Wednesday, March 12, 2014
I have more respect for the people who teach our kids every day than for any just about any other profession, and would happily take two of them over a baker’s dozen of politicians and big shots. Teachers do more to shape the next generation of citizens than most people appreciate, and are paid less to do that than makes sense. We require of them not only the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job, but also that they buy their own construction paper.
No institution in our society has been more buffeted by the transformative changes our world is undergoing, both in technology and in the family, than schools. Over just one or two generations, we’ve transitioned from a society in which one parent was able to stay home to run the family and keep kids from self-destructing, to one in which there’s either a single parent struggling to stay above water or two juggling frantic schedules to keep up.
When public education was first established, its primary purpose was to prepare children for citizenship and work, most often in family farms or the burgeoning factories of their day. Now schools are being asked to pick up the slack for overwhelmed parents, a fragile economy and unforeseen personal and social stress. In many ways, they’re becoming the mooring and anchor for many kids that the home used to be.
Schools and parents also have had to confront a new indifference to the welfare of children in today’s “shock media” and entertainment world, where an obsession with profits and enrichment has overwhelmed common-sense protections for kids from ideas and images for which they’re ill-prepared.
For many teachers, all of these challenges have made the work of educating our kids all the more important and rewarding. Not that public education has done all it can to change old habits and rigid structures, but it’s done more than just about any other part of government to reinvent itself. The engine of that change, of course, hasn’t been the people at the top of the education pyramid, it’s the teachers at the base.
I hope that educators understand that for every insult their profession receives from angry ideologues, there are many former students, parents and grandparents who will continue to do their best to give them the resources and the tools they need to succeed, and the support they deserve.
But, alas, the work is hardly done. The next wave of challenges is upon us, driven largely by the way that the economy and work itself are changing, and it will continue to push education to adapt and to continue to experiment.
Here are three of the most prominent challenges that teachers and educators now face:
• Preparing more technically-skilled employees
As Corky Ellis, the CEO of Kepware Technologies, put it during a recent speech, “We cannot succeed in Maine unless we produce more engineers and others who are steeped in science and math and technology. We are still turning out too many kids who are prepared for yesterday’s jobs, or worse, unprepared for any job.”
• Producing more employers
The next economy will have more small businesses created here in Maine and fewer large ones from away. Increasingly, today’s children and their children will need to create their own jobs rather than find them. But schools aren’t preparing them to do that. Making our own jobs is, by the way, exactly what our grandparents and great-grandparents regularly did.
Tanya Emery, the economic development director for Bangor, put it this way at a recent conference: “Kids have to start learning in the third grade how to generate ideas, work in teams and create their own jobs. Being an entrepreneur has to be seen as a career path option, just like finding a job. In rural Maine, and for many kids, it might be their only option.”
• Utilizing the talents and knowledge of natural teachers
As technology requires fewer people to produce the goods we use, and as life-extending medical care helps age our society, we’ll need to find new ways to tap into the wealth of experience and insight that the traditional economy is underutilizing. To do that, we’ll need to expand the definition of “teachers” beyond people with teaching degrees and certificates to include more people with significant life experience who display a natural enthusiasm and talent for sharing knowledge and inspiring others.
None of these adaptations will be easy, of course, but no profession has more experience and skill in adapting to a changing world than does education. For that, we should all be grateful.
Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy. He can be reached at email@example.com.