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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Teachers losing faith in the systrem

From the Washington Posts Answer Sheet

By Valerie Strauss
This was written by a public school teacher who, out of fear for her job, asked not to be identified. It was published originally on Daily Kos:

As a teacher, one must always “professionally develop” one’s self, either through courses offered through the district, at a college, or in a specialty area in which one is interested. I never thought that taking one of those courses, fully intending to broaden my professional horizons, would bring me back to a near infantile state of disequilibrium, and cause me to question if I’ve lost my philosophy, creativity, basically my “religion” as a teacher.

Everything started out innocently enough. I decided, because of an additional role I have at the high school, to take some classes that the state offers on gifted education. I’ve been working on the classes for about two months now (they’re self-paced, mostly).

The other day, I revisited my work on the final assessment for one of the classes, which involved creating a new, unique unit plan based on the object of the class, to “Raise Thinking Skills.” Then it hit me: in the past nearly four years, during which time I’ve worked for high poverty and under-performing school districts, the two districts I worked for provided me - and all of the other teachers - with prescribed curriculum.

I’ve been handed, in all my years teaching, pre-designed unit plans, complete with “grade-level essential targets,” based on state standards, which strive not necessarily to raise the thinking skills of a group of kiddos, but to move students to the level at which they truly should be before even reaching my high school English classroom, and, as a bonus, raise their scores on the state standardized test.

As I sat and stared at the blank template I’m supposed to fill with my wonderfully creative ideas on how I can raise thinking skills in my classroom, I drew a total blank. Other than the teacher work sample I had to create before graduating from my student teaching program, I had not created a totally new and original unit plan. Sure, I’ve designed daily lessons plans for my students, set out the calendar for the semester based on the “targets” prescribed by the district, but I’ve not used my deep-down creative juices to create something new and interesting since I was in college learning to be a teacher.

In my teachers program -- which was effective in its aim of exposing me to the reality of what it was like to teach students in an urban setting -- we were encouraged to think creatively, outside the box, with our students in mind, in terms of differentiation, in terms of ... a dream world. I say that because, as I quickly discovered during my semester of student teaching, there is a “college version” of what it’s like to teach, and then there’s “actual” teaching. Outside the walls of the college I attended, there were and are still forces at play that govern the way some teachers in under-performing schools teach.

Then, of course, I moved on to the next step in that logical thought process; I had to give some thought to why I originally wanted to be a teacher.

I was fortunate in that I had some of the best English teachers -- but then, I think we all might say that of our favorites. What I remember most about my classes, in addition to those fantastic teachers, was that I was able to come up with my own ideas; to be creative, to challenge the generally accepted view of things and think of all possible alternatives.

As a result, my ideal classroom was one where students learned through inquiry - to be able to examine assigned texts using the framework of their natural curiosity about a theme, to question their way through their literary lives. The classes that I envisioned teaching were ones where Socratic Seminars fostering deep, meaningful discussions about texts happened every day, because I believed that people learn through discussion, through teaching others; classes where students thought of new and creative ideas about literature; where they wrote eloquent, meaningful criticisms of characters in novels.

The reality of my teaching situation varies vastly from my original vision. There are several reasons for this, but the end result is that we - teachers in all disciplines in my school - are required to use the teaching method “Teach 4 Success” because the director of secondary curriculum believes that it will assist in raising the general achievement level of our under-performing students.

In the first year of the program’s implementation, we were all checked regularly to ensure that we were adhering to the district’s “vision.” Upon checking the data after a year of implementing the program in our classrooms, our state assessment data dropped - but no one in the district will mention it because they spent so much money to buy rights to use the program.

I’ve read many posts and comments from other teachers who say that their situation is similar, if not identical, to mine. Proscriptive curriculum dictated by a school district. In Texas, I know, they even have scripts. Yes, I mean the literal definition of “scripts.” Teachers read them.

Also as a result of being forced into a lockstep teaching method, I’ve lost touch with my original vision of teaching, and by extension, my original philosophy - my teaching “religion.”

I had one when I graduated. I had a genuine fire behind my passion for teaching (and no, I have not lost my passion, but the coals of my fire are closer to becoming smoldering embers). I had visions of...teaching. Instead, I don’t think that what we do is teaching at all, nor do many of the people with whom I work.

I think the rigorous, lockstep “teach-the-same-thing-the-same-way-in-each-11th-grade-English-classroom” program with which we work is so minutely managed and also scrutinized for adherence that it leaves no room at all for teaching - at least any sort of teaching that’s concerned with what a student needs because of their individual learning style, vs. what numbers our district needs to post on the state assessment to avoid becoming a turnaround school.

Questioning my philosophy is bad; what’s worse still is what students experience as a result of this focus.

Teenagers are not stupid - they see everything going on around them, and they sense the restrictive atmosphere. When administrators come in my room every week (sometimes twice a week) to check my board for the appropriately-phrased objective, and to see whether or not I’m employing the Teach 4 Success method to teach, they don’t ask students what they’re doing - they look to see that all of them are doing what they should be so they can determine my percentage of “engagement,” and then they leave.

While they’re in my room, though, my students are not learning; instead, they become instantly resentful of the the presence of administration. One of them even told an administrator, who wanted to conference with me about his observation of my class, “But I need her more right now.” And, rather than allowing the student the time he needed with me, he said, “Well, it will just be a minute.” The students see, quite easily, what is more important to “the man.”

So again, I’m compelled to revisit the idea I posted some time ago in a diary - the people attempting to “reform” education are not focusing on what truly matters: the students, as human beings learning to reach their potential, and teachers as educated, professional human beings capable of making appropriate judgments in their own classrooms. They’re focused instead on the “Return on Investment” testing potential in a kid that, according to Teach 4 Success and other companies that attempt to “fix” education, learns the same way as every other kid in the room, and teachers who are supposed to teach them as if that were the case.

I can only hope that this recent focus on teachers -- and focus on actually listening to and defending us -- will also take into consideration the negative impact this trend of focusing on lockstep teaching, testing, and results has on the students.


  1. All I can say is I feel your pain. I am giving up after a 20 year career in science and technology education in Massachusetts because of the test-crazed, micro-managed bureaucracy this profession has become. I loved school when I was a kid, and now after having taught for many years, I cannot imagine why? To me it now seems like boring, meaningless and largely irrelevant drudgery. I remember in grad school learning that the word education, was from the latin word meaning to "lead out" (presumably from darkness/ ignorance). Sadly, we have lost the idea of education in formal schooling, and far too many students remain in the dark even upon graduation.

  2. I am in my 23rd year of teaching, but I don't feel it anymore. The students I teach are more interested in their phones and "selfies" and the lack of discipline doesn't help. I'm am constantly talked back to, told "I'm not doing that", forced to inflate grades, forced to take extremely late work...and when my test scores are low am given dirty looks. I have lost my drive mainly because I have no power in the classroom anymore. I feel defeated. Students can make up lies and get a teacher fired. I have to be so concerned about the students (yes, part of the job), but who is concerned about me? I try to be inventive, which has worked in the past, but when I have students who have the "right" to say it's stupid and boring...what can I do? I want to teach thinking skills, but in this "high tech", "get it done in 30 seconds" world....I don't know how to do that. (Besides, aren't we teachers tired of being blamed for everything wrong?) Thank you for the article!