Education: Why the System Doesn't Work

At this time in our nation's history, there is general agreement that we are having an education crisis. "Johnny isn't learning." The response has generally been to create large bureaucracies and institutions managed by "educators" to run the programs and solve the problems. In order to get teachers, we take persons who want to teach, or whose parents want them to be teachers, and place them in institutions of higher learning, where they take many education courses and some other courses, so that they too will be educated. The emphasis is on education courses. "How to teach." There is only one little problem with this system. It doesn't seem to work as often as it should.

The really bad news is that there is no way for educators to CREATE teachers. Persons either ARE teachers or are not. The same goes for many other professions that require innate talent factors; artists, musicians, warriors, etc. One either is or isn't one. Persons cannot be picked off the streets and made into something they are not, in certain career fields. A teacher, by definition, knows and loves a particular subject or subjects, has the skills and personality that cause others to acquire the knowledge and skills being presented, and on a percentage basis achieves results with most students. The process seems to be a natural one and the students of most "real" teachers seem happy with what's going on. The teachers are generally happy too. That is a manifestation of doing what one should be doing.

Many people in the teaching business should be doing something else. Teaching is a calling, not a job. This is in no way a condemnation of teachers who are not teachers. They are something else. That is the only implication. We are all SOMETHING! The only conflict is between what we are and what we do. People who do what they ARE seem the happiest and the most competent. The problem goes back to the system that labels people “teachers” after they have undergone a four-year infusion of coursework that is supposed to make them teachers. The education departments of most universities, perhaps all, concentrate on theoretical information on how knowledge and skills are accumulated. Somewhere down the line redundancy predominates, and SUBJECTS to be taught are lost in the process. Real teachers don't need to be taught how to teach any more than fish require swimming lessons. Teachers CAN be enhanced, inspired and improved. However, they cannot be created and certified by departments of education, unless the department happens to stumble upon someone who already IS a teacher.

Rather than being manufactured by outsiders, teachers need to be RECOGNIZED, captured, nurtured and placed in the system. Sometimes teachers recognize themselves, most often by accident. Others need to be discovered, like movie stars at soda fountains.

How do we recognize a teacher? Teachers are people who cause other people to grow. One day the air conditioning in my car was out of freon. The weather was hot. I went to a garage to get the system checked and filled. Two people came over to work on the car. One was an older man, the other a young, newly-hired employee. It was obviously the young man's first time to work on this type of air conditioning. The older man stood back, around three or four feet from the young man and instructed him on what to do. At the same time, the older man, who I will begin to refer to as the teacher, inserted a MEANINGFUL quantity of theoretical information on the air conditioning system. As I watched and listened, I realized that this teacher could have presented ANY subject or system that he knew, with positive results. The odds are that if he has ever been inside an institution of higher learning, it was to fix the air conditioning. The young man grew, in front of my car. I was a privileged observer. The other man WAS a teacher. He had no choice.

I feel sure that real teachers were, in their youth, probably the kids that others tried to emulate, for better or worse. They were in a constant process of discovery at all levels. When they discovered something, they always shared it. Their peers learned whatever the "teacher" had discovered and enjoyed the acquisition process. People have to enjoy and relate to whatever information or skills they are acquiring. Telling most learners that their education will make a better future for them is comparable to discussing the twenty-second century with a seventeen-year locust.

So what does this mean in terms of the "crisis in education" in the U.S. today? I suggest the following:

1. Start the process of DISCOVERING teachers. Find them, offer them free or low-cost educations, keep them, honor them, and pay them well. Some of them are already teachers. They really aren't that hard to recognize. Those who don't know that they are teachers will need some incentives. You may want to remind them that probably all of the GREAT people in history were teachers, even if they didn't call themselves that. They'll get it.

2. Convert departments of education nationwide into extensions of subject matter departments. Eliminate degrees in education. Instead give all teachers time to become subject matter experts. They will have to be trained by subject-matter experts who are teachers. The combination doesn't necessarily go hand in hand. To pay for all of this, reduce administrators and bureaucracies that may not really be needed if all of the persons in the classrooms ARE teachers.

3. Find humane niches for professional educators who aren't teachers and for teachers who aren't teachers. If any of them want to learn air conditioning….

4. After the teachers have been discovered, nurtured and thoroughly trained in their chosen subject areas, "qualify" them as teachers in a two-week orientation program conducted by SUPER teachers, stressing useful techniques to be applied in the classroom and how to use teaching equipment, visual aids, etc. as well as any NECESSARY administrative procedures. Encourage the teachers to continue their own educations. Most of them won't need encouragement. Real teachers are also real learners.

5. Put them in classrooms teaching the subjects that they know and love the most, and more or less leave them alone. That should solve the education crisis. Also, hire secretaries to cut down on any remaining paperwork. Teachers should ply their trade as teachers and will if given the time.

© 1989 Theodore A. Klein, Jr.