Initially, I decided to get my teaching certificate because I wanted to do something more for my “day job” than make coffee at Starbucks. The responses to what I had always considered a rather noble profession were unexpected — ranging from, “But what you really want to do is theatre, right? Teaching always makes me think of little gray-haired old ladies,” to “You want to work with teenagers? You’re brave” to “Remember, kids can sense fear” to “Ginge, stop this teaching business.”
It didn’t take long for me to realize that many people had either a love/hate, or at least ambivalent view of teachers. From the outside, wanting to become a teacher signified a desire to do something inherently meaningful, but it came with baggage, a “those that can’t do, teach” mentality, hence the comment about little gray-haired old ladies. Once I became a teacher, I soon recognized and appreciated the divide between public opinion about education reform and the sound of teacher lounge chatter that spoke to the most practical, on-the-ground, or, to use a more militaristic term, “in the trenches” needs toward reform. The divide was striking.
So my curiosity was definitely piqued when I heard about Dana Goldstein’s new book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. Although in the large scheme of things, I have taught in supportive and peaceful school settings, like all teachers, in every interview or teaching demo or formal lesson plan I’ve ever completed, I’ve had to account for specific learning objectives, accommodations for students with learning differences, and some form of assessment, because it apparently takes a bulwark of best practices to bridge the gaping achievement gaps between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Goldstein articulates the contradictory expectations of teachers in the introduction:
“For two hundred years, the American public has asked teachers to close troubling gaps… Yet every new era of education reform has been characterized by a political and media war on the existing teachers upon whom we rely to do this difficult work.”
It’s very hard work with the potential to be very rewarding, and quite frankly, I think the best teachers are the ones that simply enjoy teaching the most, that have the easiest, most natural relationships with their students, often on the basis of charisma. For the rest of us hard-working, ordinary teachers with solid “research-based methods” to draw upon, Goldstein suggests that the most progressive initiatives
“focus less on how to rank and fire teachers and more on how to make day-to-day teaching an attractive, challenging job…We must quiet the teacher wars and support ordinary teachers in improving their skills, what economist Jonah Rockoff, who studies teacher quality, calls ‘moving the big middle’ of the profession.”
The history of education reform, according to Goldstein, does just the opposite — it’s filled with various constituencies hashing out the same issues, over and over. She likens the reoccurring debates over merit pay, teacher tenure, and veteran teachers versus talented newbies from elite colleges to a “Whac-A-Mole game at the amusement park.”
In chapter one, entitled “Missionary Teachers,” Goldstein outlines the series of events that led to the feminization of the profession, including the proliferation of the “motherteacher” idea: According to the Victorian values of the time, female teachers were better equipped to instill strong moral character in their students, alongside academic rigor.
The story begins in the early 1800s with Catharine Beecher, the daughter of a Calvinist preacher who refused to undergo the dramatic religious conversion process at age fourteen. At age twenty-one, her fiancé died in a shipwreck and a sorrowful Catharine sorted through his letters, which contained similar tensions between religious faith and a passion for scholarly pursuits. Inspired by her late fiancé, Beecher wrote to her father that “The heart must have something to rest upon, and if it is not God, it will be the world.” Thus began her career in education.
She used her father’s connections to establish the Hartford Female Seminary, which provided far greater academic rigor than the norm to female students. This attracted considerable public attention, launching Beecher’s career on the national lecture circuit, during which she suggested a myriad of reasons why women should be the nation’s teacher corps. Such reasons included the large quantities of unmarried women who could put their lives to good use as “missionary teachers” on the Western frontier, and the assertion that women were better equipped than men to care for children, due to their virtue.
Goldstein points out that “after rebelling against the harsh Calvinism of their parents, the tightly knit first generation of American education reformers tended to see schools as secular churches.” This applies to the other key player at the beginning stages of the teaching profession, Horace Mann — he too, rejected Calvinism and instead, used his position in the senate of Massachusetts to require compulsory elementary education for all children in the state. In addition, Mann opened teacher training academies called “normal schools” that used remarkably similar methods as ones today, in which apprentice teachers were observed, then coached by veteran teachers.
Mann, like Beecher, promoted the idea of the “motherteacher,” capitalizing on Victorian values to perpetuate the idea that “American public schools should focus more on developing children’s character than on increasing their academic knowledge,” a task best left to female teachers. This set the American school system apart from those of Western Europe, which focused more strictly on academic rigor. By 1890, only one-third of the nation’s teachers were men.
For me, the “motherteacher” concept conjures a glossy, nostalgic image of a classroom — a neatly organized desk topped with a shiny apple, a squeaky clean blackboard, and lots of color on the walls. I say nostalgic because this has never been my experience, and I have a feeling I’m not alone in the organized chaos of sharing classrooms, running across parking lots, wheeling projectors down hallways, teaching leotard-clad students in computer labs…
Out of nostalgia for the idea, however bygone it may actually be, here is a recipe for…applesauce. How’s that for a segue way? Lately I’ve had the privilege of helping my sister-in-law with the home schooling of her five kids one day a week. We made applesauce with a food mill, no frills except a little cinnamon and brown sugar, and it was deliciously tart. Here is another version, that I’ll call “desert applesauce” that’s got a little more sweetness added, including several pads of butter…
From Apple Cookbook by Olwen Woodier
Food processor or potato masher
10 medium, tart apples (don’t use Red Delicious or summer harvested apples)
3 tablespoons apple juice or cider
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- Peel, core, and quarter the apples. Place them in a large saucepan with the apple juice.
- Cover the pot and simmer for approximately 30 minutes, until the apples are tender. Either purée in a blender or food processor, or if you’re lazy like me, mash the apples with a potato masher.
- Stir the brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, and ginger into the warm apple purée.
More to come about the history of education reform, post 1890 — in the meantime, ENJOY!