PBS series conveys the texture of teaching

Teachers frequently find themselves in the glare of the media spotlight these days, but little of that attention is positive. Discussion tends to center on what can be done to hold them more accountable or to press them to ratchet up test scores.

That there is an art and even a certain nobility to the teaching profession is often lost sight of. That's why teachers - and anyone who wants a new perspective on what they do - might enjoy viewing "Only a Teacher," a three-part documentary on the profession set to debut on PBS stations next month.

"Only a Teacher" offers both historical and contemporary perspectives on the state of teaching. It serves to remind viewers that the ambitious task of imparting to a heterogeneous population the skills required to become productive and cooperative citizens has always required a great deal of hard work and courage, and at times, even a fair amount of heroism.

The series, narrated by Stockard Channing, begins in the present with students of Dean Eastman, a high school history teacher in Beverly, Mass. These students tell how Eastman's hands-on approach - which includes field trips to graveyards to learn the history of gravestones - has not only sparked a love of the subject matter but has also inspired them to want to accomplish more in life.

The series then jumps back into the past to consider the origins of US public education. Although a public school system had existed in parts of the country since the 1600s, it was a self-taught, crusading attorney named Horace Mann who in the 1830s first spelled out the notion of the "common school" that came to dominate American education.

The influx of women into the teaching field beginning in the 1850s is also examined, both as an expansion of professional options for women and as an excuse to downgrade pay and working conditions in the field.

In addition to interviews with education professors and teachers from a variety of schools, the program evokes the voices of some lesser-known heroic figures from the annals of the profession's history.

Tales are told of women like Laura Towne, Charlotte Forten, Julia Richman, and Elaine Goodale. Towne, who was white, and Forten, who was African-American, were both Philadelphia school teachers who joined the influx of thousands of Northern schoolmarms who went to Southern states after the Civil War to help educate children of freed slaves.

Richman was one of the first Jewish women to attain an administrative position in New York City schools in an era when immigrant children were streaming in.

Goodale left a comfortable teaching post in Massachusetts to teach in the Dakota Badlands in 1884, eventually becoming inspector of Indian Schools for the Dakota Territories at the time of the massacre at Wounded Knee.

The series also traces the rise of teachers unions, and the fight for improved working conditions, a battle rendered all the more difficult by the fact that the profession was dominated by women and therefore failed to garner the respect of many of the country's policymakers. Today the legacy of teachers unions in this country is viewed by many as a mixed one. But in the early 19th century, when Chicago teacher Margaret Haley led the fight against the unfair practices that teachers were forced to endure, she was considered a heroine.

Some decades later, government-mandated desegregation of public schools reshaped the face of education for many teachers. The series looks at the career of a North Carolina principal who devoted much of her time and energy to ensuring the successful and peaceful integration of her school.

Today's thrust toward establishing standards for teaching and learning is examined as well. And those issues are given some historical context when viewers are reminded that at the beginning of the past century, in an era of flowering industrialism, many educators spoke enthusiastically of organizing schools on the model of a factory assembly line.

Frank McCourt, the author of "Angela's Ashes" and an Irish-American immigrant who spent many years as a New York City public high school teacher, reminisces about his classroom experiences in a few segments, narrating how he came to teach Shakespeare to students in a vocational class, and how it moved him to tears to hear them recite the Bard's words.

Many of the people featured in the series are currently working in the classroom, including a group of four teachers-in-training in a Cincinnati program who are not afraid to appear vulnerable as they share exactly how difficult the early days in the classroom can be.

The series is also candid about how little society often appears to value the teaching profession. "I know folks who worry more about the mechanic who fixes their car than the English teacher who has their kids five days a week," says Gerry Speca, a retired Boston public-school teacher.

McCourt finds humor in the way teachers tend to be portrayed on TV and in movies, often giving the audience the impression that they teach only one class with a handful of students, or that they never teach more than a few moments before a bell rings to announce a break.

And yet he also speaks movingly about the role teachers play in society, asking, "What's the most precious material we have in the country? Children."

He adds, "If we don't give them the best mentors and teachers, we're destroying them. We're destroying the culture. They are the future, and the teachers are there every day with the future."

For more information: www.pbs.org

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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