Tag Archives: teaching

Education as Business Ramblings

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Most people who know me know I’m not anti-business.  Capitalism and competition are good when the invisible hand is left alone.  In the real world laboratory, capitalism proved itself superior to communism, and those who believe otherwise are deluding themselves and living in the world of abstract ideals, not in the tangible world of human complexities.  However, that said, education has no place as a for-profit enterprise, and we are crippling the long-term sustainability of our economy by viewing it through those prisms of fiscal efficiency.

I’ve often heard my successful, usually conservative, friends say that their children don’t attend public schools, so why should their tax dollars be used to support it?  On the surface, that question may seem reasonable, but my response to that argument is that we all rely on public education whether we directly have children in the system or not.  If you expect 911 to function properly, you rely on it.  If you hire employees for your business, you rely on it. If you ever conduct any form of business transaction in any public setting, odds are that you’ve relied on public education because you have an expectation of competence from the other party.  Right now, as business models and manufacturing principles are applied to the system, our teachers are incapable of effectively teaching what really matters.  Instead, they are busy stuffing minds full of quantifiable information and prepping for the standardized tests, and we already have enough experience with this model to see that it is failing.

Currently, the trend in education, implemented by a top-down hierarchy, is to apply lean manufacturing principles into the system.  In short, it means speed up the system to find where it breaks, improve that area, speed up some more until it breaks again, and repeat.  In manufacturing, where speed and efficiency are keys to success, this process makes sense.  However, real learning is not as simple as adding this part to that part to get this widget.  I’ve taken a look at students’ notes after I’ve gone through a lecture, and even though multiple students heard the exact same words at the exact same time, they have often written down something far from what I said.  In order for real learning to occur, a good teacher must be able to identify where students are straying off course and steer them back accordingly.  The faster the system runs and the more students per section, the more difficult this becomes.  Curriculum must become simplified and homogenized to ensure all students can follow along.  If I have to explain why that is a bad thing, you may be part of the problem.

In business, customers must be pleased.  Angry customers typically will not be repeat customers.  That’s a fairly simple concept.  If education runs like a business, how do you make the most customers happy in the short-term?  Well, you make learning fun.  You make sure students pass.  You make sure you don’t make the customers angry.  Those of you above the age of thirty or so, please think back to your best teachers, the ones who really taught you the most, the ones you appreciate today.  Did they ever hurt your feelings?  Did they ever push you to do better even when you thought you had done well?  Did they ever make you angry?  Those teachers are the ones being squeezed out of the system because they don’t keep the customers happy.  Real learning is hard work.  Real learning requires the occasional bruised ego.  But that’s not good for business, so guess what’s happening to real learning?

This year, the college where I teach removed all pretense about our current modus opeandi during our start up week.  To begin, our president, a man who I typically admire as a real education professional, laid out our four primary objectives: 1) get the students enrolled; 2) get them to show up on the first day; 3) keep them attending; and 4) get them across the stage.  Anyone notice what is missing?  After his opening, we were treated to a marketing presentation on how to make the workplace more exciting.  It was reminiscent of the morning meetings we would have when I worked in sales, a “go get em” pep rally type thing.  The marketing guy–a true pitch man if I’ve ever seen one–then proceeded to tell us that education is in fact a business and that our job is to make money from enrollment and also from alumni.  Again, no mention of actually teaching them anything.  During his section, I felt a little piece of my soul die.  After that, faculty were treated to a four hour presentation on how we need to make learning “fun” for the millennials because they bore easily.  The old methods, tried and tested over three thousand years of human development, are now obsolete because this generation prefers Google and YouTube to lectures and guided discussions.  That issue will be a different topic for a different post all its own.  My point here is that the college overtly expressed repeatedly that we are a business, that our jobs as teachers is now that of customer service rep.

Good teachers today are throwing up their hands and either giving up or walking away entirely.  Until business leaders recognize the abysmal failures of this new model and demand that education reverts to producing critical thinkers instead of test takers, we cannot properly do our jobs.  Until business leaders recognize that we cannot compete on a global scale with an ill-trained workforce, the system will not change.  Education is not a business.  It’s a long-term investment for businesses and communities, an investment that pays for itself through the innovations and efficiencies of the citizens it produces.  Until business leaders learn that lesson firsthand, we are headed for disaster under this current model.

Wednesday Afternoon Ramblings

I’ve been an educator for 14 years, over a third of my life. When I first began, even as a lowly graduate assistant, I had near autonomy in the classroom. There were basic course guidelines, but virtually all of the design was left to my discretion, from day to day instruction to essay prompts. The rationale was that in the marketplace of ideas, effective educators would thrive and the rest would weed themselves out.

For the first couple of years, I struggled to find my stride. Like most young teachers, I thought my job was to cover as much ground as I could. Then, I figured out on my own that students learned much more if I focused on essential fundamentals and strove for quality in those basics. My real job, as I learned, was to teach people how to teach themselves.

I hope it doesn’t come across as too arrogant to say that for many years, I was a great teacher. Dozens of students came back long after my class was over, when there was no incentive to do so, and thanked me for helping them succeed in college. I’m deeply proud of the work I did and the lives I touched.

Today, I’m a shell of that person. The system has burned me out and used me up. I still try to give my best, but I simply have little left. I feel it when I try to lecture, when I grade, when I trudge out the door dreading each day. There are numerous reasons for my burn out, and I’ve written about them quite often. One of the biggest, however, is the slow erosion of autonomy.

Each semester, the state dictates more and more of what we do in the classroom. Each semester, we have less authority over what and how we teach. The trend is toward homogeneous curriculum. In theory and on the surface that sounds reasonable, but anyone who knows anything substantive about education should be able to tell you that the key to effectiveness is adaptation to specific student needs based off specific instructor strengths.

I hate hating a job I once loved. I miss leaving the house each day thrilled that I get paid to share my knowledge and passion for a subject I adore. I miss getting to work one on one with students, knowing not only their names but their specific writing deficiencies, too. I miss feeling like what I do actually matters.

Today, we as educators are stuck between bureaucracies that see us as disposable, replaceable commodities and students who see us as obstacles to success. There simply aren’t words to convey the sadness, frustration, anger, and sense of betrayal I feel over what has been done to my profession.

Part of me wants to hang on for one more year to have my retirement vested. It’s not much money, but it’s enough that I’d like to have it. Part of me wants to walk away today. All of me recognizes that I have to get out soon. My primary goal and focus has always been to write, and somehow I have to make that happen now.  I’m not sure how I’ll break through the locked gate, but somehow, I must. There simply isn’t any way I can continue in this system under these conditions.

Wednesday Morning Ramblings

Here’s an illustration of what’s wrong with education today.  First, for the last five days, I’ve graded almost non-stop because all of my sections started out overfilled, and now, at the end of the semester, I’ve still got as many students as I normally begin the semester with.  There’s almost a sadistic mandate from the highest levels to overwork us and burn us out.  It truly seems purposeful, as if administration views educators as a disposable commodity with an infinite supply.  Perhaps there is an endless supply of warm bodies to proctor a course, but in my experience, it takes years to develop professional educators, and the percentage of people who can grow into professionals is relatively small.  So one major flaw in our system today is the best quality educators, at least from my perspective, are being driven from the career because of burn-out and mental fatigue.

The second major flaw comes from how the K-12 system has created a generation with no concept of accountability.  Yesterday was a perfect snapshot of this mentality.  A student had flubbed her internal citations for a major paper; she wasn’t even in the ballpark of what I had taught.  After asking me to explain to her how to do it properly, she continuously interrupted me to tell me I was wrong and that she had in fact done it correctly.  Again, she wasn’t even close yet believed she knew more about MLA style than I do.  I was so irked by her disdain for my authority on the subject I literally had to walk out of the room.

From talking with colleagues, I’ve found that this particular mentality is becoming more and more prevalent among freshmen.  How dare we question them or hold them to standards!  For their entire academic careers, all they’ve had to do was show up and put something down on paper to get passed along to the next level.  While many honors and advanced programs do maintain certain standards, what we’re seeing is that the less rigorous ones seem to have none.  Showing up is all that’s required.  As a college instructor, I’m indescribably frustrated by this erosion of principles because as a composition teacher, often I’m the first person to hold these kids accountable for their lack of ability.  Therefore, I’m the villain for ruining their opportunity for higher education.

Like the old cliche states, children are our future, and from my vantage point, our future as a world leader is on shaky ground.  Without standards or accountability, children are coddled into believing that quality does not matter, and as quality evaporates, so does competitive edge.  In a global economy, competition is more fierce than ever, so at a time when we need it most, we are robbing our children of their competitive spirit because of a flaw in the system that encourages passing along children regardless of performance to maintain funding.  Older teachers who have worked in the K-12 system know exactly what I’m talking about, and many of them either already have or soon will flee the system because they are “encouraged” to lower their personal standards to meet the declining abilities of students.

The real crux of the problem is that most administrators have very little in-class experience.  Some do, but most don’t.  Most are trained administrators, so the system has evolved into one where the people with the least experience with classroom management and course development have the most say-so in setting the guidelines for how the system works.  To me, that seems like backwards thinking.  I know other sectors, such as manufacturing, have gone through similar struggles, where the people making decisions on how a particular line runs have never actually operated the machines, but education is not manufacturing or food service.  Education is the foundation for everything else, and I do mean everything, so we as a nation are setting ourselves up for failure because we have broken our own foundation.  All I can say is it’s a frustrating time to work in this profession.