Epitaph for a Young Teacher
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
AUTHOR OF THE
STATUTE OF VIRGINIA
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:
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:
What I teach is not as important as whom I teach.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What goes up must come down is a useful concept, but the ability to catch a falling student is critical core knowledge.
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.
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.