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Teaching Is a Universal Responsibility

By Richard J. CattaniRichard J. Cattani is editor of the Monitor. / February 5, 1992



THE teacher is thought to abide in a backwater - condemned, say, to the continual repetition of the fifth-grade curriculum, while old friends progress in an adult world of laptops, Porsches, and megabucks.

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But the classroom is a microcosm of society. All the motivations, dodges, inspirations of the human family are represented through the course of the day, among the students first but also among colleagues and the political community.

If I wanted to reform the schools I would talk to the teachers, because it is they who man the front line of education.

The classroom is the learning theater.

The Bush administration and others would take a different route. They would institute national exams, called American Achievement Tests, to impose performance standards on the classroom. I'm all for tougher standards; more demanding textbooks and courses can be devised by committees of teachers of English and math and chemistry. The federal government does not belong in the curriculum business, as if learning can be treated like auto emissions.

The schools can reform immediately.

A school principal can do a lot to establish a structure for learning. She or he has to be fair; discipline cases cannot be put through a revolving door; community politics have to be held at bay; teachers not performing up to the mark have to be evaluated and helped or evicted. The principal is responsible for the learning atmosphere of the school. When she must cut a third of her faculty, under state budget reductions, it is hard to keep colleagues' spirits up.

The classroom still must be defended as the essential theater of action.

The teacher has only today. He cannot fold his arms and wait two years for the national exams to arrive. She cannot wait for the governor and legislature to get their act together on the budget. Or for the textbook revision.

A first step is to accept that teaching is the fullest possible engagement with our times. Progress is a law that allows no exceptions, certainly not in this classroom. The teacher must not allow the class to be overtaken by prevailing mass moods that would keep students from engaging the work at hand. Learning can be great fun, but fun is not its purpose. Society has yielded to entertainment values and then it panics over falling behind in world competition - and then blames the schools!

The teacher must recognize an unconscious resistance to learning, an obdurate quality of thought, in many students. Patience is needed to cut off their avenues of escape. Other students require praise, appreciation.

It is not how hard the teacher works that matters, but how directly and intelligently the student engages the assignment. Teachers who put on five shows a day, five days a week, to whatever applause, will burn out; students are only too willing to let the teacher perform. Students should put on the show. The teacher should work his way to the back of the room, as observer. This conserves energy and establishes a settled atmosphere.

A teacher is a learner. The curriculum presumably mastered, the teacher must learn how to teach. How do individuals engage the work? How can attention to detail be invoked in a society that does not recognize, let alone reward, agreement between subject and verb?

Honesty - intellectual and emotional - is requisite. So are compassion and discipline. And celebration: a conviction that the assembled teacher and students are as worthy and grand a collection of individuals as to be found anywhere.

I have had a great number of terrific teachers. Mrs. Abbott of my own fifth grade. Mr. Baruch, who put a skinny ninth-grader on the varsity debate team. Mr. Weiss and Mr. Sebaly, who coached me to city oratory titles. Dr. Rhinelander, who lectured in Hum 4, Ideas of Good and Evil in Western Literature, during my first year at Harvard. Miss Streeter, a voice teacher who taught how distinctiveness comes from faithfully demonstrating the laws of performance. Dean Shaplin, who made me a master teacher in Har vard's graduate education program when I was barely out of college. Jack Hawkes, writing teacher and novelist. Everett Ladd, for a seminar in political science that has run more than a decade.

Sometimes I feel encircled by this crowd of teachers, so overwhelmed by the confidence and expectations they hold for me that all I can do is join them.

In every sphere of public life - business, government, journalism - teaching is the leader's first task. What's the curriculum: Where are we heading? What's the politics: What mental climate should govern? When do we work singly, when together?

Even the president must learn and teach. No national test can substitute for this universal responsibility.