When I read about the firing of organic chemistry professor Maitland Jones Jr. I was saddened, though not terribly surprised. Jones spent over 40 years teaching at Princeton where, according to his retirement announcement, he garnered outstanding reviews. He then returned to the classroom at New York University. Now, at 84, he’s been forced out because 80 of his 350 students decided his class was too hard.
Note that I am probably completely biased, since I spent 20 years in the classroom, so you may take my comments in that context.
Once upon a time, teachers outlined what students were required to do in order to succeed and held them accountable. For the most part, students realized that teachers were doing their best to help them achieve their dreams. But then something changed. School became a commodity. It started with universities, where education was being doled out as if it were a business where “the customer is always right.” In a state like mine where students may choose where they want to study and where funds follow wherever they go, K12 education also became a service to be sold, which put students and parents in charge.
Don’t get me wrong. Families have every right to decided what institutions they want to patronize. I have no problem there. The issues arise when a student is not doing well and, instead of finding the root of the problem, the parents and administrators instantly blame the teacher. Let me say here that, yes, there are incompetent teachers. It’s a tough job—certainly the hardest I’ve ever had—and not everyone is cut out for it. Still, I have never met a teacher who didn’t have a yearning to help young people, which means with some targeted, extra training, struggling teachers might improve.
Something else to consider is the fact that too many children come from disfunctional homes—certainly the case in my Title I school—and often they can’t remedy the issues that burden them. Teachers then become the next best target. Anger and disappointment in other areas of their lives switch on in the classroom, aimed especially at teachers who are considered “tough.”
Teachers like me.
Sometimes, my students called me harsh. Once, when I was a brand new teacher, an entire class simply walked out one day, leaving me in tears at the front of an empty room. (Not easy for me to mention that, but there you have it.) Why did they leave? I told them deadlines are important and that they must get their work in on time or their grades would suffer. Another time, after months of explaining that students needed to put their names on their work, I warned that if they neglected that requirement again, they’d fail the assignment. Four students ignored my request and, though I gave them extra work to make up for those zeros, they went to my administrator to complain. I was ordered to give them their credit back. What do you think that taught them?
While some students loved the rigor of my journalism classes, others despised me for holding them accountable. When I would try to calmly point out that I was only trying to help them be successful in life, I could see they didn’t believe me, which hurt. Eventually, I realized this attitude didn’t begin with the students. It came from the adults in their world.
In many countries, teaching is looked upon as a noble and respected profession. Here in the U.S., however, many believe the mantra, “Those who can’t do, teach.” (I will now warn you to never utter that expression in my presence, unless you’ve stepped into a classroom and taken charge at least once.) I cringe when I hear grownups, many decades out of school, say, “That teacher hated me!” Teachers don’t hate students. While it’s true some kids are more appealing and easier to work with than others—the same, of course, can be said of teachers—most of the educators I know buckle down and work overtime with kids who are more difficult. And yet this blame-the-teacher attitude trickled down to students and now these kids are out in the workforce.
Today, our businesses are struggling because they can’t hire enough competent workers. Just enter any restaurant, office, or store and you’ll see what I mean. Young people quit jobs in rapid succession, saying the work is too hard and too stressful. Or even worse, they agree to “quiet quitting,” the idea that one should do the least possible amount of work for the most pay. Can you see that the disdain once held for teachers has now shifted to business bosses?
Can we fix this? I don’t know, but getting rid of the anti-teacher rhetoric that’s bouncing around would be a plus. Currently, it’s estimated that over 36,500 teaching positions remain unfilled nationwide. A little respect might go a long way toward bringing that number down.
I don’t know Professor Jones, but my heart breaks for him. He’s given his life to teaching and, I’m sure, was running his classroom the best way he knows how. And, even if you agree with his dismissal, bear in mind that organic chemistry is often a pre-requisite in most medical fields. So ask yourself, the next time you’re preparing to head into surgery, would you want a doctor who failed that course cutting into you?
The past and present collide when a tenacious reporter seeks information on an eleventh century magician…and uncovers more than she bargained for.
February 2, 2022
In 1939, archeologists uncovered a tomb at the Northern Arizona site called Ridge Ruin. The man, bedecked in fine turquoise jewelry and intricate bead work, was surrounded by wooden swords with handles carved into animal hooves and human hands. The Hopi workers stepped back from the grave, knowing what the Moochiwimi sticks meant. This man, buried nine hundred years earlier, was a magician.
Former television journalist Kate Butler hangs on to her investigative reporting career by writing freelance magazine articles. Her research on The Magician shows he bore some European facial characteristics and physical qualities that made him different from the people who buried him. Her quest to discover The Magician’s origin carries her back to a time when the high desert world was shattered by the birth of a volcano and into the present-day dangers of archeological looting where black market sales of antiquities can lead to murder.
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