Typical of that group of experienced teachers who work in suburban affluent, white districts, Ellen Glanz spent a year as a student in the high school in which she taught. In becoming a student she took her teacher perspective and inverted it by sitting behind a student’s desk in class after class, facing teachers, her colleagues. Her one-year experience illuminates classroom instruction in an unusual manner.
A social studies teacher for six years at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, a suburb twenty miles from Boston, Glanz proposed to her superintendent a project that would enable her to find out what it was like to be a high school student. The superintendent gave her permission to take courses like any other student, provided the teachers, Glanz’s colleagues, agreed to her being in class.
Glanz enrolled as a senior in 1978 -1979. Her schedule included advanced expository writing, calculus, Russian history, advanced French, drawing, and trampoline. Successful in being accepted as a student after the novelty wore off, she attended classes, did homework, took tests, and, as she remarked with a touch of pride, was even “kicked out of the library for talking.” She kept a journal of her experiences and thoughts.
Periodically, she met with teachers to share her observations and, by the end of the project, wrote two reports for the high school staff, parents, and students. “I was curious to discover how different other teachers’ classes were from those I attended as a child and a teenager.” What she found out was that they “were not very different.”
“Most teachers teach in much the same way they were taught in an essentially didactic, teacher-centered mode…. The teacher knows the material and presents it to students, whose role is to ‘absorb’ it.”
The system, she said, nurtures “incredible passivity.” In class after class, “one sits and listens.” In one class during my second week as a student, I noticed half way through the hour that much of the class was either doodling, fidgeting, or sleeping. Before long, I found my own mind wandering too. Yet this teacher was touted as one of the finest in the school. “I realized,” she said, “that what was boring was not what the teacher was saying but the very act of sitting and listening for the fourth hour in a row.”
When it comes to teaching methods, Glanz observed that most techniques teachers used “promote the feeling that students have little control over or responsibility for their own education.” She pointed out the agenda for the class is the teacher’s. He or she plans the tasks and determines who does what to whom, when. There is, she found, little opportunity for students to “make a real difference in the way a class goes, aside from their doing their homework or participating.” She described how her English teacher surprised the class one period by letting two students lead a discussion. After some practice, “students were far more attentive and the teacher learned when and how to intervene to lead the discussion… without taking control. ”
After completing the year, writing the reports, and returning to her five classes a day, Glanz asked about the stubborn regularities in teaching approaches that she saw. “We must realize that in all likelihood, despite the problems I’ve described, classes will remain basically as they are right now.”
Why? Because the subject matter of French, math, anatomy, history “dictates an essentially didactic class model since the subject matter is not known intuitively by students and must be transmitted from teacher to student. And the ultimate authority and control will and should remain with the teacher.”
While Glanz suggests ways of improving teacher methods, involving students in classroom activities, and reducing the tensions that she saw clearly between the two separate worlds of teachers and students, it is apparent that she believes that the way it is in a high school can be improved but probably will stay much as it is because of what is taught, who has the knowledge, and where the authority rests.
Glanz’s description of her life as a student is similar to other books where adults pose as students (see Philip Cusick, Inside High School, 1973).
Part 2 describes a teacher shadowing a student in 2013.