I applied to George Mason School of Education in the fall of 2005. They had a special program for people in the workforce called the “Career Changer” program. It was aimed at people like me who wanted to get into teaching after having been out in the working world. In my case, I had been out in the working world for over 30 years, and was preparing for a career of teaching after I retired which would be five years from then.
In an effort to make it look like it was a special hard-to-get-in program, the school held a meeting in which the applicants had to go through a series of interviews, and then prepare a writing sample. At the introductory session, a woman addressed the candidates, as we were called and said in her opening remarks that “School is not your father’s classroom anymore.” Holding up an index finger, she then declared what it was: “Inquiry-based!” I might have been one of the few in the crowd who knew what those words meant. I knew that many of the people in that room would be swayed to the “not your father’s classroom” standard.
She went on, mostly about what to expect in teaching and then made a plea for getting a masters in education. “Research shows that teachers who only have a teaching credential tend to leave the profession after three years, but those with masters degrees stay the course.” I resolved not to do that, and don’t regret it.
One of the events of the evening was being interviewed by various ed school professors who asked us questions such as “What do you see yourself doing in five years?” which were probably designed to see how well we could bullshit and sound sincere. The capstone event was having to prepare a writing sample. We were sent to a room with computers and told to write an essay on a topic whose theme I can’t recall, but it was some broadly bland theme like “What is the Value of an Education?” and we had to come up with 1500 words. I think I wrote something along the lines of “Lack of education results in falling prey to things like “inquiry-based classrooms are better than direct instruction”– but phrased a bit more diplomatically. I even included references.
A few weeks later I received my acceptance letter which reminded me of those promos one receives in the mail notifying you that you may have already won one million dollars in some sweepstakes competition. I spent the next four years taking one class per semester at night, and finishing up my student teaching in California, after having secured a tentative agreement with George Mason that they would cooperate with Cal Poly–which they tried to get out of. I hadn’t counted on the people who had been so agreeable to the idea leaving the college or taking new positions within it. My new advisor reluctantly went along with it because I had the foresight to get the agreement in writing.
About the only thing of value I got out of ed school was hearing the professors’ stories of their days as teachers–it was a lot more useful than the textbooks we had to read, or the 3 hour night-time sessions. One class on “Methods of Math Teaching” consisted of the teacher stating a particular category (like “attributes of effective teaching”) and asking the class to come up with ideas. She would write down the ideas, filling the white-board with a list, and then would proclaim “Good list!” There were other things that filled the three hours, such as students reporting out on an article that was assigned. I recall reporting out on an article on doing away with grades, and using “standards-based” descriptions of students’ performance. The strange thing about it was that in reporting the article, I was presenting the side of the author and essentially selling the idea to my classmates, who–I’m pleased to say–were having none of it. Maybe I meant for that to happen–yeah, it was “intentional”. (The edu-word “intentional” hadn’t yet achieved its current status of popularity at that time.)
In another class (“Literacy in the Content Area”) many of the students were already student-teaching. I worked full time so I couldn’t do that. One assignment was for students to report out on a technique they had used to teach a particular topic. A student who taught social studies talked about how he taught the unit on civil rights, and in particular the Freedom Riders. He recounted how the civil rights workers had their bus torched in Mississippi, but the next day, got on another bus and continued their brave journey. It was indeed an inspiring story, but now his assignment (this was for his class of eighth graders) was to have the class pretend they were Freedom Riders, and their bus had just been torched. Those who chose to continue the ride were to stand on one side of the room; those who chose not to, would be on the other side. Our class now did this activity.
In deciding whether I would stay on the bus or decline, I considered my own situation: I have a wife and child, so that if I were to die, they would be left in the lurch. So I was one of two people who declined and stood on one side of the room while the rest of the class stood on the other. I felt guilty and ashamed; I could only imagine how eighth graders would feel doing such an activity. I thought the activity was inappropriate and that one could simply ask students to think about what they would do if they were a Freedom Rider and leave it at that. No need to put them at risk for being called “racist”, although now-a-days this has probably become de rigueur in classrooms. Maybe this student was way ahead of his time.
All in all, the most useful skill I took with me from ed school was how to make it look like I was going along with the party line, while doing what I felt was right for the students. And fortunately I retired just before having to participate in PD devoted to checking one’s privilege and admitting one’s white fragility became education’s shiny new thing.