A Distant Whiff of Glue

In 1990 I went to a workshop offered by the Coalition of Essential Schools, the organization founded by Theodore Sizer to promote his vision of effective teaching and learning. It was being held at a school that was preparing to become an “essential school,” and Professor Sizer himself was present to answer skeptical questions from the community. He also spoke at our workshop, where he discussed the “Common Principles” that he hoped would lead schools away from conditions that force teachers to make “Horace’s Compromise,” in which the fictitious teacher Horace decides not to be too much trouble to his students if they don’t trouble him in return.

Of Sizer’s common principles all but one were framed in general or abstract terms. That one was very particular: the student – teacher ratio was not to exceed 90 – 1.  Sizer said that without that guarantee the other principles would probably prove meaningless. This fascinated me because I was at a turning-point in my (young) teaching career. I had given up working at a school where I had 130 students and was moving to one in which I would have 75. My decision to leave the first school was largely due to a conviction that had been growing in my mind: some kinds of good teaching are impossible in those conditions, particularly the effective teaching of writing.

What a difference! At the lighter-load school I could assign weekly compositions and mark them thoroughly, imitating the wonderful Mr. Levy, my Freshman Comp teacher at university. As if two riveting lessons a week were not enough, he asked his students to turn in those weekly compositions, and he worked them over. I learned more about writing in eight months with him than I had learned in the previous four years. I don’t blame my high-school teachers: they had 120 students each. The miracle was that Mr. Marmion could say as much as he did on the history papers he turned back to me, which is where I learned about writing in high school as he commented succinctly and sometimes pungently on my work. A graduate summa cum laude from the University of California at Berkeley in the days before grade inflation, he must have been accustomed to an extraordinary level of top-quality productivity.

With only 75 students other opportunities presented themselves for me to adopt the role of teacher as coach, one element of Sizer’s approach to teaching. Of course the careful marking of writing is coaching, but so is tutorial discussion with students one on one, as is Socratic discussion in class or Question Time after an oral presentation. In this kind of coaching the teacher always takes the student where he or she is, offering just the advice needed for improvement. It is not possible in any significant regular way when there are too many students.

Dr. Johnson said of poverty that “it makes some virtues impracticable and others extremely difficult.” The same can be said about poor conditions of teaching, of which one is a too high student – teacher ratio. Unfortunately, some people in the Ed Biz are not nearly as worried about impoverishing the conditions of teaching and learning as about setting up an efficient and profitable system that simulates schooling without delivering the goods. One specimen of my acquaintance used to say, after introducing yet another depredation of the conditions of teaching and teachers, “You’ll just have to work harder for less.” He used to be critical of the older teachers, referring to them as “dead wood.”

And thus we come to an important sticking-point: systems that overburden teachers are not just bad for the students; they are bad for the teachers. Such a state of things probably doesn’t bother the managers and businessmen who expect to fill their schools’ ranks with interns and Teach for America beings who will be done with teaching in five years, and it is not a problem to the one out of two new teachers who leaves the profession within the first five years, but it is a problem for schooling in general. Pace The Specimen, older teachers know some things that younger teachers do not, regardless of bright eyes and good will. But if the conditions under which they work sap their good will, those things will be of little use to anyone. What is more important, I wonder why Mr. Marmion would choose teaching as a career now. Could he support 120 students and demands made on today’s teachers that were not made on him? Could he support his family on his teacher’s salary as he did then? Could he repay his student loan, which he didn’t need when he went to Cal because it was then free? Would he accept being told that he would have to work harder for less when he was already working very hard for not much?

Harder workers may be found, and some of them, like Boxer the horse, may respond to the difficulty of their job by saying, “I must work harder.” But others will be pardoned for recalling what happened to Boxer and deciding that they really don’t want to work at Animal Farm after all.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.