Epitaph for a Young Teacher

I read this piece, Epitaph for a Young Teacher, in Teacher Magazine.

Epitaph for a Young Teacher
by Anthony Mullen

Virginia

Monticello Grounds

Hamlet teaches much. The play taught me that the dead depend upon the living to tell their story. The dead, after all, first linger in our thoughts and prayers and then disappear inside old photograph albums. A few notable dead have monuments built to remind people that they once lived and loved and laughed. Some inscribe an epitaph on their tombstone, usually a brief piece of prose commemorating a significant legacy or achievement. Thomas Jefferson desired that his grave be marked by an obelisk inscribed with the three accomplishments for which he wished to be remembered, “…and not a word more.”

HERE WAS BURIED
THOMAS JEFFERSON
AUTHOR OF THE
DECLARATION
OF
AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE
STATUTE OF VIRGINIA
FOR
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA

That’s it. The third president of the United States wished to be remembered for his intellect, belief in freedom of religion, and the founding of a great university. No mention of his vice presidency or presidency. The man did not want to be remembered as a politician. No wonder scholars are still probing his great mind.

I walked away from the Jefferson family cemetery wondering if


a teacher will ever get the chance to have the following words inscribed on his or her grave:

HERE WAS BURIED
A TEACHER
AUTHOR OF THE
NATIONAL ACADEMIC STANDARDS
FOR THE BENEFIT
OF ALL CHILDREN

Such a simple yet profound epitaph would be the envy of all teachers, a monument as profound and beautiful as Jefferson’s granite obelisk. But such an inscription is highly improbable and, if written, would likely be vandalized by politicians or education bureaucrats who have left teachers out of designing a national curriculum.

Academic standards are a critical component of quality teaching and student learning, and the adoption of a uniform set of national standards could transform American education. No wonder this important issue is a popular topic of conversation whenever I speak at schools of education. Pre-service teachers often ask me if I have been involved in the drafting of academic standards on a national or state level. No and no. However, I do tell our nation’s future teachers that some day they may be part of the process of developing a common core of national standards, and that is why their generation of teachers must keep knocking on the doors of politicians, policy makers, and education “think tanks” and remind these influential people that a teacher’s voice is the only voice heard in a classroom.

And I tell our future teachers that whatever uniform set of academic standards eventually makes its way to their classroom door, the following core knowledge must be included:

Mission Statement

What I teach is not as important as whom I teach.

Math Standards

a2 + b2 = c2 is a useful math concept, but understanding that the sum of all a child’s yesterdays does not equal the value of just one tomorrow is critical core knowledge.

Geography Standards

The origin of the Nile River is a piece of practical information, but understanding that a child’s origin is not their destiny is critical core knowledge.

Reading Standards

Students should read sonnets, a beautiful form of poetry that derives its name from the Italian word sonetto, meaning “little song.” But the ability to read a child’ story and know that each and every student arrives at your classroom door with a unique and intriguing and incomplete story is critical core knowledge.

Writing Standards

A sentence must include a subject and a predicate, but knowing how to script confidence on the blank pages of a child’s story, how to edit the mistakes, and how to help write a happy ending is critical core knowledge.

Science Standards

What goes up must come down is a useful concept, but the ability to catch a falling student is critical core knowledge.

ART

How artists work and what tools do they use to create is concrete and useful information, but understanding that the hands of every artist were once held and guided by a teacher is critical core knowledge.

Civics

Knowing the three branches of government is useful knowledge, but understanding that the greatest institution for social change is a school and the greatest instrument of change is a teacher is critical core knowledge.

I hope one day my children or grandchildren will visit a monument to a teacher. A national historic landmark that reminds visitors that here lay the remains of a very important teacher who helped draft an essential and enduring common core of national standards.

And not a word more.

5 Comments on “Epitaph for a Young Teacher”

  1. FedUpMom says:

    ****
    a teacher’s voice is the only voice heard in a classroom.
    ****

    What the …? How about the students?

    May 5th, 2010 at 7:41 am
    Permanent Link

  2. FedUpMom says:

    ****
    the great­est insti­tu­tion for social change is a school and the great­est instru­ment of change is a teacher
    ****

    On the contrary, schools are a powerful force for maintenance of the status quo, and teachers are very resistant to change.

    I understand that the point of the article is that teachers need to care about the kids they teach, and I agree with that, but the tone of the article gets on my nerves. It’s got that sentimental teacher-as-holy-martyr point of view that I’m just tired of.

    If you hadn’t noticed, I am Fed Up.

    May 5th, 2010 at 7:54 am
    Permanent Link

  3. Bill Seitz says:

    I agree with the previous commenters, and not the post.

    I’m not convinced National Standards are helpful, since I don’t think we’ve figured out any agreement on what the best goals and methods are for education.

    I think a little bit of standardized testing can be helpful to give parents an objective-third-party viewpoint. I think the main purpose of testing should be as a tool for parents to decide where to put/keep their kids. Hmm, I wonder whether parents should pick tests to be given to their kids based on what *their* goals are? The results wouldn’t be national-standardized, but might still have enough critical mass to provide comparability.

    May 5th, 2010 at 9:39 am
    Permanent Link

  4. Disillusioned says:

    FedUp- I agree. A large dose of sanctimony is very evident in the tone. Sanctimony and a narrow world view usually go hand in hand. The article also assumes a classroom is the only place a child can learn. As for artistry, most creative types usually dislike traditional school and find their own path before school molds them into a cookie cutter defender of the status quo.

    May 5th, 2010 at 6:37 pm
    Permanent Link

  5. ödev says:

    agree with the previous commenters, and not the post.

    I’m not convinced National Standards are helpful, since I don’t think we’ve figured out any agreement on what the best goals and methods are for education.

    I think a little bit of standardized testing can be helpful to give parents an objective-third-party viewpoint. I think the main purpose of testing should be as a tool for parents to decide where to put/keep their kids. Hmm, I wonder whether parents should pick tests to be given to their kids based on what *their* goals are? The results wouldn’t be national-standardized, but might still have enough critical mass to provide comparability.

    June 23rd, 2011 at 11:22 am
    Permanent Link

Leave a comment on “Epitaph for a Young Teacher”

Your Info (optional)




Comment (required)

Message