Saturday, June 30, 2012

Reflections on Leaving Teaching

It's been a little over three weeks since I made my way to Maine via Paris and Boston, much of the time spent reflecting on the teaching job I have decided to leave. One thing is certain, though, I have not entered onto the tiring treadmill of self-doubt. No, it's the right thing to do, and the right time, and from the right school (On a Facebook post I said that it was "bittersweet. Mostly sweet."). On my return to Bangkok, I will be venturing into another educational arena, that of consulting--been there, done that, but not done enough of it. This time, it will be with an agency that advises the Thai Ministry of Education so it will be an interesting challenge. 

But back to reflecting on my educational career so far. Teaching has been its own reward and punishment, being lifted by creative and innovative colleagues and students one day, slogging through the misery of bureaucracy, laziness and stupidity the next. I have worked at some of the world's best international schools, and at some that miraculously survive the foundation of incompetence on which they rest. The school I am leaving lies somewhere between the two, and fortunately closer to the excellent ones, and one day may join the top tier, but only if it undergoes a major attitude and philosophy adjustment in which it recognizes and honors excellence, and decides to lead rather than follow. All the right ingredients are there; it just doesn't have the right chef. How can one cook cordon bleu if content to flip burgers? And not just flip burgers, but spend inordinate amounts of time and expense making the "perfect" burger because haute cuisine costs too much. Then, charge less for the burgers on the assumption that cost is the only consideration for patrons. 

What I have determined in my four decades in education that excellence doesn't just show up, it has to be planned, cultivated and nurtured. For a school, it means finding proven outstanding teachers, and keeping them; providing a rigorous and creative atmosphere for learning; and having supportive administrators that encourage innovation rather than playing it safe to be like every other school. Once those are in place, the talented students start arriving, and word spreads, swelling the institution with happy energy. I have worked in more than ten schools, and only three would fill those requirements. I would like to say that I left teaching while at one of those three, but I did not. Close,

And yet I have developed close professional and friendly relationships with some of the finest teachers I've ever met while at my latest school. It's little wonder that the school loses many outstanding educators; what is unfortunate is that the director does not recognize it, nor, apparently, does he care. After forty-one years of trying to make a difference in the lives of students and fellow teachers, and bumping up against the mandatory retirement age, it is time to make my exit from teaching.

There are times when I wonder if I did any good at all during my teaching career, and I have lately gone that route in my musings. I do know for certain that some of what I have taught is trivial and largely meaningless to students (Lately, an education colleague and I were building a cabin and during our problem-solving with hammers and other tools realized that it made absolutely no difference if we knew which class of lever we were using, but for some reason we require students to memorize them, usually without even seeing if they knew how to use them). Education systems world-wide have only toe-tested the deep waters of authentic learning. Again and again I ran into walls of resistance--from administrators, students, parents and even colleagues--when venturing into the wonders of learning through inquiry and independent exploration, mainly because it did not fit into the comfortable schema of traditional schooling or the prescribed curriculum. I know that what is needed is a serious analysis of education and a new foundation. Well, not new at all, but proposed by John Dewey nearly a century ago. How I would love to be part of any school that operated on that premise. I would even consider making a comeback.

Oh, well. One has his chance during his time, and I have had mine. Now, in an ironic twist, I turn to consulting for a country's Ministry of Education that is looking to change its archaic rote system. Maybe this time I will have better luck. Time will tell.