Teaching Shouldn’t Happen in a Black Box
By Bill Polasky
I began my high school teaching career in rural America over quarter-century ago, at the very tail-end of the analog era. In many ways, the classroom I entered as a novice teacher in 1993 did not look or operate any differently than it did in 1963, nor was it expected to. My role as a teacher was simple: I was a content delivery vehicle. Skill development was not the byword; as a secondary education teacher, I taught history, not students, and that was the expectation of my students, administration, and school board.
Standardized testing, school improvement plans at the state level, and institutional accountability were in their infancy, social-emotional learning and bilingualism were not yet universal in educational currency, and neither telephones nor computers (the school’s or the students’) were in any of our classrooms. This meant that my teaching happened in a “black box;” students walked in the room, the educator closed the door, and what happened (for good or for ill) was what happened.
The field has come very far since then. The expectations and responsibilities of teaching are so much more complex than those I faced as I stepped into my first classroom in the early years of the Clinton Administration. Cultural awareness, shifting family dynamics, the emphasis upon data, accountability, and skill development, the empowerment of students to become agents of their own learning, and the integration of technology are all new developments that I grew into.
My evolution in the field took time, and I was fortunate to have been afforded it. By contrast, the beginning educator of today does not have that luxury. They are expected to figure it all out in real time. Today’s profession of secondary education has a lot in common with social work, yet teacher training programs, teacher candidates themselves, and the culture at-large have been slow to fully recognize and acknowledge the ramifications of this seismic shift.
To this end, the “figuring it out” model of bringing people into the profession is a completely unrealistic recipe for success. My students today have much more of a need for the educator as a stabilizing force and role model than they did three decades ago, from seeking personal counsel in managing grief and anxiety, through navigating the perils of social media, to real-time assistance with the intricacies of the college admissions process and the next big steps in their lives. I’ve had to develop skill sets in sensitivity, empathy, communication, and affinity well beyond my command of subject matter. I’ve had to evolve in ways I never could have anticipated when I was 22.
By contrast, new teachers feel unprepared, unsupported, and overwhelmed. But there are ways we can mitigate this.
First, we can create more universal standardized and codified mentor teacher programs. In Illinois, organized institutional mentorship is conspicuous by its absence; there has been no state-level support for educational mentoring since 2009. As a Teach Plus Policy Fellow and 2019 Illinois Teacher of the Year Finalist, I have been advocating with my colleagues for the reinstitution and expansion of a formalized and sustainable mentoring program in Illinois that would provide pathways for teacher leadership in a field where it is often said that “you are either moving up or moving out.”
In the past few months, I have testified and advocated on behalf of gaining more support for state-level teacher mentor programs before the Illinois State Board of Education and helped to draft laws in meetings with policymakers and legislators. Presently, the Illinois State Board of Education has requested an appropriation of eight million dollars for the reinstatement of a mentoring program for FY2021 and I urge citizens, parents, and legislators to support that request, as a first important step back in the right direction. New teachers in the Land of Lincoln are needlessly being used up by the lack of the mentorship and supports they must have in order to become master practitioners for the students they serve. This creates a cascading effect which punishes students with subpar and transient instruction and leaves veteran educators without the training they need to best meet new teachers where they are at. Teacher mentoring must be a major part of the solution to the 21st century education crisis in Illinois. Mentoring can help assure that no beginning teacher is ever again compelled to go it alone inside the black box of the mid-20th century classroom.
Bill Polasky is the department chair for social sciences at Stillman Valley High School in the rural exurban community of Stillman Valley, where he teaches AP US History, AP American Government & Politics, and sociology. He is a 2019–20 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow and a 2019 Illinois Teacher of the Year Finalist.