Sunday, December 21, 2008

An Important Piece, from the Chronicle of Higher Ed

In the Careers section of the December 5th Chronicle of Higher Education there's a Ms. Mentor column titled "He's Hogging the Course I Want." The gist is that a junior faculty member wants to teach the course that a senior professor has been charging for a decade, poorly in the eyes of the junior professor; what Ms. Mentor says in reply is something with a resonance to the K-12 system as well:

Ms. Mentor thinks she knows why. Professor Swine, not an active scholar, seems to be disqualified from teaching cutting-edge research courses. "Intro to Felicity" may be a course he teaches well and rigorously. He may know where the weakest students will falter, and how to challenge the strongest.

He may also have health worries or private sorrows. Many "senior juniors" — those who publish little after tenure — are caregivers for elderly relatives or special-needs children. In business, employees who frequently miss work because of home responsibilities are fired. In academe, tenured colleagues often quietly but generously make accommodations. Young hotshots sometimes call their nonpublishing elders "unproductive," but more mature souls recognize the varying rhythms of lives and careers. Sometimes guiding the young or sheltering the weak is more valuable than submitting another grant proposal or creating another international symposium.
Given that teaching is a caregiver profession, it shouldn't be a surprise that it's attractive to young parents. Given that teaching is a profession built on relationships, it shouldn't be a surprise when the 50-something 3rd grade teacher isn't called on the carpet when she fails to meet some of her professional "obligations" because she's busy dealing with her mother's cancer.

A program that attracts strivers into the profession, like Teach for America, is a good thing, but it has to be understood that it is what it is--a recruitment tool with a limited scope and strained replicability, where the stars will burn brightly and then burn out. This is why I think that improving teaching begins not with opening the doors wide, but with improving the lot for those who have chosen to make a long term commitment.

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