Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: The ‘deschooling’ of West Virginia

by Ron Iannone

Most people know that it’s very difficult to recruit students to go into teaching. In school districts, they are also finding it difficult to keep teachers. Studies show three out of five teachers leave in five years. The major factor that’s given is salaries are too low. Besides this, other factors included too many undisciplined students and potential violence and attacks from students.

The college-age student of today — members of Gen Z — wants more exciting things than just teaching to the schedule day after day. They are looking for flexibility in their jobs, along with opportunities to be creative and have a balance between work and personal life.

I am now convinced more than ever that we need to totally reconceptualize how we look at schools and teachers. First of all, I stated the following years ago: “Teacher educators should not forget that teaching is primarily concerned with human beings interacting with each other in a very human process.” And according to the educator Ivan Illich, who wrote “Deschooling Society,” “A good education system … should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives.”

In order to begin this reconceptualizing, all colleges, schools and departments at the university level need to ask themselves this: Why do we exist, and for what purpose?

And if we can’t answer that question, then that unit should be downsized or eliminated.

More so,   when some universities have asked that question about existence, the schools of education were eliminated, such as what happened at Cornell University.

Community colleges are now picking up the slack as schools of education downsize or close. They’re increasing “teacher ed” programs by expanding the teachers’ skills and adding more counseling courses in order to deal with the increased mental health crisis of students. Gen Zers may find teachers aide roles better suited for them than all-encompassing teacher roles.

Many educational methods classes should be eliminated. Most are redundant and boring. The best writing teacher I ever had only had two years of college. He taught me that good writing means writing sentences that are simple, clean and powerful. I am still working on his advice.

Further, we must understand increasing salaries will go a long way in recruiting and keeping teachers. However, Frederick Herzberg, an industrial psychologist, said we need more motivators that are directly related to the job like achievement, recognition and creativity. Factors like salary and social relations only keep teachers from being dissatisfied.

For example, in Rochester, N.Y., a while back, teachers’ salaries began at $75,000, but the district didn’t get the results it wanted in implementing a new educational program.

For many of the motivators to be available for teachers, we must change the work week for teachers from five days to four days a week. Teachers aides with expanded roles can pick up the teaching when teachers are spending their professional day developing materials in a teaching center. This day should also be used to recharge teachers by giving them opportunities to develop their interests. Master skill and craftspeople should be available for them. I saw results of these centers as I observed one in Wellesley, Mass. The center developed a sense of community and a collegial professionalism among the teachers.

If we begin to change the roles of teachers and teachers aides, then we need to change the schools. State legislatures like West Virginia’s have begun to do this by approving several charter schools with curriculums that emphasize technology, classics, arts, music and different views of Christianity. Many school districts are looking at hiring teachers who are not fully certified or have no educational degrees in order to deal with teacher shortages.

In a sense, because of the negative effects of the pandemic and budget shortfalls, schools are being forced to look at several innovative programs. And I believe the “deschooling” of West Virginia has begun.

Ron Iannone is a WVU professor emeritus in the College of Education and Human Services and the founder of West Virginia Public Theater.