Tuesday, August 13, 2013

It's the Teacher that Makes the Difference

(Every year, foundations, think tanks and various other organizations produce lengthy papers detailing what‘s wrong with the state of education in our public schools and colleges, and what can be done to improve it. Yet nothing happens. Billions of dollars are spent on technology but the scores don't budge, and the same (if not more) percentage of students continue to drop out of school or take forever to graduate. The tomes that the educators and the educational-industrial complex produce to rectify public education have one thing in common: they never reflect what the students themselves think! It is as if they are convinced that students aren’t capable of analyzing what’s wrong with education, yet the pundits are full of suggestions as to how to foster critical thinking among them. The paradox is obvious to all except to the tome producers!

This is the first of a series on what students think is wrong with our educational system and the meaningful and practical steps that can be taken to improve it.)

Kathy had been falling behind in her classes since elementary school and enrolled in special needs level for almost all subjects, after being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. These special programs consisted of about ten to fifteen students and were very hands-on. Teachers could give the needed attention and because of this, Kathy back to normal grade level. But as a full-time community college student, she is frustrated because it is so hard to enroll in core classes. They fill up quickly, yet halfway through the semester, half the class drops out! These students take up spots that could have gone to more serious students. As a result, these students are forced to delay their academic schedule and transfer to 4-year colleges much later. “I strongly believe there should be a policy to prevent this from happening, such as putting a limit on how many times a person can drop a class or even putting people on hold for a semester because they failed to pass classes, instead of letting them take them over a thousand times and taking up a spot that a some else desperately needs.”

For Kaz, the lack of qualified and inspiring teachers is the greatest hindrance to a good education. “Sometime we come across a teacher who influences us, pushes us, shows us how great we can be, and inspires us. But in the public school system, the sad truth is that such teachers are hard to find. For whatever reason, it may be money or housing or transportation, public school systems do not attract outstanding teachers. And due to the judgmental, critical outlook that students have for teachers, all it takes is the first day for a student to dislike a teacher. Yet I believe that the student-teacher relationship is one of the most important and overlooked factors in education.” In Kaz’s experience, teachers make all the difference. “I am motivated to try hard if he thinks assignments handed out by teachers deserve my time and effort. If I see that the teacher is lazy about lectures, assignments, grading, et cetera, then I see no reason not to be lazy myself when completing assignments. On the other hand, on the rare occasions when I come across a teacher who inspires me, I try harder not to disappoint someone who puts in so much time, effort, and emotion into his or her students. My freshman English teacher in high school was a man who greatly influenced me. Today I see him as a mentor, someone who I can go to with my problems or talk on a personal level. Good teachers are the key to a good education. Unfortunately, in a community college with less funding and less motivated students, they are harder to come by. The key is to encourage teachers to form a strong student-teacher relationship from day one, starting with addressing students by first name and speaking a little bit about his or her personal life, so that the students know that their teacher is a human being. If teachers can do a better job and form healthy mentoring relationships with their students, high schools and community colleges would be much improved.”

Maddi has gone to public schools her entire life, from kindergarten to senior year of high school. The downside she found in her high school was the unhealthy competition among students, with little or no care for each other. Everyone seems determined to go to Harvard or Stanford at any cost. While she found the teachers genuinely caring and passionate about their subjects, the students acted as if the GPA was the only yardstick by which to measure a life. They were ruthless about teachers they didn’t like. In fact, in her school, a math teacher committed suicide because of the ridiculed he faced from his students. For Maddi, what is lacking in public schools is compassion among students. That is why she feels strongly that, along with algebra and history and literature, a subject on ethics and compassion and kindness, combined with community service, must become a part of the core curriculum. “What is the point of being smart by the book if you fail as a human being? Education is not just about GPA but also about learning how to lead meaningful lives.”

For Christy, current educational reforms focus on the wrong elements. Instead of investing in expensive, state-of-the-art technology, which she thinks actually distances a teacher from students, teachers should focus more on motivating their students through challenges tempered by kindness. Teachers should design their curriculum so that learning becomes a joyful experience, instead of being a chore or a mechanical process. Trying to craft a perfect educational system is a waste of time. If teachers use simple tools, such as using card games to master the periodic table, for instance, education can improve by leaps and bounds.

Educational think tanks and foundations may believe they are helping students but they are only hurting them by making them angry and frustrated to the point that students don’t feel education is important anymore. This is Roshmita’s strongly-felt opinion. She feels that educational foundations are making a fool of themselves by offering pie-in-the-sky suggestions for improving our educational standards, whether it is more technology or investor-funded online classes. Educational software is no solution. What Roshmita finds lacking from her own experience is that students who need extra help must have someone to show them how to master concepts and solve problems, instead of asking them to fend for themselves with web-assigned homework.

Stephanie is concerned about the poor pay of teachers in America. No matter what high-sounding suggestions may come from educators, unless teachers are paid at the same level as engineers and lawyers and doctors, as they are in Finland and Singapore, educational progress will be hard to come by. Also, in America, teachers are hardly respected. Additionally, tuition increase and shortening of the school year in which students are expected to learn the same extensive material in less time are two reasons why they are dropping out in large numbers. Students cannot be at their best when the pressure on them keeps increasing daily. Online classes take the pressure off a bit but their quality must improve significantly for more students to sign up for online classes. Finally, teachers must step up to the plate as well. If students are convinced that a teacher is genuinely interested in their success, they will perform better. Teachers should constantly seek feedback from students to adjust and improve their method of teaching and make it more relevant and interesting.

As Oscar sees it, times have changed but our educational system hasn’t, other than some cosmetic changes here and there. We are still applying the same 19th-century model in the 21st-century. “We not only seek different skill sets in the professional world, our nation’s population has also changed drastically. Many of the jobs that used to be well-paying and in abundance have now been made obsolete by modern technologies. Our colleges still offer many courses that have no benefit for career. We really need to change our whole system of education because the current one was simply not designed for today's world. The suggestions for change can come from teachers and educators but the most important ones can come only from students themselves. That’s what we should do: Create a national project lasting 6 months to a year and get opinions from students all over the country to improve our educational system. Only real data from the field, that is, from students, can show us the way.”

For Brandon, as for Kaz, it’s not technology or different forms of classes that makes the difference but the teacher. “Even the most boring material can be fun and engaging with a good teacher.  I pick teachers, not classes, when I sign up for classes. What frustrates me most is that there are a lot of bad teachers in our schools and colleges. That really has a devastating effect on students. The damage can last for years, if not a lifetime. So the first step to improving our educational system and student success is for schools to find the best teachers possible.”

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