Whether you know anything about teaching or not, when you walk into the room of a great teacher, you are aware of it. There is a sense of things happening, there is a barely perceptible buzz, and there is an overall impression of  student excitement.

Teaching is a bit like coaching; when the team is losing, it must be the coach’s fault. Of course, that might simplify things a little too much. While coaching a successful sports team involves a myriad of differing and competing imperatives, teaching successfully involves infinitely more.

Teaching involves the fragile, and ever evolving psyche of children. It involves the matching of styles with a room full of divergent minds. It involves a delicate balance of being a tough disciplinarian and a caring mentor. You need the listening skills of an experienced counselor and the mental toughness of a Marine drill sergeant. Your task is far more than to teach a specific skill; you must also nurture, cajole, excite, and motivate. You must have slick skills to deal with parental expectation, administrative expectations and personal expectations. You must entertain and engage, all while simultaneously imparting complicated skills. You need to do all that with charm and good will, even if you don’t get them in return.

Today in educational circles, everything you hear is about is “teaching to a program.” Teachers are encouraged to use specific methods—and even scripts—in their daily lessons. Some districts call it teaching “with fidelity”. Gone are the days when teachers could use a time-honored lesson or a tried and true activity to teach a difficult skill or topic. Modern educational “science” has shown us the “way” to teach a course. Elliot Eisner, an emeritus professor of Art and Education at Stanford University has written about the “arts and artistry” aspect of teaching. He has said, “Not everything measureable is important and not everything important is measureable”

There is a very real movement underway to make teaching itself into a science. It’s almost as if teaching could be reduced to a recipe that, followed closely enough, will result in an educated product. The very things that you probably remember about that special or gifted teacher you may have had, the methods that made them stand out in your memory, are no longer encouraged, and in some cases, disallowed.

The classroom is no longer a place for creativity, experimentation, or innovation. Methods are tested in university studies and implemented with new curriculum. In striving to make all teachers competent, we make fewer exceptional.

This is likely the answer to some mediocre teaching (and there is and always has been mediocre teaching). In some cases it substitutes for real and authentic teacher training, which everyone talks about but few school districts do very well. It also is an attempt to increase standardized tests scores, the Dow Jones average of educational barometers.

What do we lose when we reduce the subtle art of teaching to a step by step process? We lose the heart of learning, we lose the serendipity of discovery, and we lose the chance to create a spark in young minds. But if we follow the script and are faithful to the program, we undoubtedly will produce a very uninspiring result. This would be a far cry from the motivation that drove most young college students to seek a career in the classroom. As Isadora Duncan said, “ I do not teach children, I give them joy.”

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The excitement of the recent Olympic Games has died down; gold medals are polished and put into display cases. Americans are rightly proud of the success their athletes had at the London games. Chants of U.S.A., U.S.A., were heard often during the televised events.  Political conventions (both of them) remind us that we live in the greatest country in the world, indeed the greatest country ever.

At the same time, results from recent state achievement tests are being sent out across the country. In Pennsylvania, results of the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) tests will be sent to parents and school administrators in the 3rd to 11th grades that took these tests last spring. Many schools will be labeled “failing” because proficiency levels in Math and Reading will not be sufficient. Some whole school districts will be labeled “failing” because they did not make AYP (adequate yearly progress).

According to a group called PISA, The Program for International Student Assessment, an intergovernmental organization of industrialized countries, the United States ranked 14th in Reading and 25th in Math achievement internationally for the year 2009. In this same survey, Canada ranked 6th in Reading and 10th in Math, South Korea ranked 2nd and 4th and Brazil ranked 53rd and 57th, respectively.

This shows that the United States indeed lags behind many countries in terms of how effectively some of our students are learning. Politicians wring their hands and say we can’t be competitive in the global marketplace in the future. Some politicians, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Chris Christie in New Jersey, even use these numbers in their battles against teachers. These numbers will also be cited by many who believe that our teachers, or maybe our teaching methods, need a radical restructuring.

While we are talking about rankings, let’s look at a few others. According to the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College, London, the United States has over 2.2 million prisoners behind bars, or 751 per 100,000 population. Canada, by comparison, has 35,000 prisoners or 108 per 100,000. South Korea has 47,000 or 97 per 100,000. Brazil, closer in size and population to the United States, has 400,000 prisoners or 219 per 100,000. By any standard or measure, we are the most incarcerated society in the world. These prisoners are fathers, mothers, brothers, and grandfathers. They all leave someone who is dependent on them behind.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in 2010 ranked military spending as a % of GDP. Canada spent 1.4% of GDP on its military, Brazil spent 1.6%. South Korea, with a 60-year enemy on their doorstep, spent 2.7%. The United States spent an incredible 4.8% of its GDP on its military. That is a huge amount of money that can’t be spent on new educational infrastructure, technology or personnel.

The World Bank determines income by what they call the Gross National Income (GNI), per capita. In 2010, Canada’s GNI was $41,900. South Korea’s GNI was $19,900 and Brazil’s was $9,400. The United States had a GNI of $47,000. The United States by any measure is a wealthy country. We cannot blame our lack of academic progress on a shortage of  income.

As a nation we pride ourselves on our greatness. A greatness that is reflected by individual liberties, athletic prowess, and military strength,  among countless other things. But does that same greatness extend to all in our society? Poverty, crime, and neglect are preventing many students from maximizing their educational potential. Generational failure at life, as well as in the classroom, is the destiny for many young people. Is the United States #1 at providing alternatives for these children?

If you want to find reasons for failure in schools, there are many reasons. But don’t be fooled by thinking that this failure is brought on by selfishness or indifference. Rather, the failures are rooted in societal decline: unemployment, incarceration, crime and family dissolution.

If you want to reform the educational system, begin by reforming some of these problems. Come up with real solutions to these issues. Real solutions are not just about a new program or an infusion of money into an existing one. Real solutions do not come from blaming a union or a governor for failures. It starts with recognizing that school failure come from serious and long standing challenges. Facing up to these challenges will require hard work, candor and political cooperation. Let’s begin to discover our greatness through the solutions to these challenges.