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A Teacher Looks Back

(AVA June, 1996.)

In-Service Training by Richard Carlson

The legislature determined that we needed uplifting and sensitizing, so five or six days a year — the dreaded SIP days (Student Improvement Program) — we went to class and the kids stayed home to write research papers and help with the laundry.

Of the scores of in-services I went to, only one stands out as worthwhile: teachers themselves organized a session of parents of gay and lesbian students presenting poignant stories of how their own kids went through a tough adolescence coping with homosexuality and how the parents themselves handled the situation with their kids. (“I knew this would happen if she went to UC Santa Cruz!”) Another time we learned how to do CPR.

The rest of the time, in-service, as most things from above, had virtually no value to the classroom. But the idea did spawn a new industry: specialists devoted to enlightening the horde of unskilled civil servants that we were. We had two kids: one, a speaker/entertainer (at $700 a day plus expenses) who would present a topic, followed by as long a lunch as we could wheedle along with the wickedness of a glass of wine, followed by a perfunctory afternoon meeting in which we discussed the “implementation” of the information into our teaching. We had experts on “right brain/left brain” orientation tell us how people learned and experts on self-esteem tell us how important everyone is. We had a group come in to tell us how our school and its entire teaching philosophy should be oriented to each of four colors — we had failed to realize that our kids’ success in school demanded a program tailored around their favorite primary color, a dead giveaway of their epistemological personalities.

We knew better, that these packages were intellectually and scholastically shabby and grossly oversimplified anything of any value or interest. Even though our district pledge to the taxpayers included token references to critical thinking, we weren’t expected to exercise it by confronting these traveling salesmen with hard questions about what they were pitching. (Tapes and CDs were usually on sale.) We were paid well of course to listen and behave. One might think that anyone coming in with simple answers to the complex problems we faced daily should be subject to some serious questioning. But this was the “feel good,” “be happy” era, and teachers tend to be way too polite.

The second sort involved the use of “facilitators,” employees — usually former elementary teachers who had decided to get better pay and farther away from the classroom — of the county department of education who would come to school to help us “assess,” “evaluate” and “implement” in a “problem-solving situation” a “pro-active” plan to improve whatever it was we were told needed improving. These folks would swoop to our morning sessions and begin “brainstorming,” which meant they’d tape miles of butcher paper to the walls and begin jotting down our “input” in colored marking pens. Then they’d decide which of our ideas fitted their preconceived ones, hang up more butcher paper, and try to make us believe we had come up with something original and useful. The used butcher paper ended up in the principal’s office and gathered dust, and if stretched end to end could reach China or something. We skeptics had one criterion for both these types of enlighteners: if what you say can help a given student in 10th grade math tomorrow, you’re worth listening to. Most weren’t.

We had one session devoted to producing a “mission statement” for our school, a task that countless California schools each did that year. We paid everyone that day, including aides and secretaries, to come up with our own platitudes. We produced a series of statements about what we should deliver — including “responsibility,” “rapidly changing technology,” “cultural sensitivity,” “mastering basic skills,” and so on. Our statement probably is identical to all the other hundreds of schools’, but the point was that if we came up with it ourselves, we would somehow be mentally transubstantiated into some kind of lofty commitment.

To fit his biases, our principal unilaterally changed our mission statement over the summer.


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