Thursday, May 01, 2008

Substitute Teaching

I’ve been substitute teaching for about 3 weeks now; it’s not hard, sometimes kinda fun, and pays $70 a day for about 4 and half hours of actual teaching (you have to be there for 7 hours though, planning periods and lunch and all.) I’ve mainly done middle school math classes, and the teachers usually leave some pretty basic worksheet for the students to work on for the whole period. A few kids wanna actually learn how to do the work and all, about half the class just wants to talk, some kids want to run and throw stuff around, and the rest of the class just sits there bored out of their minds.

Okay, now I ask myself, why are most these kids even here? The ones who actually want to learn, alright yeah makes sense, but the rest? Why can’t they be outside playing or doing that they have an actual interest in? Yeah, there’s the whole you need to know stuff for college, for your future job, etc, but is this really relevant when you’re in middle school? I’m not sure our current education system has a good answer to these questions.

The way I see it, our K-12 education system vastly overemphasizes graded coursework. Before I go any further, let me say what is good about graded coursework, and why it is an important part of our education system. 200 years ago, there was virtually no economic mobility in our society: if your parents were poor, you would also be poor. The poor simply had no access to any sort of economic opportunities. Now, that has changed. Now, everyone goes to school, and everyone is ranked by their grades. Any one who makes mostly A’s in high school can at least go to their state university, and if they do well there, they have access to all types of high-paying salaries. It doesn’t matter what family you are from, who you know, or what “connections” you have; ranking people by their grades gives everyone access to many of the economic opportunities within our society.

Having said that, I believe our society vastly overemphasizes graded coursework. Education could and should be about so much more than the allocation of economic opportunities. Yet students spend 6 hours a day in classrooms, grades K-12, in order to be ranked, sorted, and inserted into the economic position that they “earned.” Like I said earlier, I think there is value in this process, but I believe we should spend maybe 3 years, grades 10-12 on it, rather than the 13 years we currently spend on grading coursework and analyzing standardized test scores.

Seriously, is anyone else tired of being told what to study, what to do with all your time? I mean, it’s not so bad if you have a clear idea of what career you want, and are doing the work to get the degree that allows you to have that career. But do we really need to shut fifth and sixth-graders in classrooms for 6 hours a day forcing them to study triangles, governments in Asia, how to classify rocks, literature that they have no interest in, etc? And then we give them an hour or two of homework a night, on top of all that? Come on! We don’t need to spend 13 years on all this crap in order to get kids to the minimum level of proficiency at reading, writing, and manipulating numbers that our economy requires.

From grades K-8 or 9, there is no good reason to pressure kids into learning. School at this level should rather be a supportive community where kids are allowed to freely pursue their interests. (A couple of them might even be interested in those triangles, rocks, or literature.) I’m reading a book about a school in Massachusetts called Sudbury Valley that has no set courses for students to attend. If students are interested in something, they find others who are interested and talk to them or they read books about it; they design their own courses of study, if they choose to have any courses at all. The idea behind this approach is that we’re now in a post-Industrial economy that needs innovative workers, while our country’s current educational system is based on an Industrial economy that requires workers who can easily learn to do specific repetitive tasks. Here are a couple excerpts from some articles about the school that help explain the school’s philosophy.

“People come to SVS and see it as being in "perpetual recess," and it gives them a little twinge and perhaps they start worrying. But just remember this: these schools that we all grew up in, with their classes, their curricula, their SAT's and Achievement Tests and Placement Tests, their grade levels and exams, these schools are relative newcomers to the scene! They're only about one-hundred-fifty years old. They were started by people who sat down and thought about education and said, "This is the kind of school we need to create a great industrial society." And do you know what happened? People in the 19th century used to walk into those "newfangled schools" and experience culture shock! They'd say, "This is a school? My kids could be spending their time productively out in the fields on the farm. They could be apprenticing as tradesmen, or as craftsmen, or doing all sorts of useful things. You mean to tell us that taking kids and sitting them at desks and having them write on chalkboards, that's a school? You're calling that education?" They had just as weird a feeling then as people have today looking at Sudbury Valley! It took many, many years for people to get used to the industrial-age schools which are so accepted now!” – from

“I always get into arguments about “the basics,” especially with academicians. They always come back to me with math. I love it when people discuss math, because I cannot imagine a subject that more people hate than math. It is universally hated, but nevertheless everybody comes back with, “How are they going to make it in life if they don’t all know math?” My answer is always, “As far as I know, nobody ever uses math, really, unless they’re in a math-related field, like engineering.” The truth is, if a kid wants to become an engineer he’s going to figure out pretty early on that if he doesn’t know math he’s not going to be an engineer, and he’ll learn math quickly and easily, which is our experience. There’s nothing to it when you want to learn it. But I don’t even try to teach anybody who isn’t invested in learning math. I keep asking people: if they walked into a supermarket and went to the cash register, and had a cashier there with a piece of paper who started putting down a long column of all the prices on the things in their carriage, and then started adding it up the way they were taught in school, would they ever shop in that supermarket again? And would they trust the addition? It’s ridiculous!” - from

I do believe in the ideas behind universal education, that knowing how society works is something everyone can benefit from. However, I disagree with the idea of pressuring and coercing students to learn, especially to the extent that our current educational system does. As a teacher I will do my best to encourage without pressuring, requiring, or coercing my students.