568. Teachers and Curriculum

People can have many reasons for wanting to teach in public schools. Some of them neatly match the most common reasons for which communities have schools – they want to help children learn how to read, write, compute, and do other things that most people agree are useful in later life. Educators may disagree about which are the best ways to teach those skills, and that can cause some discord. But people who don’t want to teach the “basics” at all probably will have trouble finding and keeping jobs as public school teachers.
That’s rarely all there is to it, though. Teachers have their own priorities, which tend to become part of the curriculum in one way or another. They have personalities and philosophies, and end up teaching things that may not be written in the school system’s curriculum guide. There may be units based on teachers’ recent travel experiences. Or maybe a teacher is concerned about certain societal problems, and believes that working with children is a way to help solve them. And I think that’s good; I don’t think schools function effectively if teachers are confined to curricula that are created entirely by other people.
As I think of the teachers I’ve known, I think of ways they’ve enriched curricula by making sure their own thoughts and experiences are part of their teaching. A teacher who has spent a year in Sri Lanka can teach children about Sri Lanka in a way other teachers may not be able to, and shouldn’t have to avoid such teaching just because it isn’t part of the prescribed curriculum for that teacher’s grade. Or someone who is deeply involved in an effort to save the rainforests may speak to children about rainforests in ways that motivate children, and may plan activities that get children thinking.
But this brings up a possible problem. What teachers choose to teach (beyond reading, writing, and computing) may not be what parents choose to have their children learn. The president of a company that does something probably doesn’t want his or her child to come home from school and announce that it’s immoral to do what that company does. Teaching children how to read, write, and compute isn’t a very controversial thing to do; teachers don’t have to worry much that parents will disapprove of such teaching. But as soon as a teacher transcends the boundaries of the regular curriculum, there can be trouble.
I remember a staff meeting in at which we were trying to decide on a topic for a “school immersion” – a subject all classes would study, each in a different way. I suggested that we try studying the Soviet Union. My suggestion was immediately answered by a few nodding heads and lots of shaking heads. Most of the teachers did not want to do something that might look like peace education. We ended up doing a study of ancient Greece. I was disappointed, but I wrote a version of “Antigone” which my second grade class performed, and I was able to squeeze in some of my thoughts about civil disobedience. When a teacher wants her/his ideas to be part of the curriculum, he or she can usually find a way.

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