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School starts next week all over Michigan and, as a teacher, I will spend these last few days of summer preparing myself for the excitement, intrigue and challenges ahead. I do a fair amount of prep work during each summer on the subjects I will be teaching, and, like many teachers, I find there is so much more to learn than time permits. My recreational reading will come to a screeching halt in a couple of days, and for the next nine months I’ll be collecting things I want to read for fun next summer. And late next August, I’ll wonder why that stack of books is still so tall.
I have made it a habit to spend the last week before the start of classes researching and setting goals for the upcoming school year. It’s during this week that I try to put aside the politics of education and the subsequent frustration I deal with on an almost daily basis. Being in a profession I love, one I work really hard to be good at, it’s easy to get frustrated by continually seeing attacks on my profession from those who know little or nothing about it. I know that the attacks are not really about problems with teachers or teacher unions. They are, rather, about what most attacks are about. Money. Public education is a nuisance for those making a greedy grab for public dollars to fund their private educational ventures. But knowing that does not eliminate the frustration.
Sadly, teachers have to spend a lot of their time defending themselves, their union, and their profession. While large corporations sit in the shadows salivating, short-sighted politicians, funded by these hyenas, fire the shots which drop yet another school district. The hyenas leap from the shadows and tear at the carcass, grabbing resources that used to help educate kids. Through schemes that have either been already proven ineffective or are completely untested, the hyenas turn a tidy profit at the expense of our kids and our future. All the while, a large part of the public sits on the sidelines wondering why the hyenas are laughing so much.
But I digress.
During the last week before school, I reflect on what is really important about education. I stop worrying about the subject matter of my classes, the lurking hyenas, and the other enemies of public education. Instead, I read about the philosophy of education, and I think about the things that will count as the real successes in the coming year. And none of those things are going to be measured by any standardized test.
I will use the words of a guy who died in 1890, but who knows a lot more about modern education than any retiring two-term state legislator. Back then, John Henry Cardinal Newman was fighting the same fight real educators are fighting today. Up against those who argued that schools should be run like businesses, and that we should only be teaching students the things they will need to know for specific professions (sound familiar?), Newman wrote that we must stand against those who “would frighten us from cultivating the intellect, under the notion that no education is useful that does not teach us some temporal calling, or some mechanical art, or some physical secret.”
He goes on to argue that cultivating the intellect “is a good in itself, [and] brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful.” Newman claims that “there is a duty we owe to human society as such, to the state to which we belong, to the sphere in which we move, to the individuals towards who we are variously related, and whom we successfully encounter in life.” The proper function of public education is to accept that duty and help “in the formation of the citizen.”
So, as I get ready to start another school year, I will not measure its success on how my students score on various standardized tests, though I will help prepare them for those tests. I will leave that accounting to those who have convinced themselves of the validity of that monumental waste of time and resources. Instead, next June, I plan to spend my last days of the school year with better citizens and better thinkers than the students who will walk into my classroom next week. And with luck, the hyenas will have to wait another year to laugh.