Margaret Virum taught in the Minneapolis Public Schools nearly 50 years. She has been listed among the most prestigious alumni from the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and received many honors for her innovative teaching before her death one year ago.
Rebecca Bauer is an English teacher at St. Paul Central High School
After becoming a teacher 16 years ago, I wrote Miss Virum a letter telling her how much it had meant to me to be a first and second grader in her class and the many ways in which her teaching had not only influenced me as a reader, writer and future teacher, but also how her classroom was a safe haven from a home that had often been in turmoil during those years. I recalled for her the many memories I had of her creative projects and the ways she blended experiential learning and individualized instruction so that each student had an opportunity to feel valued and visible in her classroom.
I was honored by Miss Virum’s request to use portions of that letter in a speech before the University of Minnesota Alumni Association, and honored again when I was recently asked by that institution to be a contributor to a writing project remembering her work in education.
Through this project, I have come to understand what a trailblazer Miss Virum truly was. She was in the middle of her career when I was her student, but she was full of fresh ideas about grade looping, experiential and cooperative education that have since been recognized as best practices in educational research. She was a risk-taker in a time and place that allowed her to be just that.
The first decade of this century has not been the time for this kind of risk-taking and individualism, and the one ahead threatens to be even less so. More ominous than the increased time spent preparing for standardized tests, or even the pressure to meet No Child Left Behind progress markers, is the insidious corporatization of classrooms where standardization of process and product is perceived to be synonymous with achievement.
High school teachers in my district experienced this first hand during impromptu visits by a district administrator last year. He came into my classroom wanting to know after a few moments observation whether my students were doing the same lesson as those in other sections of that class taught by my colleagues down the hall on the same day. He was pleased to see that the standards for that day’s lesson, as identified by the district, were posted on my bulletin board as I had been instructed but wondered if the students could identify and recite them as they had been written in all of the unwieldy jargon of educational administration. Not surprisingly, this was the general line of questioning that followed among all of my colleagues.
We are told by the subject area liaisons from the district not to worry about these visits and the messages contained therein. We are told that no one is trying to tamper with our individual teaching style and all of this is just a way of ensuring high curricular standards across the area high schools, but it takes only a few minutes tuned in to the political rhetoric surrounding education to make me question the validity of these assurances.
The discussion is one that almost always equates the reality of the classroom with that of a business. Increasingly, we see members of the corporate community involved in not only the discussion, but also in the implementation of educational policy as well, transforming the language of education with terms related to accountability and spread sheets.
Using a business model is nothing new. Twentieth century education was based on the expectations of the Industrial Age where the education system’s litmus test was if they could produce successful factory workers. In the latter half of that century, educational research verified the instincts of the best teachers who knew that the human brain was not ideally suited for that kind of learning environment.
Teachers like Margaret Virum understood that children could exceed all expectations given lots of individualized instruction and attention. How ironic it is that as we move forward into this new century, those at the helm of educational reform would rather hamstring risk-takers with mandates and standardization rather than allow them to do what they do best: Teach students.