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GENERATION Y WANTS TO LIKE, TEACH

Originally published as "Generation X Wants to Teach" that appeared in the International Journal of Instructional Media in 1999

Part 1

This updated version includes new information and opinion and is not meant in any way to be an indictment of teacher education programs or students who seek to be teachers. It is rather an observation, based on over 35 years in education at all levels, on the culture and values that pervade our institutions charged with the education of mainly young men and women who seek to become teachers. Please, do not think of what follows as a rant.

Dr. R. J. Kizlik

Updated January 1, 2014

A LINK TO THE PAST

When I was a young man of 21, and fresh out of three years in the Army, I landed a job at a neighborhood drugstore as a delivery man. That job was how I financed my first two years of college. Forty hours a week was tough when taking a full load at a community college, but it was a satisfying job, partly because I got to get out of the store occasionally, and also because I actually liked waiting on customers in the store when deliveries were slow. The combination of duties seemed to me to be nearly ideal. Although I had been through a lot and seen things I could not have even imagined at age 16, there were always surprises in dealing with people in a store environment that left impressions that still have relevance for me.

The first time I saw her was from an oblique angle and from a considerable distance. From my vantage point behind the counter, I could see only the rear of her head, and just the top of it at that. I knew she was an older woman because her hair was gray. I paid little attention; she was just another customer on a rather warm, humid May afternoon in Florida. I busied myself with ringing up sales, and out of the comer of my eye, I saw the woman again at a distance of about forty feet. Something odd about her, I thought. I looked again. That was it! She was wearing a long brown coat. A long coat in May in Florida? Something definitely wrong here, I thought as I tried to pay attention to both her and the customer standing directly in front of me waiting to have his purchases "rung up." I finished with the customer, and turned my attention to the woman. She was over by the section of the counters that contained candy and chewing gum and she still had her side to me. From a distance, she seemed to be looking over the selection of candies, not in any particular hurry. I walked from behind the counter, went over two aisles in front of her, and pretended to straighten some items on the shelves. I positioned myself directly in front of her. Now, I could see her from the shoulders up. Her head was slightly bowed down, but after a moment, she straightened up and looked directly at me. It was the first time I saw her face. It was not a Roberta Flack moment.

To say she was unattractive would be an understatement. She reminded me of how Charles Loughton looked in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," but without the distortions created by the makeup artists. Her single most distinguishing feature however, was one that most people do not associate with unattractiveness. It was her tongue. It appeared very dry, hung down at least three inches below her lower lip, and looked like some brownish-red piece of meat. As she moved her head, the tongue obediently followed behind at a slight angle, slowed no doubt by friction with her chin. She was hard to look at, and I think she knew that.

Almost immediately, I turned my gaze away, and bent down to remove myself from her line of sight. After a moment, I got up and went back to the register. The image of her face was vivid as I helped another customer. I finally looked up to see where the woman was. All I saw was her back as she exited the front door of the store and stepped into the bright afternoon sun. I asked one of the other clerks, a friend from high school, if he had ever seen the woman. "Oh yes," he replied, "she's really something, isn't she?" I asked him what he meant. He said that he had noticed her some weeks before. He told me that in fact, most of the workers in the drugstore were aware of the woman. I asked him why she wore a long coat when it was so hot outside. He looked at me and said, "You mean you don't know?" I felt foolish, but I didn't know. "She shoplifts little things, candy, gum, aspirin, and stuff like that. Small things, really." I asked him why don't we call the police on her. His answer surprised me. "We let her shoplift because we don't want to deal with how she looks."

The old woman returned to the store many times during the next year. A few of the times she actually purchased some small things, but I always knew, whether it was hot outside or not, that her coat contained items she had slipped into its interior pockets. I watched her every time she came into the store. At those times that I was working the register when she would buy something, I would always ask her, without looking at her directly, if that would be all. Her tongue hanging down as it did made it difficult for her to speak clearly, but she would always say that whatever she was buying would be all. I think she knew that I and the other store employees were aware of her stealing, but somehow, she felt secure that we would not confront her about it. She was right, we never did. At some point, I did find out that the two young pharmacists working at the store would make weekly contributions to the registers to "cover" what they thought was the retail cost of the shoplifting. They did it not because they felt sorry for her, but as a way of avoiding confrontation.

None of at the store ever did learn her name or anything else about the old woman. At some point, I noticed that she had stopped coming into the store. A few of us wondered what happened to her, but soon she was a forgotten topic. Life went on; I finished college, began a career and family, and have never given her a thought until recently. Somehow, the memory of that old woman and those times became connected to some ideas I have about courses I teach. I can see clearly now, that how we all treated her, and how we did nothing to change her behavior, has significance for both education, and the expectations that both would-be teachers and students have about what they are capable of becoming. It is a variation of the "Emperor's New Clothes."

NOT REALLY SURPRISING

Let me explain

Fast forward 30 years. I now find myself a teacher in a college of education. Part of my teaching assignment is social studies methods courses for elementary education majors. I also teach the course for secondary majors, plus graduate courses on curriculum. The purpose of the social studies methods courses is to prepare students to teach that content, at either the elementary or secondary level. Actually, the elementary methods course is designed to cover both elementary and middle school content. This means that the course has social studies content appropriate for grades 1-8, although the vast majority of students who take the course intend to teach only at the elementary (grades 1-6) level. Most of the undergraduate students in the college are elementary education majors. My classes usually run between 28 and 36 students, the upper number determined by room capacity. It was in one of the larger capacity rooms that I shall begin.

Spring Semester 1992

So there I was. It was the second class meeting of an elementary education social studies methods course. In front of me were the generally happy, smiling faces of three young men and thirty-three young women. Two weeks before, at the first class meeting, I handed out the usual materials - the syllabus, list of assignments, and directions for one thing or another. I also asked that the students complete a survey. On the survey, I asked that the students provide me with some basic information about the courses they have taken, whether they read a newspaper, and how often, whether they read a news magazine, the names of two non-education books they have read in the past year, and a short statement about which grade they hoped to teach and why. The second part of the survey asked that the students circle the names, places, events, or ideas that they recognized and knew something about. The list contained 100 such items, ranging from rather obscure names such as Emmy Noether, to the names of the two US Senators of the state, and the name of the president of the university.

During the two-week interval (there was no class the second week due to a national holiday) I had a chance to look over the surveys. They confirmed what I had always known or a least suspected -- students, at least in this class, really don't read many books, don't read newspapers or news magazines, and don't know much about culture, history, literature, music, or art. When they do mention books they have read, they are usually currently popular works of fiction.

When I began that second class meeting, I thought it wise to go over, in a non-threatening way, some terms on the survey that were not circled very often, if at all. I began with a familiar date -December 7, 1941. I asked aloud what made that date significant. Only a sea of blank expressions echoed back my question. In the popular vernacular, the class was clueless. Filing this away, I went on to the name the president of the university and asked who he was. Only a few hands rose. Out of the thirty six, only four recognized the name of the president. I filed this away also. The names of the two current US senators from our state were even more of a mystery, as only a handful of students recognized their names.

As I questioned the members of the class about their content knowledge, part of my mind was dealing with the question of how could college students, at the junior and senior level, be so devoid of content? To be sure, there was one hundred percent recognition of such names as Madonna, Mike Tyson, and Sharon Stone, but they hardly qualify as important social studies content. Poor Ralph Nader's name was known by only five of the thirty six. I wondered silently just what it is that these students are going to teach when they become employed. That the college will fill them with pedagogy is a given. They will learn everything from lesson planning to managing student conduct. They'll be able to write behavioral objectives, tell why understanding individual differences is important, explain multiculturalism, recognize signs of drug abuse and child neglect, do some basic statistics, work in groups, explain cooperative learning, make a test, and design a bulletin board. In a college bristling with the latest technology, they'll learn how to use computers, overhead transparencies, video disk players, lamination machines, and other forms of audio and visual instructional materials and equipment. Most of all, as elementary education majors, they will have taken a number of methods courses that focus on delivery of instruction in terms of specific content. There in lies the problem.

If only Stephen King, Danielle Steele, and John Grisham would write books that featured teachers as main characters, engaging in successful presentations of lessons, managing student behavior, and dealing with the myriad of tasks that teachers face each day, might we, as teacher educators, finally have role models our students can emulate.

I do not say this casually. After years of teaching social studies methods courses, both for elementary and high school level education majors, I have come to some conclusions about why measures of student achievement in our high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools do not meet expectations. What do Stephen King, Danielle Steele, and John Grisham have to do with this? Plenty.

Again, let me explain

I decided the survey I began in that course during the Spring semester of 1992 was both a good idea, a pre-test of sorts, and that the data collected might lead to some better understanding of this content-devoid phenomenon that I had observed. Therefore, at the beginning of each social studies methods course I have taught since then, on the first day of class, I ask my students to complete the same survey. The surveys serve the same purposes as the original.

After six years of doing this, the results of these surveys indicate that elementary education majors, and to a lesser extent, those desiring to teach in middle school or high school, are woefully deficient in even basic information, do not read very much outside of required texts, seldom read newspapers, and confuse newsmagazines with magazines about entertainment and fashion. When I first started conducting the surveys, I surmised that maybe this was an aberration, and that there would be a "leveling up" of responses as time went on. I was wrong.

From surveys of over 700 students, here is a composite summary of selected responses:

Non-education books read during the past year:

Mostly books by Stephen King, Danielle Steele, and John Grisham; almost never any books on history, science, popular culture, or classic literature. Many students report that the book they read in the past year was the Bible.

Percent who read newsmagazines: 18.7%

Names supplied when naming newsmagazines read: Vogue, Cosmopolitan, People, Time, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Readers Digest

As for the terms they are asked to circle that they recognize and know something about, the following is a selected sample of responses rounded to the next highest whole number that represents a percent: (the percent follows the terms and is contained in a parenthesis)

in loco parentis (4) ADD (21) Caspian Sea (9) Chernobyl (16) curriculum (62)
December 7, 1941 (8) Enola Gay (2) Golan Heights (11) Watergate (12) Osiris (10)
Christa McCauliff (21) Britney Spears (100) John Goodlad (6) Colin Powell (67)
Martin Luther (28) Tom Cruise (100) Northwest Ordinance (8) Magna Charta (6)
Kim Jung IL (3) Ralph Nader (18) Ritalin (34) Rosetta Stone (7) Sally Ride (14)
The New Deal (12) Tropic of Cancer (19) Pantheon (4)

Granted, not every term on my list of 100 would be considered essential to know in order to teach successfully, but there is a disquieting trend in the surveys that tells me students who want to enter the teaching profession have some serious deficiencies in content.

Click here for  part 2.

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