Opinion » John Rember

Teaching Anxiety

The real education nightmare


One of the consequences of a teaching career is suffering through anxious dreams in August. Long after the last essay is graded, the last parent conference brought to its dubious conclusion and the last exam missed due to grandmother's funeral, sleep still plunges retired teachers back into their classrooms.

But these are not happy classrooms where wise mentors share ideas with enthusiastic youth. Instead, in August dreams, students spend classes downloading porn onto their laptops. They do cartwheels on their desks and jump screaming out of windows just to make even more trouble for their hapless teachers.

I still dream about giving exams at the College of Idaho, where I've taught my Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes but have completely forgotten to teach my Tuesday-Thursday classes. Students are waiting with their blue books, and I'm at the board, trying to come up with an exam for a class I haven't taught.

"You can do this," I tell myself. "Just make up something they won't know a thing about. When they say it wasn't on the syllabus, tell them they have the wrong syllabus."

And then I wake up. (A sentence, by the way, that my writing students were forbidden to write.) I realize with relief that I never forgot to teach a class, that my exam questions were fair-minded and answerable, and that my students often taught me as much as I taught them.

I did ask them tough questions. Together, we arrived at good answers--or at least bigger questions.

But the dream returns every August, and I've recently begun wondering if it isn't imposed from the future and not from the past.

I've followed the evolution of No Child Left Behind from its start as a hopeful bipartisan program to its present incarnation as an exercise in cultural suicide. I've seen the Common Core standards heralded as a triumph for critical thinking even though their vague specifications are being twisted to mean anything a school board or parent group wants them to mean. I've seen online learning portrayed as a way to teach more for less money, when really it's the educational equivalent of junk food.

I can make these statements because I have had a fortunate teaching career. Once I taught a class with 25 students in it. All the others had 18 or fewer.

I began my career teaching seventh- through 12th-grade English at the private Community School in Sun Valley, back when it was a low-budget startup operation. Virtually all of my students were highly motivated and college-bound, in classes of 10 or 15.

I then taught rhetoric, composition, literature and creative writing at the College of Idaho, always in classes of less than 20.

In my final years as a teacher, I taught in Pacific University's low-residency MFA in Writing program, where I worked one-on-one with three to five students a semester. I usually wrote 15,000 words of considered response to the stories and essays each student sent me.

When you give students enough time and attention, you can do them lasting good. At the College of Idaho, I now and then taught English 001, for students who had taken a diagnostic test that placed them in the bottom 10 percent of first-year students.

"Welcome to the class you had to flunk a test to get into," was the way I would start English 001. "You're here with a diagnosis of not being able to write. But if you'll work with me in good faith, you'll leave college as the best writers in your graduating class."

Which was what happened, mostly. Because the class was limited to 12, I could assign everybody a five-page essay each week and spend an hour editing each essay. Nobody could fall between the cracks. Nobody could get away with slacking. I handed back D's and F's like they were candy canes at a Christmas parade, but over a semester my students learned to write. Once they had confidence in their writing, they began to succeed in other classes.

When I hear that Idaho teachers have 35 students in each of four or five or six classes, I cannot imagine doing what they do. When I see the scribblings of illiterate Idaho high-school graduates, I can see that those teachers can't imagine it either. They're being asked to do the impossible.

It's a short distance from that impossibility to thinking that Idaho is not willing to spend the money to educate its young, which means that--pardon me if this sounds too simple--its young will be uneducated, no matter how many ceremonies they're put through. An Idaho high-school diploma won't be worth the cheap paper it's printed on.

You can use standardized tests and online classes to fake it, but real education doesn't happen without an engaged, intelligent teacher dealing with 10 or 15 or at most 20 students in the same room. That's a hard fact but a true fact. A related requirement is that all those involved have to feel like they're not wasting their time being there.

I've been amazed that Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, who went to the College of Idaho and therefore should know what education is all about, tolerates educational programs and initiatives that pretend to educate when they don't. I can only conclude he was focused on something other than the C of I's curriculum when he was a student there.

Anyway, I mean it when I say cultural suicide. Countries have done it before--Uganda and Serbia and the early Soviet Union come to mind, but any place with gun-toting illiterate children will do. It's much easier to teach a kid how to use a gun than to pick up a book, and when the leaders of a state or country decide not to spend the money, time and effort to educate their kids, guns are the default position. And that's a nightmare.