Bronx were Miss Bave and Mrs. O' Leary; both over eighty years old which made their time of birth only several years after the end of the Civil War! I wonder what stories they could have told us about their growing up before the invention of the telephone and the automobile and before women in this country had the right to vote. Between the two of them they must have had over a hundred years of teaching experience, since at that time, a teaching position was very much a lifetime profession. Today the average length of service of a teacher is five years.
I didn't find some of my elementary school teachers very inspiring since all I really remember about them was that we had to fold our hands on top of our desks unless we were raising our hands to answer a question. However, I was very fond of my second and third grade teachers, Miss Cohen and Mrs. Kennedy, who were very gentle and reassuring. And I most certainly remember my fifth and sixth grade teachers: Mrs. Decker and Miss Capo di Ferro. Mrs. Decker presided over the "Nature Room" which included an aquarium, a terareum, and other exhibits, as well as, if memory serves me correctly, a deer head mounted on the side wall of the classroom. What I remember most vividly from the Nature Room were two items: one was the skin of an anaconda snake that was hung up at the top of the front wall of the classroom, above the blackboard. The other, prominently displayed on her desk, was a picture of a young girl who had a definite resemblance to a younger Mrs. Decker, sitting on the lap of a man whom I immediately recognized as: President Theodore Roosevelt! It was he--according to Mrs. Decker--who had shot the snake, and as a present, given it to her family, with whom he had been friends. I was awed by this picture and how my own teacher had had the experience of being in the social circle of an American president.
In the front of the room directly below the anaconda was a "Time Line," a series of pictures illustrating notable moments in American history. It began with the sailing of the three Spanish ships guided by Colombus, continued with the arrival of the Puritans to Plymouth Rock and. after depicting the next three hundred years of American history, concluded with the end of World War ll. These names, dates and illustrations which the class saw every day had a positive impact on me. They established my spacial sense of time which, I believe, has enhanced my ability to remember important--as well as trivial--information. Although the events in the time line were exclusively from a conventionally "Eurocentric" perspective, they provided me with a framework which I could use in my future learning.
But my most profound influence was Miss Capo di Ferro. She was stimulating, highly intelligent and passionate about her teaching. She gave me the example of the true teacher I hoped I would become: someone who found ways of connecting with students, making them feel positive about learning. She was among those dedicated teachers whose commitment to her profession and devotion to her students served many of my generation with the "best and brightest" educators. Admittedly, there were less gifted teachers as well: those who would have been better suited to another profession had they, as women, had other vocational opportunities.
Thus, my real purpose here in recounting my grade school years is to speculate about these dedicated women who might have had different careers had they been born in the 1950's instead of having taught in them. They might have decided that teaching was their true vocation no matter what other professions might have been offered. But had they the opportunities of women today, I could imagine Mrs. Decker a biologist at a major research institution and Miss Capo di Ferro the first woman CEO at a Fortune Five Hundred company, or a United States Senator.
I am not intending to disparage the present-day cohort of teachers who have to cope with far more bureaucracy than those of that earlier generation. But we must recognize that the teaching profession is far less attractive to those women who can now choose many more promising careers than teaching has now become. As has been done in Finland, we need to bring back into the classroom more of the same group of talented, dedicated educators who had, in the past, significantly contributed to the lifeblood of this country as do many educators today.
But how do we go about attracting and retaining such women to teaching as a fruitful and respected career? One way would be to treat them with respect as dedicated members of a noble profession. This positive attitude should be the norm instead of insulting teachers which seems to be a commonplace among politicians and bureaucrats such as Secretary of Education Duncan and, more recently, Governor Cuomo.
A second suggestion I would propose might be even more helpful in inducing college students of exceptional ability to regard teaching as a worthwhile career rather than a "stepping stone" to a "real job." That would be by eliminating standardized testing and the "Core Curriculum" and granting teachers the confidence in their ability to find for themselves their best ways of teaching students. Mentoring by experienced teachers, a vanishing breed, would also be an important element in this program. The recent push back by an increasing number of parents and students around the country against treating young learners and schools as numbers is an encouraging sign that the public is realizing that the "Educational Reform" movement beginning with No Child Left Behind and continuing with Race to the Top is a hoax.
Finally, I think that if the public wants teachers to be professionals, they should be paid like professionals. The average annual teacher's salary nationally is a little over $40,000 a year. In contrast, the salaries of bureaucrats on the staffs of superintendents and principals averages well over $100,000 a year. I am tempted to suggest that those who spend most of their working time on paper work in comparison to the teachers who are directly responsible for the students' education be paid proportionately much lower salaries than teachers. However, since that is not likely, at least there should be a significant raise in teachers' salaries so they approach those of management, making teaching more attractive to those who have the qualifications for a decent-paying job.
It is ironic that the Women's Rights Movement which has opened up the doors of opportunity for talented women to have a greater choice of vocation has had a negative effect on recruiting the most gifted among them for careers in education. But rather than regret this enormous social change, the future course of education must be to make the profession as attractive as it has become in Finland. And that requires a profound change in the public's attitude toward what I regard as the most significant profession in any civilized society: teaching
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