"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Sad Footnote

I have been teaching at Georgetown for almost twenty years now. My position requires me to do research, teaching and service. Those who have taught me did not fail to emphasize which part of the work would be most fulfilling. Research is. Its output is clearly tangible: grants secured and papers published. Apparently, teaching is not as rewarding to some people. Condensing a list of students who have done well in life is not as straightforward as making a list of publications. With Google Scholar, one can even obtain the number of citations each publication has garnered over the years. One can even use a number to summarize this accomplishment; the Hirsch index or h-index, which gives the number of papers one has authored or co-authored that has been cited at least h times. My h index currently stands at 33, which means I have 33 papers that have been cited at least 33 times. There is no such number for teaching. I teach General Chemistry in one of the semesters of the year and this class is taken mostly by students who are aspiring to enter medical school. I can count the number of students I have taught over the past eighteen years, which by now are in the thousands, and check which ones are actually practicing physicians at this point. That number, however, is so far from a number I can claim as my own since obviously, my General Chemistry class is a tiny fraction of a student's preparation for a career in medicine. Oftentimes, a student succeeds not because of a teacher, but in spite of a teacher, to put it mildly. There is research out there that quantitatively and methodically looks at the effects of a bad teacher on learning outcomes - the effects appear to be small. Still, a teacher may still be tempted to grab the success of a student and take it as a trophy. Although the impact of a bad teacher is rather low, mistreatment of teachers is an entirely different story. When the teaching profession does not receive the respect it deserves and needs, the entire educational system can fail.

Graduate education is a bit different from undergraduate studies. A mentor of a doctoral candidate does a lot more than teaching the student inside a classroom although even in this case, the student still does most of the work. The mentor is an academic guidance counselor and manager. I recently received an email from one of my PhD students, Marlon N. Manalo (PhD Chemistry, 2003, Georgetown University). Marlon informs me that he had just been granted tenure at the Institute of Chemistry, University of the Philippines Los BaƱos (IC-UPLB). He currently serves as an associate professor at UPLB and is Head of the Physical, Inorganic, and Industrial Chemistry Division at IC-UPLB. He also mentioned that he was recently awarded the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) Prize for Young Scientist in the Philippines:

UPLB Professor of Chemistry Marlon N. Manalo receiving the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) Prize for Young Scientist in the Philippines

It is rewarding to see a student succeed. And certainly, congratulations to Marlon! Marlon achieved this through his hard work and perseverance.

So, why is the title of this post, "A Sad Footnote". Teaching has its rewards. Unlike other professions, it is not so much about output. It is more about how the profession transforms the teacher. That is where the rewards in teaching can truly be found. Teaching is learning. Teaching is growing. And as in a garden, the gardener grows with the grass, the flowers and the trees. Randy Turner, an English teacher, writes in the Huffington Post, "A Warning to Young People: Don't Become a Teacher":

Nothing I have ever done has brought me as much joy as I have received from teaching children how to write the past 14 years. Helping young writers grow and mature has been richly rewarding and I would not trade my experiences for anything. 
That being said, if I were 18 years old and deciding how I want to spend my adult years, the last thing I would want to become is a classroom teacher... 
...Times have changed. I have watched over the past few years as wonderfully gifted young teachers have left the classroom, feeling they do not have support and that things are not going to get any better.
In the past, these are the teachers who stayed, earned tenure, and built the solid framework that has served their communities and our nation well.
That framework is being torn down, oftentimes by politicians who would never dream of sending their own children to the kind of schools they are mandating for others.
Despite all of the attacks on the teachers, I am continually amazed at the high quality of the young people who are entering the profession. It is hard to kill idealism, no matter how much our leaders (in both parties) try.
 
I suppose I am just kidding myself about encouraging young people to enter some other profession, any other profession, besides teaching. 
After all, what other profession would allow me to make $37,000 a year after 14 years of experience and have people tell me how greedy I am?
It takes a teacher who is true in his or her profession to understand what teaching is really about. Its rewards are not as easy for others to see or measure. Perhaps, this is the reason why politicians and those who draw policies and reforms for education usually miss the important points. Only a teacher knows what teaching is really about.














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