On the Practice of Education

Why teachers are no less “professional” than any of the rest of us.

It is nearing the last days of the school year, and while I’m thrilled with the progress my daughter has made and glad to have a bit more time with her over the summer, my thoughts keep returning to her teacher, and to all of the teachers, staff, and administrators at her school, and at public schools across the country. Because many of the educators at my daughter’s school are friends, I know that with a collective exhale of another year in the books comes the collective steeling of preparations for the coming one. Soon enough, August will be here and the students will return and the national public education merry-go-round will start up again. Students will slip through the cracks, parents will demand better and get worse, teachers will be overworked and underpaid, budgets will fall far short of need, and the nation will be disappointed.

My degree is in architecture, and I’m a certified planner, accredited with two additional professional agencies. I design and support the development of communities, and for my work, I am compensated fairly. I bear a personal level of responsibility for the quality of the communities that I create, and the level to which citizens are able to thrive as a result of their environment, and yes, there is some professional liability I bear, albeit to a minor degree.

At parties or gatherings, when I describe what I do, I refer to it as my practice. I am a certified professional, and society rewards that fact by deeming me a practitioner, no different in status from law or medicine or engineering or accountancy. I “practice” my profession…think about that turn of phrase that we all use so unthinkingly…I “practice” my profession, I continue the work of perfecting my craft. I’m accountable to my certification for my ongoing maintenance of its standards, and I’m accountable to my clients for adhering to contracts we negotiate. And to the extent that the communities where I practice thrive as a result of my work, well…

Education is an entirely different matter.

Have you ever thought about the standards we hold teachers to? In any given classroom, if even one child fails to thrive, that is an unacceptable failure on the part of the teacher/school/district/state/nation, isn’t it? And indeed it should be, particularly if that child is YOUR child.

The extreme level of our collective expectation is that in the ideal classroom, every child thrives in pursuit of his or her greatest potential, through the masterful guidance of the teacher leading that room. In his or her hands are a mix of external circumstances that must be negotiated, for each child in the room simultaneously, to the best outcome of every child, regardless of whether the heat is on in the building, or the child sleeps nights in the family’s car, or a personality conflict with the teacher or another student or a family member prompts the child to reject the learning environment, or the teacher’s mother has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. For that level of expectation, we pay that teacher extremely little. We argue that he or she “gets summers and holidays off” without consideration that there might be extra work to do outside the hours that the students are in seats. We rationalize our low valuation by arguing that it is an “easy” profession with a low point of entry, while (some of us) support merit pay based on standardized tests and (some of us) cry out against teacher unions and (some of us) cast off the dismissive, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

We certainly never refer to professional teachers as “practitioners.” We want perfection from them, while treating them as if they are capable of anything but. If you bother to look, the conflict is appallingly evident.

We hold teachers to a standard that very few of us could ever adhere to ourselves. In my line of work, that would be like saying that every place I design and help develop *had* to lead every citizen that came in contact with it to thrive. Think about that, the next time you are driving from home to work to the store…how many buildings that you come across stir your spirit? How many neighborhoods or communities that you pass through even *seem* to be places where you would thrive, never mind whether you actually *would* thrive there should you invest your life there?

Much of our cities are filled with junk buildings. They get built because they have to get built, because there is demand for a super-grocery and there is a large property that could hold one and most people will be driving there and that parking lot has to have ample room or people will choose somewhere else and it is cheaper laying it out that way anyway. Few if anyone’s life is measurably better because of that grocery store. No one stops as they are passing by to enjoy a quiet moment taking in the beauty of this expertly crafted structure. And we as a society are OK with that tradeoff because there was a need and the need was fulfilled, and in large systems like cities, process is sometimes worth more than progress. As a designer, I might do my best in committing my own practice to something better and encouraging others to do the same, and I also might often have to merely accept my own best efforts in our collective progress as just desserts.

I know that there are a whole lot of mindfully hard-working and dedicated educators out there with that exact same approach to their own profession’s system. They are practicing their craft every day, and some days they are exhausted and the district just announced cutbacks and they are worried that they are last-in first-out and their student with an abusive caregiver is out of control and CPS is running late for the eval. Some days, it is all a sort of perfectly choreographed poetry, when they know for a fact that they have made a difference in the lives of every one of the children they have been entrusted with the future of, and those are the days where they know that they are living up to their educations and credentials and honors, the practice that they have invested toward educating our children.

The least we can do is give them the credit they deserve, for doing at least as much as we do. And maybe (surely) quite a bit more.

Originally published at http://thecivichub.tumblr.com/post/84427972146/on-the-practice-of-education

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