The unspoken burden of the modern teacher.
Atlas is a famous titan of Greek mythology, condemned to forever bear the weight of the world. He alone is responsible for holding it on his shoulders; if he falters for even a second, the world will fall away and perish, and he will forever bear the fault of it.
Today’s teachers stand in Atlas’ place. The educational success of each student that comes through their classroom rests entirely on their shoulders. It is fair to say that this was not always the expectation of society. In more recent years there has been an excessive attempt to standardize and systematize education so that all who participate may receive equitable profit, yet this mission is fraught itself with iniquity. Most importantly, here, is that the teacher becomes the focus point of education, and this is no good thing.
Standardization was generally achieved through a few main channels. Standardized tests is the most recognizable, but textbooks are also significant for this process. Most importantly is the notion of Standards Based Grading (SBG), where students are graded according to content mastery rather than assignment completion.
Most definitely, at face value, we see that standardization really helps students. By establishing a system for better education and for more regular education, we find less educational performance gaps, regardless of where the students are living and regardless of who the teachers are. I personally have found that SBG really does seem to take away the “racing” mentality of school. Students are less focused on earning all their points and are more focused on mastering content knowledge.
At its root, standardization is an attempt to systematize what already existed. Standardization determined education to be a good thing and disparities in education to be a sad thing. That one child in rural Arkansas might not be getting the same level of education as a child in a well-to-do area of Washington D.C was not okay. By systematizing the medium of education (curriculum, grading policies, etc.) then education itself became systematized. The ultimate goal? To fine-tune the system of education so that every child, no matter of background, strengths, or interests, will come out the other side as a well-educated and well-rounded individual.
An Unintended Consequence
For a moment, I will lay aside some philosophical concerns about the nature of systemizing a civic institution. I instead want us to think about the effects of standardization and what it does with its participants. For the children, there are a mountain of benefits. There are, perhaps, some drawbacks when we think about creativity, but on the whole we find that more children are improved than not. But children aren’t the only people in this scenario: teachers are also in the midst of it.
Instead of an approach to education that begins with the unique qualities of all participants, standardization methods begin with predicting appropriate or inappropriate methods of instruction. With this understanding, teachers are part of the medium itself. Just as textbooks have to be standardized in order to deliver a standardized curriculum across broad circumstances, teachers also have to be standardized. This is necessary in order to truly establish a singular standard of education across the nation, but it has a serious side effect:
When teachers themselves are seen as part of the system at hand, that means that they are attributed direct causal authority over the outcomes of said system.
Your standard drip coffee maker has a filter holder, a filter that you insert, a water vat, a heating element, a switch, and an electrical plug. Each of these elements are arranged in such a way that they all have a causal effect on the outcome of the coffee maker. They are individual pieces, but there are a cascade of causes that make them work. If you have your coffee maker plugged in, and it doesn’t make coffee, what is to be assumed? Certainly that something in the middle isn’t working.
We can think about a standardized education system looking something like a coffee maker. We hope to design such a system that when used, produces expected results; if it’s plugged in, it should make coffee. When something goes wrong in the educational system, we can assume something similar to the coffee maker problem: something in the system failed. There could be a number of things that end up receiving the blame: the textbooks, the structure a school administration has put in place, or, most importantly here, the teacher.
Under the principle of subsidiarity, the teacher is the most significant element in a system of education, as they are the closest human element to the students. Being human means they are the most variable, and so the most problematic in the face of standardizing education.
The Teacher, Atlas
The teacher is the last domino to hit the children, so to speak. They are the final deliverers of content, the assessors, the troubleshooters, etc. Now, when I was teaching as a graduate student at the university, my role was extremely minimized into being a mere facilitator of content. I had no design authority and it was not my place to change anything; I was merely meant to deliver. My professor meant it when he said that we were not responsible for our students’ outcomes. Barring some major immoral act, the challenge of our university level classes was between our students and the content. We were not Atlas.
When I got my first public teaching job, I got the complete opposite message. It was told, albeit not directly, that my students’ performances were a result of my efforts. If my students failed, it was my fault. If my students succeeded, I had done my job sufficiently. The idea was that the curriculum and knowledge was already standard, and so any variance in student performance would be a result of my effectiveness as a teacher.
The first test I gave went very poorly for my Spanish students. I’ll never forget when a student asked me:
“Well you’re going to curve the grades, right? That’s what all the other teachers do.”
“No, absolutely not!”
“Why? It’s only going to look bad on you if you don’t.”
Even my students thought that their failure was actually mine.
The teacher, here, is the Atlas that holds up the classroom. Whereas my college professor told us that we were nigh an independent variable when it came to student success at the university, my new school’s policy was telling me that there were nigh any other variable as causal as myself. The most crushing reality of my new job was in this difference: that an entire world came down on my shoulders, and nearly swallowed me up.
“Oh, get over yourself Robert. You just don’t get it. One group is made up of university students and the other is made up of high schoolers.”
“You’re just upset because you finally took on a real job instead of babysitting university level students, and you don’t actually like having responsibility.”
Thankfully no one has ever said these things to my face, but I’m just anticipating the most likely responses to my article. They might even be comments I would have levied against myself, had I not experienced it for myself. Now, though, with more experience I am able to look back and realize that I had been thrust into Atlas’ place without warning. The newfound weight was unbearable.
When teachers become part of the system, their individuality is forgotten: their strengths, weaknesses, and unique experiences are pushed aside in the interest of standardization. What is worse, though, is that children are almost forgotten, too. As previously discussed, children do indeed reap many benefits from standardized education, but by forgetting their individuality along with their teachers’, their learning is negatively impacted.
Think back to the coffee maker example: in order for the device to be effective, and for the resulting cup of coffee to be the same every time, the coffee grinds going into the filter need to be the same as well. If the grinds are different, you notice.
It goes without saying that children are even more diverse than coffee grounds.
Any perfected system of standardized education necessarily forgets that all human beings have free will.
For teachers, the issue of human will is a pretty easy variable to rule out. We want to be there, either intrinsically because we want to teach and we want the kids to be successful or extrinsically because we want to be paid for doing a good job. That means that our will power is automatically counted in and you don’t have to worry about whether the teacher is invested. There are, of course, exceptions, but by and large this rule applies.
Students are not equally incentivized. Students are not coffee grounds that can simply be placed into the machine: they have to will themselves to be educated. In application, standards-based education suggests that motivation is irrelevant. As long as students are put through the best system their motivation doesn’t matter, because the best system has accounted for their motivation and has provided the right tools to get the students engaged.
But this makes my analysis too shallow. I’m not just addressing the issue of intrinsic motivation in students. If that was my issue alone, I might get on board the “gamification” trend within education. What I am getting at is a deeper reality within the culture. Students are not only human beings that have will power that needs to be engaged at school. How they are raised at home to handle life’s challenges are dramatically more important than what they learn at school.
First and foremost, parents are the primary educators of children.
This is a teaching of the Catholic Church. Part of the burden of parenting is that as a parent, you become the primary teacher and role model of your children.
Does the parent:
- Care that students master content or only care that students bring home a letter grade?
- Think education is about getting a good job or that education is primarily about self-improvement?
- Care more about their own work and interests over their children’s growth?
- Foster that inner moral compass innate to us all?
Teachers are sometimes recognized as spending more active time with children than parents, but this isn’t ever just one teacher. Usually it’s multiple, and even then it’s with a large group of children. The time that matters most is the time at home and the voices that matter most are the ones that feed them every night.
Not only are parents’ voices the ones that matter most, but parents’ actions are the things kids watch the most. We tend to think of our sins as private, but the reality is that our children are very perceptive of us at home. They’re very quick to recognize hypocritical tendencies. They know our habits sometimes better than we do. They hear what we say about government, about our own friends, about our worries, and about school. Sure, they know what you want them to do at school, but what do they think you would do if you yourself were sitting in a classroom?
It is said that actions speak louder than words.
When I talk about the unique human quality of will when it comes to understanding children, I do not exclusively mean intrinsic motivation. I instead mean the entire culture that students carry with themselves as they enter the school doors, and that is nothing a teacher has ordinary power over. It has everything to do with priorities in a student’s home life.
Upon the many goats and the few sheep.
Christ tells us in Matthew 7:13 that the way to hell is broad and easy to follow, while the path to heaven is narrow and difficult. Many will enter through the wide gate, he warns. Thus in an operative way we are obliged to have great hope that many will be saved, but we must live with the reality that this will probably not be the truth of what occurs. This is the shadow under which the Church operates. The most fundamental reality which we face, the existence of God and the necessity that we cooperate with the Church, is something that we don’t expect everyone to conform to.
Certainly we don’t expect that there is some miraculous system of evangelization that will convert the whole world, if Christ Himself didn’t even convert every person He came into contact with.
Education is a process that involves the human will, just like religious conversion. We might refer here to St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s notion of assent. As much as any human individual needs to assent to something for it to be manifest in them in a real way, education must reach past logical agreement and into a deep assent. But it will not reach into a real assent if the student never consents to receiving educational content.
If the Church herself does not assume that all she preaches to will be receptive of God’s word, why does educational policy assume that all it drafts into its curriculum will be receptive of its content?
By no means does this mean that the Church does not have hope that all she preaches to will be receptive. Similarly, too, it does not mean that the educational system itself must fail to hope to reach all of its recipients in an authentic way.
What I am trying to address in this article is the ultimate issue of the Atlas Complex. When we forget that the ultimate source and goal of education is a group of human beings, we might have the arrogance to assume that there could ever be a perfect system of education. Most importantly, when we forget that students are also human beings with will power, with their own ideas, with their own goals, with opinions, with problems, we think that they are all average and adequate recipients of educational formation. Thusly, and usually unfairly, we attribute student success and failure to the next most variable portion of the educational system: teachers.
When standardization is the primary organizing principle for education, and when it is allowed to play out, then teachers bear the weight of the responsibility for the success of their classrooms. If my student fails, it is my fault. If they are successful, it is due to my good effort. This is a detriment to the student because it forgets them and their inherent personality and ignores their necessary volition as a part of the educational process. We must not forget our students’ humanity. We must not be so arrogant as to assume that we can perfect human institutions and that we can solve all human problems with them.
No matter the system of education in place, students will fail. No matter the quality of teacher, students will fail. No matter the accessibility of knowledge, students will fail. We must always remember that public and standardized education exists at the service of parents, the primary educators. If parents raise and teach their children to be cynical and untrusting, then the children stand a good chance of becoming cynical and untrusting. If parents raise their children to value education (in and of itself, not for some further goal of money or status), then their children stand a good chance of making something of their education.
Of course, I would be remiss to leave it at that and possibly leave you thinking that parents are Atlas in place of the teacher. As much as a perfect system of education and the perfect teacher will not lead to 100% student success, I must also emphasize that perfect parents and a perfect family will also not lead to 100% student success. The nuclear family is just the most basic unit of societal structure and is where people are most affected by others’ opinions and beliefs. If anyone stands a chance to make a drastic impact on children, it is the people that exist within that unit.
The issue in this article is that teachers, especially in public education, have been encouraged to have an Atlas Complex. If the main factor contributing is that the educational system has shifted all responsibility of success onto the teacher, the antidote is to successfully remember the place of student assent. Instead of further questioning teachers and encouraging an Atlas Complex, we should focus on supporting families and fostering a culture that values education for its own sake. Then, of course, remembering that nothing we do will establish a perfect system for success, we must incorporate an expectation of failure into our systems of education, and do our best to accommodate those failures with compassion and charity.