Teachers talk - about inspiration and reform

FRUSTRATION. Lack of inspiration. Burnout. These are prime concerns for the 2.2 million American teachers now settling into their schoolrooms.

As they settle, the Monitor asked a selection of outstanding teachers two questions: How do you retain your inspiration? And has the much-publicized school reform movement had any impact on your classroom?

Answers to the first question fell into seven basic areas: a devotion to social ideals, an abiding love of kids, a desire to keep learning, the chance to teach creatively, religious faith, outside workshops, efforts to ``change the system.''

Teachers were far less certain about Question 2 - except to say that school reform had little impact on their daily work.

What maintains enthusiasm?

``Some of us are still inspired by the idealism of the '60s,'' says John Ausie, a high school history teacher in Buffalo, Minn. ``Not as many, but some.''

At the center of that idealism ``are kids,'' he says. Good teachers know what they have to do for students. But schools often focus on ``attendance taking, paper work, jumping through countless hoops. A lot of our inspiration comes from finding ways to remember we're here for kids and not the latest marketing gimmick from central office.''

Mr. Ausie runs class ``press conferences.'' Students role-play historical characters. ``We had Socrates last week. Kids asked, `Is this man's search for truth a threat to our community?' A lot of these kids have never questioned their education that way.''

Dan Conrad keeps the focus on his high-schoolers - by finding them community service jobs, such as helping the homeless or tutoring children. ``I don't have a lot of teen-age Mother Teresas around here,'' says the suburban Minneapolis history teacher, ``but when the kids get outside experience, it changes something in them. For a lot of them it's the most powerful thing they've done. That keeps me alive.''

Tyra Seymour in Los Angeles runs a 70 percent minority school-within-a-school that has been successful in turning potential dropouts into academic successes. ``I don't teach the same way each year,'' she says. ``I do things differently, even though I go by the guidelines. Mainly, I keep learning myself.''

She uses team teaching (two or more teachers collaborate) and ``cooperative learning'' (small groups of students teaching each other) techniques to keep her work fresh.

Ms. Seymour, like many other teachers interviewed, gives students a lot of decisionmaking power. This fall they combined expository writing with American government: ``They built a class called `Ethics and Public Policy' that requires writing about the upcoming election.''

But ongoing learning is the key, Seymour says: ``I beat through newspapers, go to college bookstores - stay on the lookout for class speakers. When I'm learning, the kids are learning.''

Outside workshops are one way Linda Garcia at JFK High School in San Antonio keeps herself interested. She also ``keeps an open mind in class'' and has high expectations for her students.

Not a few teachers reported that a religious or spiritual sensibility is important to their work. Yvonne Robinson of Horace Mann Elementary in Minnesota feels her faith gives her an ``inner power'' that, ``whatever the problem, I can rise above it.''

Darian Scott of Hampstead Elementary in New Hampshire says her second-graders respond to a spiritually based love of their ``innate ability ... I want to help free kids from limits. That keeps me going, too.''

Some teachers find sustaining projects. When Helen Martin, a 20-year science and math teacher at Unionville High in Pennsylvania realized that ``there are only so many things you can do with an electron at this level,'' she nearly quit. Instead, she turned to what she first found exciting about science - lab work. She devised an innovative project to allow students to take weather photos directly from satellites. The project has carried her ever since:

Students run a finance committee, an R&D group, a staff to write a computer program, a construction group that assembles the satellite dish in the wood and metal shop. They track both Soviet and US polar-orbiting satellites on an Apple II computer and reproduce weather photos on an old Navy surplus printer they raised the money to buy.

This year, Ms. Martin's classes will link up with schools in England, India, Washington State, and California to make a world weather map. Has reform mattered in classroom?

Martin says the idea of school reform has had a powerful, indirect impact on her classroom. ``The fact that reform, things like teacher `empowerment' - a silly but important word - is being discussed by people in high places is liberating,'' she says. ``I don't think I'd have the boldness to do these things otherwise.''

But many teachers said reforms had little direct impact on their day-to-day work. One teacher commented, ``Reform? I don't know about that. It's not happening here....''

Thus far, school reform - especially in Texas, California, and Florida - has resulted in greater ``standardization'': more school hours, more basic courses tied to a demand for higher test scores.

Ms. Garcia says reforms in Texas helped her get better organized: ``I've had to focus on the main objectives in teaching, learn to get the material out to students without missing anything they might need. That was being ignored.''

But Seymour in Los Angeles says such reforms have hurt. ``It's a belief that more is better. In practice, it causes greater uniformity and rigidity rather than greater freedom and responsibility.''

She adds: ``When a mother asks me why her son is now talking to her again - that's not something you can find out about on a test, or something you can take to the school board as `results.'''

Mr. Conrad in Minnesota says reforms have caused more standardization among teachers themselves in his district. ``Unlike 20 years ago, you find fewer teachers who want to be experts - because now it's anti-specialization. Schools want students to be able to take a subject from any teacher.''

Many teachers, such as John Ausie, who was originally ``very excited'' about reform, have become very skeptical.

``There's been absolutely no substantive change,'' Ausie says. ``In most places there's still a teacher up front talking for 50 minutes, and no logic to learning: Kids go from studying the body, to medieval Europe, to French - for no coherent reason.''

Business management and public relations techniques are being sold to the public as reform, he says: ``We needed people to inspire, people with vision. Instead we got people good at managing.

``Principals now fill out applications for the latest `school of excellence' grant - rather going into their own schools and making them excellent.''

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