Ed. note: I had the tremendous fortune to teach and share a classroom with Tony Johnston at Leadership High School in San Francisco. In addition to always having my back, Tony pushes me to think about big ideas: Why do we do what we do? What’s the best way, and why? Now a professor at a college in Connecticut, Tony continues thinking about the good stuff with his students as they prepare to become the next generation of English teachers.
Lately, I’ve wrestled with the complicated and contradictory terrain encompassing what is meant by the term, “good education.”
After a doctorate in education and 265 years of schooling, I’d like to have a sense of what this term should indicate.
But maybe that’s just the trouble. As a parent of two school-going children, a former high school teacher, a teacher of future teachers, an administrator seeking accreditation for a department, and an academic — I’m left weary and confused by the competing agendas and ideologies around this term.
In the name of providing a “good education,” I am working to gain accreditation for the program I direct at my school of education. I’ll spare you the details. But I will offer that this work is both at odds, and seemingly irrelevant, with the work I will do in my classes that evening. My aspiring secondary school teachers are asked to interrogate entrenched notions of teaching as the administering of tests, handing-out of worksheets, and management of classrooms.
The following day, in a faculty meeting, someone raises the point that school reform efforts have clouded what the work of teaching entails, while another optimistically chimes in, “But unlike current teachers who resist these efforts, our new teachers won’t know any better.”
As I head back to my office for an afternoon of reviewing the Common Core State Standards and aligning our syllabi to the standards, I wonder, “Shouldn’t our work be to teach them to know better?”
After we recently moved East, my children enrolled in “good” schools. I know the schools are good because the website GreatSchools.org tells me so. So do the fellow parents that nod knowingly to one another in the halls as we scramble from room to room during the frenetic open-house event, where the well-oiled machine of my son’s middle school churns impressively.
Veteran teachers wear matching shirts and matching smiling faces, classrooms are equipped with computers and Smart Boards, signs in the halls signal to me that “character counts” and remind me to “walk on the right side of the hall.” Structures, routines, practices and traditions that have produced strong students for decades dazzle. After the chaotic and unstable realities of his elementary school, I am heartened by the security this school will offer.
Yet my son does tedious homework assignments that take him hours, and he expresses little genuine interest in any of the courses he takes. He feels the teachers do not know him and that he is not allowed to ask for help.
I broach his early sense of alienation and struggles with adjustments to both middle school and being in a new state with the vice-principal — hoping he will reach out to the teachers and maybe to my son. He tells me, “Yes, I can see he is struggling because he has two Cs.” I fight the urge to tell him that my son is not a report card.
In one of the courses I teach, I shared with my students something I learned when I studied the works of Lev Vygotsky. The Russian language uses a word, obuchenie, for which English has no real equivalent. My limited understanding of this term is that it captures the dialectical relationship between teaching and learning – not as two separate acts, but rather as a joint activity. Implications for this vision of teaching/learning intrigue me. If teaching has occurred, and students have not learned, did teaching ever take place?
If students experience a “good education” after which their minds are full but their hearts are empty – was this education a “good” one? After a brief but provocative discussion of how this term could benefit education in America, an especially “good” student asks, “Will we be tested on this?”