Je ne regrette rien… mostly
Posted by lpearle on 20 August 2015
This is the time of year when students start school, comparing schedules and teacher assignments. Most don’t have any control over which teacher they have for various subjects – if you’re taking Freshman English or US History, you just get placed in a section and good luck to you. Sometimes, though, you do have control and can either steer towards or away from a particular teacher (a few years ago, I had a rising senior who said that for English, he wanted “anyone but [teacher name]” and, luckily, his schedule worked out so that he did avoid that teacher).
When I was in high school, back in the day when the Emma Willard curriculum truly was more college prep than it is now: no AP classes, and a trimester schedule that allowed teachers and students to explore a niche topic for the 11(?) weeks. For example, I took British Poetry and European Fiction and Modern Asian History while others took Government and Russian Literature and the Civil War Era. With the exception of math and languages, we were in mixed grade classes based on interest rather than ability or grade. Teacher chose whether they would assign grades or if the class would be Credit/No Credit, creating an egalitarian system that didn’t allow for a GPA or class ranking, because really, how do you assign a ranking to someone who took Economics and got “credit” vs. someone who took Spanish Dancing and got a B+? It was perfect prep for the college experience, where you can take classes that are of interest and really explore your passion rather than taking AP classes to impress an admissions officer.
That was one aspect of the experience, and for me a great one. The other aspect, one that shocks my current students, was that I could avoid classes I really didn’t want to take and so, I adhered to their graduation requirements and stopped taking science after 9th grade and only got to Algebra 2 and Trig in math. Another friend, raised and educated in England, stopped both at age 13 and concentrated on languages and history. Given our current lives, I’m not sure we missed out… most of the time. I would like a greater basic knowledge of, say, chemistry or botany, but I am managing without it. It wouldn’t hurt students today if they were allowed to have the type of educational experience I had, and it might create better students as they focus on what they really enjoy rather than adhering to an imposed curriculum.
At every school in which I’ve studied or worked there are iconic teachers. Some achieve that status by pure longevity – a 4o+-year-career, for example. Some achieve that by their demeanor in the classroom, connecting with students in incredible ways. When I’ve gone back to Emma for reunions and talk with my friends, and meet people from other classes, we often talk about classes we took, teachers (and housemothers) we loved and those we avoided. And that’s where the regrets come in: some times, because I was so busy pursuing my passions, I missed taking classes or having teachers who had conflicting classes. It’s those times I think, “oh, if only I’d taking [class name/teacher name]” because the love my classmates have for that teacher or class is so intense. I wish I could actually sing because the choir teacher was one of those icons… I regret never taking Chemistry or Latin because those teachers were icons.
My hope for my students is that they don’t have those regrets, but the reality is that the nature of education now is that they will simply because they aren’t allowed to go outside the norm, they must take an AP math and science course in their senior year (but can drop history to get even more STEM education).