A Teacher speaks up to parents

A Winnipeg schoolteacher who’s proud of her profession says she’s fed up with amateur experts who browbeat her with theories they know nothing about

Sybil Shack December 6 1958

A Teacher speaks up to parents

A Winnipeg schoolteacher who’s proud of her profession says she’s fed up with amateur experts who browbeat her with theories they know nothing about

Sybil Shack December 6 1958

A Teacher speaks up to parents

A Winnipeg schoolteacher who’s proud of her profession says she’s fed up with amateur experts who browbeat her with theories they know nothing about

Sybil Shack

I like to teach. I think my job is exciting and satisfying. And I don’t mind being criticized. After all, when I decided to teach I knew I was putting myself in the public eye as surely as the actors, the writers, and the politicians. Every moment of the day I was going to face an audience, and my words and my actions would be scrutinized, mimicked and discussed at a score of dinner tables. These things 1 knew about my job, and was prepared for.

What 1 didn't know was that I was going to have to defend not only my idiosyncrasies of speech and mannerism, my personal philosophy of teaching, but my rights as a human being, and the right of my profession to have any philosophy whatever. These things I learned only through experience.

What 1 didn’t know, and what l still don’t like, is the fact that I have ÏO defend anything at all. Why should I have to be on the defensive about how 1 teach, what 1 teach, why 1 teach it, when I teach it, or that 1 teach at all? What’s more, why should 1 constantly have to be exposed to criticism of the wrong things?

The other day a neighbor said to me: '“When are you people (whenever I am addressed as “you people” I can guess what’s coming) going to throw all those progressive methods overboard, and go back to teaching the three Rs?” I couldn’t explain to him over the back fence that we have never had “those progressive methods” (about which, incidentally, he knows nothing), that the school is, next to the church, the most conservative institution in our society, and that if he must criticize “us people” for anything, he should be criticizing us for not keeping pace with new ideas as rapidly as he has done in his own business.

We can’t help this conservatism. After all, we are simply an element of the society we serve. The parents of our children think we teachers did a pretty good job on them, and that what was good enough for them is good enough for their children. They think this even when they say they want to improve modern education. Witness the uproar any time the school tries to introduce anything new or different into its program. or tries to meet the needs of our times with a new administrative structure. A complete reorganization of our educational system is unthinkable. So we go on in the same old way. We pretend to worry that we have produced a generation of men capable of self-destruction; but in our schools we preserve the patterns that influenced them.

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A teacher speaks up to parents continued from page 20

“I resent the implication that teaching is not a profession”

Not that we teachers can shrug off all responsibility. The school itself is reluctant to change. As teachers we have vested interests in the subjects we are teaching—we have spent years making ourselves proficient in them—so we will fight to thç death for the retention of Euclidean geometry or traditional grammar. What's more, we hesitate to introduce new ideas even when we have them because then we are lumped with the progressivists and the anti-humanists, and accused of watering down courses, or of catering to the multitudes, or of something else equally degrading. Moreover, people like us better if we drift along without upsetting things too much. Because it’s easier to go along with the trend, we abandon the truths we have learned through experience and research; we save our feelings and our social acceptability at the expense of our intellectual integrity. That’s one of the things I mean when I say that we are being criticized for the wrong things.

As a teacher, I am tired of being the public conscience. For a conscience is an uncomfortable thing to have, and most of us would rather not be reminded of it. We, the teachers, as the conscience of society, tell the children that all men are equal before God, that the weak must be protected and cherished, that good will triumph over evil. Then we have them study current events, and encourage them to read the newspapers which negate everything we have taught them by precept. Or we send them home to hear how daddy has outwitted his competitor in business, or out to the football field to see how the strong can overpower the weak. Our society feels better when it knows that its young are being taught to "live right” and to "think right”; that’s the job of the schools and the teachers. But to face the teacher who has to cope with such contradictory principles makes society uncomfortable. Maybe that s why teachers on vacation pretend they are theatre ushers or shoe clerks.

There are other contradictions in public thinking about education which are reflected in public attitudes toward the school and its teachers. Our Canadian community still has something of the nineteenth-century faith that literacy will solve all problems, so that somewhere there lingers a respect for the scholar. But overriding that faith is the hard fact that money is really more important, that it opens more doors and brings more satisfactions. The scholar makes money only rarely, w'hen he hits the jackpot on a quiz program or happens to write a best-seller. However, in placing money above scholarship the ordinary man does feel a little uneasy—his conscience again. He can dissipate his discomfort only by belittling the thing he has denied, so he sneers at the teacher.

Then, too, his days in the classroom were his days of subjugation. Now that he is grown up he can revenge himself openly and acceptably against the authority that irked him. If a little of the fear and awe still clings to him, he shows it by being ill at ease when he has to make conversation with a teacher, and that also helps to place the teacher apart from the rest of mankind.

Whatever the reason, it seems that the moment a man. be he big and virile, or meek and mild, discovers that 1 am a school teacher, he seems impelled to tell me what a demon he was in school, how often he was punished, and how little he studied. Listening politely and with feigned interest to this sort of thing is one of the trials of my profession. The social ordeal becomes even more difficult when the man is also a father, and 1 am additionally exposed to tales of how his children have suffered at the hands of teachers, especially female. "After all,” they say, "you can’t be expected to understand my son. You’ve never been a boy.”

Sane hut ¡inpatient

I do get a little tired of being criticized by the uninformed for failures of which 1 am not guilty. There were always people who couldn’t spell, and some people have always read better than others. I shouldn’t have to apologize for today’s schools because my neighbor’s stenographer is a poor speller. There might be many reasons for her deficiency, of which a poor teaching method might be one. But whatever the reason, I can assure my neighbor that it wasn't, as he proclaimed, because we had veered so violently from traditional methods of teaching. I have to live on neighborly terms with him so I didn’t ask him whether he could spell but he did remind me of a university professor whose daughter I had taught some years before. This gentleman had been raised in Scotland, and was much concerned with the laxness of our school system and the generally radical character of its teachers. He wrote me a long letter telling me everything that was wrong with our schools and with me as a teacher. He objected particularly to the way he thought reading was being taught, and, in his precise, rounded hand, explained that he was fearful lest the method make his daughter a poor speller. His daughter was an excellent speller, but his letter contained three glaring errors in spelling.

Nothing reveals the way many people feel about teachers more than the question which every one of us has heard a thousand times. I can usually predict it by the smug look which creeps over the face of the questioner. 1 meet an old acquaintance in the supermarket, or run into a former student, and after the first amenities are exchanged, he patronizingly asks: "And what are you doing now? Are you still teaching?” When I answered a former schoolmate, a doctor: "Oh, yes, of course. And what about you? Are you still practising medicine?” he was quite annoyed. He looked at me as though 1 were not quite sane. My sanity was unimpaired; it was my patience which had been damaged.

I resented, and still resent, the implication that teaching is not a profession, that it is fine as a stopgap until one can find something better, like a husband or a real profession.

This concept leads naturally to the accepted stereotype of the teacher. Since teaching is a temporary expedient, anyone with any gumption gets out of it as quickly as possible. The only ones left are the misfits and the incompetents, those who couldn't do better for themselves elsewhere.

Along with this feeling about teaching and teachers, and probably an outcome of it. is the distrust of the lively ambitious teacher who refuses to fit the stereotype. Our society places a premium on ambition and expects the bright young man to fight to the forefront of his chosen profession — unless, that is, his profession happens to be education. If he is a bright young man in teaching, he is looked upon with suspicion. It’s all right for him to be successful in his classroom, but he must not make a name for himself in education outside his classroom. At that stage he ceases to be a teacher and becomes an educationist, whatever that is, or an administrator, or what is worst of all, an expert.

It was quite apparent from the speeches of laymen at the Canadian Conference on Education last February that the worst possible thing to be was an expert in education; the expert is a menace to the welfare of the children of this country. 1 heard no suggestion that the hospital administrator threatened the recovery of patients in a hospital, or that the legal expert might jeopardize the success of a court case. But it seems that anyone who knows too much about education is automatically a fuddy-duddy, speaking unintelligible jargon, and subversive of the principles of solid learning. I am shaken by this public attitude. It is alarming to spend the greater part of my life learning my profession, and then to discover that this was the wrong thing to do.

Another fallacy the public entertains and enjoys is that of the “born teacher.” When departments of education have to fill classrooms with untrained, unqualified persons, we are treated to dissertations on the merits of these young people who are “born teachers.” I suppose there are some. Perhaps I have been unlucky, but in my lifetime I haven’t encountered any. The best teachers I know have worked hard to perfect themselves. They may not have been dedicated from birth to their profession, but once they chose it, they were absorbed into and by it; and they are properly concerned with the kind and quality of those who join them.

Our teachers’ organizations are currently engaged in a struggle to raise the standards of teacher training and the qualifications of teachers in service, i never cease to be surprised that this move on our part should meet with criticism. When we ask for some control over the licensing of teachers so that only the fully qualified may enter our ranks, we are accused of closed-shop tactics. When we urge the minimum of an arts or science degree for teachers everywhere in the school system, we are scorned. Anyone, we are told, can teach, and especially in the elementary school. One doesn’t need too much education to teach the second grade, or the sixth. 1 am concerned to find this idea flourishing not only among the poorly educated, but among university people as well. I may be wrong but I believe that, besides the subject matter, we must know a great deal in order to teach—we must know the children and the forces that shape them, and something of our civilization's roots and meaning. The years at university help us toward that knowledge and so make us better teachers. Why, then, are we opposed in this striving for professional status?

1 repeat—we are being criticized for the wrong things. We are criticized for being too progressive although we have not even kept up with the rest of the world. We are criticized for swinging too far from traditional programs although we are still deep in a turn-of-the-century rut. We are criticized for trying to teach “the whole child” although most of us haven't a clue as to what it means. We are criticized for using jargon although we are barely able to express our new ideas in professional terms. We are not criticized for failure to be daring in our approach to the real problems of our time. We are not criticized for our failure to experiment boldly with teaching techniques. We are not criticized for our failure to use the vast body of sociological and psychological research to improve our schools. I heartily wish that we were doing more of the things for which we are being criticized. We’d be better teachers in better schools if we were.

I've been critical of my critics. That doesn’t mean I expect to be allowed to go into my classroom each day and shut the world out, but I do want it understood that I am generally competent to do my job. I do ask for the privilege of leading an ordinary, normal life in which I may be permitted to talk about something besides children and the shortcomings of our educational system. I want to be treated as though I have the common faults and virtues of the rest of mankind, as though I were neither a model of propriety nor an ogre.

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Don’t mistake me. I have taught a long time, and in spite of all I have said there is nothing I would rather do, or any way of earning a living I would rather recommend. Teaching is infinitely wearing, but it is infinitely interesting. It has variety and excitement and all kinds of opportunity for originality, for its material is young humankind. No clay is so malleable, no canvas so challenging, no unwritten manuscript so provocative. Nor is any artistic achievement so satisfying as the tiny impress a teacher has made on the mind and character of a child. This is my guarantee of immortality. I can claim it without false modesty, and hold it close through the shifting pattern of the years and the classes that come and go. Perhaps, fundamentally, that is why I am still teaching. ★