What is Lost When Teaching as a Lifetime Calling is Undermined



Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, "White Boy: A Memoir," was published in the spring of 2002.

Today teachers, from elementary school through the university, are the targets of a ferocious effort to force them to conform to private-sector norms of accountability, productivity, and market-driven competition. The assault takes two major forms -- an effort to quantify student learning so that teacher effectiveness can be easily judged, and an effort to weaken or eliminate teacher tenure so that teachers can be removed, or rewarded, based on their effectiveness. The goal of these reforms is to have teachers work under conditions which more closely resemble those of workers in the private sector and to place them under fierce and continuous pressure to improve their productivity. The underlying assumption is that our educational system is expensive and inefficient, undermining the competitiveness of the American economy in the global marketplace

This argument, I have discovered, has an irresistible appeal to those who have spent their lives in the private sector, especially those who have risen to the top through what they believe are their own talents and abilities. They see teacher tenure as a luxury society can no longer afford, as it rewards inefficiency and retards innovation. Their views are well-represented in the policies of both major parties. The result is that teachers, at all levels, will have to justify themselves on the basis of regular performance assessments whose content is dictated by federal and state governments rather than, for example, professional teaching organizations.

Most teachers, especially the most talented and committed ones, view these reforms with horror. Not only are they extremely skeptical of the private sector’s vaunted “efficiency,” a legitimate concern given the astronomical compensation private companies give their executives while paying lower-end workers peanuts, they fear that those aspects of classroom teaching which make education life-changing for both student and teacher will be lost. They fear teaching being turned into a revolving-door profession.

This is not a idle concern. Every teaching evaluation instrument I know treats the individual class as a self-contained entity, and tries to measure or assess what learning took place only during the time that class meets. But the best teachers I know don’t just try to promote mastery of a fixed body of material. They try to impart new ways of thinking and seeing the world that will influence their students long after they leave the classroom. And to promote that dimension of “lifetime learning.” they remain in touch with their students long after they leave their classes, and even draw upon former students to help teach current ones. These life-long connections are among the most important things that keep great teachers in the classroom, yet I have never seen a policy maker so much as mention them in their proposals for how to improve American schools.

I know this all sounds very abstract, even self-serving, to people who have not been teachers, so I want to give a few examples from my own experience. I have been teaching nearly forty-five years, starting first with high school students in the Columbia Upward Bound Program moving on to undergraduates and graduate students at Fordham University. Both of my parents were life-long educators in the New York City public schools, so I had a model of professionalism and dedication to draw upon. But I also brought my own political experiences, my research on black history, and passion for racial justice into the classroom and viewed my students as people whom I was trying to empower as well as to teach.

Because I was teaching African American history in the late '60s and early '70s, there was no scripted curriculum for what I was doing. I invented my courses as I went along, with the help other young scholars in the field, and gave my students great freedom to interpret the material. My courses incorporated room for debates and performances, used music as guide to historical understanding, and produced class publications. I also spent time with my students outside of class, playing ball with them, attending cultural events and demonstrations, and meeting them for one-on-one tutoring sessions when necessary. The result was that I developed connections with some of my students that lasted a lifetime.

How these connections helped my students I can only speculate, but they had a tremendous effect on my own effectiveness as a scholar and teacher. Here are some examples of how my own pedagogy has been enhanced by the activities of former students with whom I have remained in touch, some for more than forty years.

One of the first students I ever taught in the Columbia Upward Bound Program, William Wright, had as great an influence on my life as any professor I had in college. William was on the Board of Governors of the Institute of Afro-American Studies at Fordham, as a student representative, when it took the momentous step of hiring me as a faculty member in 1970. Even though I was probably the first white faculty member ever hired by a black studies program, this department has remained my home for the last forty-two years, and a great home it has been.. But that wasn’t all. When my book White Boy: A Memoir came out in 2002, William, who was then news director of BET, commissioned a three-minute special on my book, which led to numerous speaking opportunities at universities and broadcast media. But most importantly, William’s daughter, Patricia Wright, who was an undergraduate and graduate student at Fordham, became the first graduate assistant of the research project I founded, the Bronx African American History Project, and was instrumental in organizing a huge benefit concert, featuring the Bronx’s greatest doo-wop singers, that attracted more than 700 people and put the BAAHP on the map, locally and nationally, as an innovative community history project.

But there’s more. Two of the first students I taught at Fordham in the fall of 1970 and 1971, and whom I got to know as fellow activists in the Fordham anti-war movement, Kathy Palmer and Sally Dunford, are still active in the Bronx -- Kathy as a teacher at a local elementary school, Sally as a housing organizer and community advocate. When I was supervising senior theses this year, each proved instrumental in advising my students on the issues they were investigating. And this was not the first time I called on them for help as an advisor on student projects or for help with my research. Kathy has been enormously helpful in setting up interviews for the Bronx African American History Project, and Sally has spoken in my classes and employed students as interns in her housing group.

Finally, the Bronx African American History Project, which is now one of the premier community-based oral history projects in the nation, has grown and flourished because of the generosity of two groups: Bronx residents, past and present, who want to see their stories told and stereotypes about the Bronx defused, and former students in our department who are proud to see the lessons they learned incorporated into a ground-breaking research initiative. Without the individual contributions of our students -- some who go back to the 1970s, some who graduated only a year or two ago -- the Bronx African American History Project, which now has conducted over 300 oral history interviews, could not exist in its current form. We are not talking about a small number of people. At least a hundred former students are regular BAAHP supporters, a remarkable total for a department as small as ours, but a tribute to the way our departmental faculty have approached their teaching as a mission, not just a job, and have built relationships with students that have lasted a lifetime.

I share these stories not just to explain how my former students have enhanced my life personally and professionally, but to affirm the value of honoring teaching as a life-long profession, of giving teachers the autonomy to decide what takes place in their classrooms and of viewing classroom learning through the lens of relationship building as well as skill instruction. Current reforms, if taken to their logical conclusion, will undermine all of those goals and make our schools places where inquiry and imagination are stifled, and students and teachers are always looking over their shoulder to see if they have violated some rule.

If that happens, something very precious in our lives will have been lost.

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