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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Edumacation with Calvin and Hobbes: Teacher Appreciation Day

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There is something healthy about having a crush on a teacher. For me, it was first grade, forlornly asking Ms. L why we hadn’t recited the Pledge of Allegiance. As a 6-year-old patriot, I could give less of a damn about the pledge, and more about being a good-boy for her. I love teachers. Unlike Calvin, I would hate to see them on the streets. Professional teaching comes with a plethora of responsibility, and current trends in education make it harder for teachers to do their job. This column will deal mainly with teaching at the primary and secondary education levels. It is easiest to identify the root causes of common issues teachers face at this level.

Teachers complain a lot, which may help explain why I feel so akin to them. But unlike me, they have good reason. With growing class sizes, tech-driven curriculum and increasing pressure to abide by state standards, teachers find constraints in a field that can be much more creative. And beyond these societal phenomena, teachers’ lives are made tougher through underappreciation, frequent criticism, and, perhaps to the greatest extent, kids. Teaching is not easy, and students like Calvin don’t make it better.

But let’s start with society, because I’m a big thinker. Class sizes become a problem when schools are understaffed and over-enrolled. Given a reduced capacity for teacher-student engagement and an increased workload, educators will naturally defer efficiency in teaching and getting out the material. From the student side, this is incredibly boring. And while learning shouldn’t always be fun, we have created a situation in which fun is becoming impossible.

The solution may be in having students work in groups that the teacher could manage more easily. These groups might not even be assigned with any specific task other than helping each other beyond the classroom and having a system to report difficulties to an educator. When crowds get large, communication is stifled. Smaller groups would help prevent this.

The ubiquity of technology has also created a new dilemma for teachers. In a profession where style can widely vary, using new technology can be seen more as a risk. For our purposes, we will not talk about websites that deal with administrative concerns (think SmartSite), but online assignments, quizzes and tests. The immediate concern is of distraction: The internet certainly takes away from the continuity required to absorb information. But the real effect of technology will be seen in form — specifically, the book versus internet argument. Teachers often use a given textbook because it generally reflects a form and pace that they would like to follow throughout the year. For the most part, developing a curriculum around internet sources would likely be more disorganized and less focused on traditional material. This may be why, in my experience, teachers only recommend the internet for articles, scholarly and not.

The internet is a great tool for learning, but we need to develop a structure around it. As it continues to increase in popularity, this structure must not take the form of a simple e-book, which can be tedious to use. Rather, there should be a system of interaction. Perhaps a rough guideline of topics that link to specific resources the teacher would like to cover. This allows educators freedom to teach what they want, without having to depend on a school-issued text. This may be the best solution as society increases its dependence on web-based technology.

The most poignant effect of this type of interaction would be its ability to go against the largely negative culture of standardized testing: curricula would be unique to each teacher, and assessing students would shift drastically. This might result in teachers receiving even more complaints of their unfairness in grading. But the student ultimately benefits when a teacher is more engaged with the material. As much as I can appreciate a teacher, the worst ones in my experience have been those who seem largely indifferent to their subjects.

It almost goes without saying that teachers are not paid nearly enough for the job they do. It’s startling at times to think that investment in an educated population (a signal of a strong economy) is given so little credence among policymakers. Part of the issue, at least on a popular scale, is that it can be hard to see how education helps in the long term.

This is why I’m often surprised by Calvin. He simultaneously criticizes others, but in his own vanity, is too blind to see that potential solutions lay in the streets, where he has put the teacher. Oh, I love him.

To share your childhood teacher fantasies, you can reach ELI FLESCH at ekflesch@ucdavis.edu or tweet him @eliflesch.

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