From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000 (applicable citations only):
con-ser-va-tive (adj.) - 1. Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change. 2. Traditional or restrained in style. 3. Moderate; cautious.
lib-er-al (adj.) - 1. a. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry. b. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded. 2. a. Tending to give freely; generous. 3. Not strict or literal; loose or approximate.
I regard myself as very liberal when it comes to pedagogy. I teach all sorts of things and use all sorts of materials that one might not expect to find in a typical high school English class, I'm not afraid to approach controversial topics, I eschew pre-fab dittos and create my own materials. I manage to do this and still give due deference to the literary canon, the ELA Performance Standards handed down by the state, and the English Regents Exam. Yet I am very conservative when it comes to grading and assessment. I only give A's for truly exceptional work, I hold students accountable for handing in work late and for inappropriate behavior, I don't forgive carelessness or laziness or indulge insignificant discomforts or inconveniences, and I never, ever respond to students' work with obsequious, unqualified praise.
Put simply, too many of today's educrats, at least among those whom I've encountered, essentially care about all the wrong things. As I mentioned in my first post, the schools have become far too conservative with the teachers and curricula, and far too liberal with students and assessment. The ubiquitous "self-esteem" movement is largely responsible for the latter, as discussed at length in previous posts; here I will be discussing the former and some of my experiences therewith, but I don't pretend to understand its source or cause.
When referring to pedagogy and curriculum, “conservative” for my purposes means strict, unwavering adherence to one particular philosophy of what and how to teach. It also indicates a reluctance to even consider, let alone embrace, alternative methods, controversial texts and topics, or the very idea that there may well be more than one way to reach academic and curricular goals. Many schools and school systems employ a hyper-conservative approach to curriculum and pedagogy, essentially dictating to teachers precisely what they must teach, and precisely how they must teach it. There is usually an implicit (or, in some cases, explicit) forbiddance of and intolerance for unconventional materials or unorthodox methods, and such an exclusionary mindset tends to be completely arbitrary; teachers who prefer alternative ideas are told simply, “That's not how we do it here.”
Where a school does adopt new ideas or alternative methods, it does so wholesale and merely creates a new unilateral and exclusive mandate for its teachers. Teachers in New York City are now compelled to employ the “workshop model” of instruction, exclusively, under threat of “U” ratings and disciplinary action, even if they had been effectively and successfully using other methods for years. This, of course, occurs now after city school administrators spent decades insisting that the only acceptable, “correct” method was the traditional Developmental Lesson Plan. I've had supervisors in city schools insist that no learning would ever take place if there was no “Aim:” on the chalkboard. Not even the instructional device itself; the actual word “A-I-M:” absolutely had to be there, or the students could not and would not learn. In my whole life of schooling, and in my travels and conversations with professionals in other cities and states, I have never seen this device used outside of New York City. I learned a great deal in school without ever seeing the word “Aim:” written prominently on the chalkboard. Other school systems seem to get along fine without it.
Having school-wide standards of operation and a specific set of content to cover (in content areas, that is, of which I must reiterate English is not) is fine. But how far do administrators need to go in controlling each teacher's classroom day-to-day, or even minute-by-minute? How much of a teacher's own personality, unique skills, and most importantly experience, can count toward the pedagogical choices he makes? Should schools be recommending certain teaching methods, or should they be unilaterally mandating and enforcing them? Should a curriculum consist of specific knowledge and skills goals, or should it be a uniform set of methods and daily lesson plans, an entire school year pre-scripted, where a teacher must and can only follow the script? Should teachers skilled and experienced in one method be forced to employ a different method, merely at the arbitrary whim of a new supervisor? Is there really only one single “correct” way to teach?
In a Long Island school where I taught, the chairwoman of the English department (a very strange and difficult individual) stressed “consistency,” as she put it, over everything else. Uniformity of method and philosophy throughout the department was her primary concern; how each individual teacher could best help the students learn, or what each individual teacher felt comfortable and confident in doing, was entirely irrelevant. There was no justification for this apart from “This is how we do it here.” I can only guess that the goal was to have every teacher in the department teach the exact same material the exact same way, with no variation whatsoever, so that it essentially would not matter which teacher a student had at any grade level, or if a student switched from one teacher's class to another in mid-year. In the latter case, I don’t know if such a rare and individualized occurrence is sufficient to justify such a high degree of uniformity, but I can think of no other justification.
At one time, this person criticized and sanctioned me for teaching my students the difference between verb types, with which I noticed they were having difficulty in their writing, because it was “not on the curriculum.” She insisted that it was more important to teach specific grammatical concepts that were “on the list” for that quarter, out of context and for their own sake, exclusive of all others, rather than those which the students actually seemed to be struggling with and needed to learn. That research study after research study has shown traditional out-of-context grammar instruction to be wholly ineffective at improving student literacy, and I had been trained in graduate school to teach grammar in context, mattered not at all. Neither did the fact that the students' writing improved almost immediately once they recognized the different verb types and learned how to use them.
In a city school where I taught after that, a small performing-arts high school which was new at the time, the administration was attempting to develop a curriculum integrating Social Studies and English, which they called "Humanities," although in reality it was nothing of the kind. It amounted to nothing more than forcing the English teachers to teach Social Studies content and follow the Social Studies curriculum, exclusive of any other materials or concerns. Part of this process involved a directive to select literature titles based on the time periods, places and cultures being covered contemporaneously in Social Studies, but the approach was ultra-conservative, exclusionary, and entirely at the discretion of the principal who was a former Social Studies teacher and curriculum coordinator (and a deeply sick, evil person), and a third-year Social Studies teacher who basically ran the school because she was sleeping with its founder. Neither of these individuals knew much, if anything, about literature or English Language Arts. Their first response to any title suggested by an English teacher was always to reject it, to assume that it did not "relate" to Social Studies, to look for and find a reason not to allow it.
Any English teacher who proposed such a title, or a more inclusive approach to the process, was suspected and accused of trying to undermine the "Humanities" paradigm. To teach, or even mention, any book, poem, story, film, etc. which the principal did not feel was directly, explicitly and obviously related to the contemporaneous Social Studies content was considered "resistance" and would, in the principal's words, “not be tolerated.” Most notably, no one ever explained why it was so vitally important to eliminate English altogether and teach an extended Social Studies course in its place. Neither was anyone concerned that the approach stood in defiance of the English Language Arts Standards and Regents Exam. All these years later, I still can't figure out why anyone would think this was a good idea.
Most New Yorkers have heard the stories by now about “micro-management” in city schools. Teachers have been written up and given “U” ratings for having the wrong number of staples attaching student work to bulletin boards, for not having chairs or carpets arranged in the prescribed spatial pattern, for using white chalk instead of multi-colored chalk, or whatever other technical “infractions” having nothing to do with actual teaching that their supervisors can find to criticize. Is any of this really necessary? Is this what matters? Is this what educational administrators should really care about?
It reveals another example of the sort of schizophrenic absurdity that pervades the school system. Teachers are constantly being told that all students are unique and learn in different ways, by the same people who insist that we all must teach the same material using the same methodology. Obviously, no teacher's methods, philosophy or personality is going to be ideal for every student. Different people have different ideas of what a “good teacher” is. Some students respond to challenge, others to coddling. Teachers are human beings, just like students, but as we celebrate and bend over backwards to accommodate the uniqueness and individuality of kids, our own uniqueness doesn't seem to matter, and in many places is actually devalued, discouraged, or even punished.
What effect does this have on students? From what I've observed, it fosters intellectual bigotry. It creates astonishingly literal-minded young people, who believe that anything new or unorthodox is wrong, that there is no value in inquiry, that there can only be a right or wrong answer to any and every question, that there can't possibly be more to anything than meets the eye.
What possible good can come from telling a teacher, as I was essentially told by these supervisors, "You are forbidden to teach the materials you like; you are forbidden to use the methods that work for you; you are forbidden to do what you do best." ... ?