Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ups And Downs: The Escalator Test Of Teaching

"Would YOU pass the escalator test?"

The following question was posed to an audience by former NFL player Tim Ware at a recent conference I attended for athletic directors in the county. The question was meant to show how important a role that coaches and teachers play in the lives of young men and women today. The idea of an escalator represents a time and place far removed from the classroom in which a former student or player of yours sees you on an escalator. If you have been or are a dedicated and caring teacher or coach then that student or player will see you, track you down, and engage you in conversation even if it has been twenty or so years since you worked with this student or athlete. On the flip side, if the student or athlete sees you and chooses not to engage you then you clearly did not impact this individual in a positive or meaningful way. The message was simple: Be that coach or teacher that students remember positively even twenty or thirty years down the road.

However, the question got me thinking in another, most likely, unexpected route: Do you even WANT to be that coach or teacher that gets recognized? Now, don't get me wrong, I understand the metaphor. You want to be that person who impacts young lives and who has former students or players come up to you even after several years. I am in agreement with that message. The role of the teacher especially is to build relationships with students and to impact them positively for years to come. The great teachers are the ones who still get classroom visits from their students after they graduate and who get the wedding invites a long ways down the road. If you reach this point in your teaching profession then clearly you are doing something right. So, why then am I asking myself if I even want to be this person?

First off, you have to know that teachers have such a small window to gets results from our young men and women.  The problem with this is that today we live in a very results-oriented society. Every profession has a way in which to measure results. Doctors have successful surgeries. Firemen put out fires. Lawyers win cases. Policemen catch bad guys. Businessmen and women increase a company's sales and profits. Pilots successfully land planes. The point is that teaching does not have the sense of instant gratification that these other professions do. Sure, we get to see students pass our class and hopefully graduate form high school, but after that we lose contact with them. We hardly ever get to see the fruits of our time and effort with the vast majority of our students.

I don't want to pass the escalator test because the world has too many escalators.  For every student that recognizes a teacher on that escalator, hundreds more go by having no knowledge of who this teacher is or what he or she has done for that one individual. Sure, it's great to have made a positive impact in that young man or woman's life. Nobody is saying that's not something to strive for and be proud of. What I'm getting at is that right now there are hundreds of thousands of students across this country getting a poor education. They are drifting aimlessly on that metaphorical escalator. For every one person who sees an inspiring teacher, one-hundred have never had the chance to be inspired in the classroom because they have had life's cards stacked against them. For every wedding that inspiring teacher gets invited to, there are thousands of weddings that will never happen because kids weren't given a chance to succeed in life.

How do we fix all these broken escalators? This is the question that drove me to start by blog three years ago. The American system of public education is in shambles. Everyone knows it and nobody talks about. This fall campaign season hasn't mentioned it once. It's the Voldemort of 2012 issues. Sure, every once in a while a candidate will mention teachers but nobody talks about how the SYSTEM itself is inherently broken. How children of poverty are behind from the get-go. How students of lower socio-economic status drop out at disproportionately high rates. How English language learners are placed in special education simply because they don't know the language. For every student who was inspired to succeed by a kind, caring teacher there are over one-hundred who have slipped through the cracks in the American public education system and who today ride that escalator aimlessly drifting through life.

When all is said and done, I want to be down in the trenches fixing the system. I don't know if that will be as a classroom teacher. It might involve policy. It might involve a movement. At this point, I cannot be certain. What I can be certain of is this: The system needs to be reformed from the bottom up. Somebody somewhere is going to have to get the ball rolling and make this a national discourse. Chances are this person won't end up inspiring students the way a classroom teacher does. Chances are this person may only be recognizable to his or her immediate peer group. Chances are this person might very well change the American system of education and yet will never once be stopped on an escalator to be thanked by potentially millions of students that he or she helped to give a better life.

If that's what it takes to fix the system then I'm more than happy to be just another face in the crowd.