Alec Wyeth's Learning Story


Larry Myatt’s story is much like one of mine. I had a passion to be a surgeon and in high school I read all the books I could find on the heart and heart surgeons. During my junior year I spent a month at Bellevue Hospital in NY volunteering in the Recovery Room. I observed surgery and spoke with patients. My senior year I took a well taught course on Human Physiology that required a real-life research project. I designed a project to study the effects of Physoderm (remember that green bottle?) on fetal rats. I used histology techniques to look at the cell structure of the rats’ brains. I was pumped. So off I went to a well respected university to study pre-med and … I think you may have anticipated the climax of my story.
But first, a hallmate and I spent our Saturday nights in Nashville’s city hospital’s emergency room. We saw surgeons in action and assisted where we could. Believe it or not, I was even allowed to tie a few stitches! I was pumped! However, much like Larry’s experience with paleontology, I was turned off by freshman chemistry (the weed ’em out course). Trying to hang on, I took sophomore biology only to experience the same horrible teaching Larry described, having to memorize long lists of Latin phila. I threw in the surgeon’s towel and persued other interests that allowed me to construct my own meaning: philosohy and English.
Now as a career educator, my following new passion, I look back with some despair and wonder how many college or secondary school experiences are like this for so many others. Have the times changed broadly enough so that teachers (and this includes professors) are not merely given permission but the mandate to “teach like your hair’s on fire,” to get to know their students well enough to keep their passions alive, to teach people, not subjects, the 21st century skills and content and not for the prevailing test du jour (PSAT, SAT, AP, MCAS, MCAT, and on and on)?
There is a place for accountability testing in the vehicle of educational reform and progress, but it is not the driver’s seat, nor should it even ride shotgun. Some of you are thinking, “How about the trunk?” The back seat seems appropriate to me…a present, informative (hopefully not distracting) passenger, but not a driving or navigating agent. Let us all help inform our community and policy makers about what’s really important for excellent education: attracting and retaining excellent teachers to the profession 1) by paying them a respectful and competitive wage for the vital and complicated work they must do well, 2) by providing them with courageous leadership that holds them accountable for knowing all their students well enough to nurture their strengths, interests, and passions and develop their weaknesses so they can be successful in the 21st century, and 3) by removing all distractions to this core mission. It is really that simple.