During the past two decades, educators, politicians, and the media have given unprecedented attention to new mandates for increasing student achievement, enhancing educational opportunities for all students, and reforming school practices to prepare students for the 21st century.
Yet, the harsh realities of bureaucracies, the paperwork that reforms generate, the unrealistic demands made upon teachers, and the blame placed on teachers and administrators for education's failures, not surprisingly, have diminished the passion for teaching and learning in many schools. Could it be that the current education reforms have not yet fully dealt with what teaching and learning are all about?
In a word, yes.
There is more to education reform than improving test scores: Let's also draw on an educator's ability to inspire students. This essential part of our profession shows itself most readily when teachers commit to understanding the whole child, not only as an intellectual being, but also as a social and emotional one. Learning is a factual and emotional experience.
We have been so focused on standards and assessment for students, and have given such limited attention to supporting, nurturing, and encouraging teachers and students, that we may be reaping some unexpected and frightening results: driving children out of the school systems, either mentally or physically, and driving good, caring, dedicated young teachers out of the schools where they are needed most. Until we place more attention on the social and emotional needs of students in a balanced educational program, neither federal mandates nor good intentions will yield the results we desire for young people.
Each of us may remember a teacher who opened a closed door within our minds. Refreshment accompanies such moments—insight for the student and satisfaction for the teacher who “leads out” the student. The magical quality that briefly surfaces in these exchanges is at the heart of the teacher's work.
To keep improving how we teach, we must give more attention to the interplay between the science of teaching—pedagogy—and the art of teaching, which deals with the unique way a teacher transforms students to reach their potential. A teacher must be anchored in pedagogy and blend imagination, creativity, and inspiration into the teaching and learning process to ignite a passion for learning in students.
Moreover, we must recognize and reward teachers who endeavor daily to create classrooms in which students succeed academically and become inspired to take responsibility for their own learning. The best reward we can give teachers is to ensure that they have the best possible working conditions for teaching, which includes a strong support system—especially for those new to the profession.
When students, especially in middle school and high school, realize that teachers and schools give them the tools to take control of their own learning, their behavior and outlook on life become more positive and more resilient in the face of change.
Our present information age is an era of change, in which the saying “knowledge is power” has become increasingly important. More than ever, educators need to teach students not only to keep up with the information and changes that occur daily outside the school, but also, and more importantly, to learn how to evaluate what they read, see, and hear so that they can separate the wheat from the chaff. Learning goes beyond curiosity for its own sake—it's a matter of economic and social survival. Students, like teachers, need to be open to learning throughout their careers and throughout their lives.
Educational change will require taking a different path beyond test scores and other snapshots of student achievement. Certainly it is important that we are able to demonstrate what we are doing to ensure that the lives of young people are transformed by academic and practical skills we help them to develop. Better test scores will not change education, but committed teachers can and will. To truly transform education, educators will need to embrace the following professional qualities:
- Deep, personal commitments to students and colleagues.
- A love for learning—in school and out of it.
- Reflective thinking about our teaching or administrative practices.
- Time for personal and professional self-renewal.
The noted educator Ron Edmonds reminds us, “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to know in order to do that.” Yet, if we don't devote attention to the inspirational aspects of teaching and leading—the nurturing, mentoring, and motivating—we could fall short in the transformation of the whole child into an active, lifelong learner.
Our commitment to teaching the young, whether they are 5 or 25 years old, increases as we experience more of those special moments when we know students are making connections between knowledge and their own lives. Those momentary flying sparks ignite a passion for learning.
Peyton Williams Jr., a member of ASCD for more than 22 years, has served on ASCD's Executive Council since 1998 and finishes his term as 2002–03 President this month. He retired in 2002 as deputy state superintendent in the Georgia Department of Education.