Thursday, May 2, 2013

Agency Based Education By Alicia Walters Former Utah Teacher

Education is a means to an end, not the end itself—at least that much is clear from reading John Amos Comenius (1600s) who believed that education best served the public when it was universally available and stressed vocational training, preparing students to work in the real world; in comparison to John Milton, who believed that education best served the public when it catered to the elite and stressed language arts and humanities, preparing students for leadership positions in government.  So what type of education best serves the public?  Simply put, critics of vocational education will say that it neglects the classics in literature, art and music, and critics of classical education will say that it is lacking in practicality.  The answer is neither because in both arguments, the end of education is not determined by an individual student but rather by some theoretical idea about education.  Education must be voluntary and so the problem lies in education that is driven by someone other than the individual being educated.  Whatever happened to the adage, the possibilities are endless?  In both theories, the student is viewed by his potential, which is defined as: latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and led to future success or usefulness.  There is possible danger in education where the end of it is determined not by the individual being educated but by a “panel” or group doing the educating because whatever the panel’s agenda, the student’s individuality is at risk.  Language is the primary tool we teachers use to convey useful knowledge to our students.  And so, if I were on a panel seeking a specific end, then I would want to eliminate use of words that would validate the existence of the individuality of the students.  Foremost, I would not talk to them about anything that had to do with their character.  Their past experiences, family, dreams and faith would not be relevant to our study because they do not determine the end, the panel does and the panel is not them.  I would seek to change my students’ language and the way they thought about their own character.  This is precisely why parents and some teachers view having a government imposed, national standard unfavorably.

Character is defined as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual, or the distinctive nature of someone.”  If an individual student’s character is on the table, then the end of education cannot be easily predetermined and the panel is out of a job, unless their job description is rewritten to be a more supportive, rather than dictatorial role.  However, if students are only valued for their potential, or what some refer to as human capital, then the panel has a real opportunity for good or for evil.  The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has stated, “The characteristics of students in each school community vary greatly across the state. ...To meet these [academic] goals, different strategies are needed that reflect student characteristics, experiences, and cultural differences” (  Savvy parents and teachers consider their students’ developing characters and not only their potential.  They vigilantly protect the formative years and avoid premature labeling of their children and students.  And, they realize that the public is not served best when the future generation is being educated by a distant panel but rather locally, foremost by their parents ideally and then by their teachers who are accountable to them.

By nature, effective teachers are supportive of their students’ developing characters because they understand that character has the most opportunity for growth during the formative years.  They do not blame their students but ultimately hold themselves accountable to their students and work tirelessly to provide enthusiasm, positive discipline and constructive feedback to their instruction.  Their teaching is adaptable to meet the individual needs of their students and because of that, effective teachers are learning continually and often exploring new possibilities of how to instruct their students better.  As a result, they are generally liked by their students who will say things like, “Her class is hard but it is one of my favorites.”  Effective teachers resent the panel for getting in their way because they already have plenty of work to do without it.  Ineffective teachers are often miserable at work and make other people miserable, including their students.  They do not care about their students’ developing characters because they do not consider teaching a responsibility—to their students or society in general, but rather a means to a paycheck.  They often blame their students and do not hold themselves accountable for lack of discipline.  Students can generally rehearse verbatim the thoughts and opinions of their ineffective teachers but cannot tell you hardly anything about their curriculum.  They rarely give useful feedback to students and parents are frustrated because of it.  Their teaching is not adaptable to meet the needs of their students but almost like a script they pull out of the “September” file year after year to read to bored students while they themselves are bored at work.  You can find them sitting at the back of the classroom with their feet up reading a newspaper while their students fill out a worksheet with eyes fixed on the clock.  After school, sightings of them are rare.  Ineffective teachers welcome any panel who will do their job for them, and investors with interests in human capital will jump at the chance to sit on those panels.

You would think that the best solution would be to hire effective teachers and fire ineffective ones, rather than try to assume a common, national standard.  As an example, I taught Junior English at Davis High School in Kaysville, Utah.  Students who attend this school are often parented by a father with a steady job and a mother who has the option of staying at home to raise the children.  At the time I taught there, 92% of the student body claimed membership in a church community.  The result is students are getting what they need at home to succeed in school including but not limited to: good nourishment, a comfortable place to sleep, the security a father can provide and the nurturing a mother can provide and vice versa, as well as association with friends who share their same values and beliefs.  As a result, Davis High School is naturally competitive in Academics, Football, Theater, Debate, Cheerleading, etc. It is a great place to work as a teacher and many of my colleagues there are effective mentors and teachers who play an active role in deciding, along with the administrators who is hired to teach at their school.  At the time however, looking at my fall schedule, it was apparent that the football team had practice early in the day and so my 1st and 2nd period classes were usually comprised of Theater and Debate students while the football players filled the desks in my 3rd and 4th period classes, after their practice.  You would expect a teacher in my situation to exercise her common sense and not teach classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the same way to the Theater kids as I would to the football players, right?  I would hope so because it should go without saying that a Theater kid is going to react to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn very differently than a football player after two hours of morning practice, generally speaking.  And they did react and learn very differently and that is not an observation that a distant panel would be able to make or assess.

By neglecting to eliminate ineffective teachers, you discourage effective teachers from making your school their professional home.  My first year teaching was not at Davis High School but 32 miles south at Hillcrest High School in Midvale, Utah.  I was the new teacher in an English department where I was one of the few not tenured and so I was assigned to be the Debate Coach, even though I had no debate experience.  This came as a surprise because when I interviewed for the job, “Debate Coach” was not in the job description but was added after I had accepted the English teaching position.  This was probably due to the fact that Debate requires many additional unpaid, after school hours and the tenured teachers cared less about who was qualified to coach debate and cared more about clocking out for the day.  If any one of them had taken an interest in the hiring of a new English teacher/Debate Coach, I probably would not have been hired because I had no experience with Debate.  The principal admitted this to me a month or so after I was hired.  This was not a result of a shortage of applicants qualified to coach Debate but a direct result of a shortage of interest on the part of the English Department in the hiring of a new teacher/coach.  I was also assigned to teach two 10th Grade English classes where only 1-2 students in these particular classes spoke English fluently and none as a first language.  The remaining 40 (approximately) students struggled to speak English.  Since I was not ESL endorsed and my class sizes exceeded the allotted number, I was told by the Department Chair not to mention anything about this to anyone outside the school.  Coaching Debate alone would have eaten all my time in preparation, then add those 10th Grade English classes, which were really ESL classes.  I had taken Spanish in college but was instructed to only speak to my students in English because I was not ESL endorsed.  I could have really used a mentor at the school to help me gain experience that first year but as a teacher there, I felt completely alone and unsupported.  The English Department at the time was comprised of mostly ineffective teachers. Routinely, I heard these teachers refer to their students as “little shits” and I felt insulted and ignored whenever I tried to propose ways to make improvements to our department, which is why I left my job at the school at the end of my first year.  These problems were not the result of a lack of resources as much as they were the result of a lack of effective teachers.  It matters less the amount of money a school has and matters much more the teachers a school has.

While employed at Davis High School, I also taught after school hours part-time at a third school, Solstice Residential Treatment Center. This private school understands the important distinction between students’ characters as it relates to their potential and the inefficacy of imposing a common, national standard on individual students.  From,

“Solstice specializes in the provision of gender-specific treatment for female adolescents who struggle with a variety of presenting problems such as: addiction and substance abuse, eating disorders, self harm, suicidal ideation, trauma, adoption and attachment issues, family conflict, etc.  We have developed a clinically intensive program based on the specific needs we know these young women have.”

Solstice RTC is located about five and a half miles from Davis High School in Layton, Utah.  The Wisconsin Department of Public Education is correct in their assessment that “characteristics in each school community vary across the state...” Being a good teacher in each of these schools required an enormous amount of adaptability and a keen interest in my students’ characters as it related to their potential. Educators do not have that same adaptability under a common, national standard, which inherently by simple geography cannot encompass the variability of students within a school community.  In other words, how would a national panel be able to write curriculum that would fit such varied needs of individual students within proximity as close as a 5 mile radius?  They would either have to design a curriculum that targets a specific potential set within groups of school communities while ignoring the needs of students within those same communities or they would have to create something that best serves only the lowest performing students, bringing everyone down to the least common denominator in order to level the playing field.  They can’t afford to look at students’ characters because then the end is predicated on the student rather than the panel and so they do everything they can to diminish the role of character in a students’ learning and focus instead on human capital.  Sadly, the result is less teaching of language arts and humanities and less students realizing their exceptional characters.  Add a panel of educators or policy makers with a hidden agenda that most likely will not have the students’ characters best interest in mind and that is tragic.

~Alicia Walters former Utah Teacher

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