What Happened to Me? I Used To Be A Good Teacher!
I am a third grade teacher. Or at least I used to be.
I got off to a rocky start in teaching. I struggled with management. I had classes full of English learners and no strategies with which to teach them. I frantically tried to educate myself. I tried anything and everything to make learning meaningful and relevant for my students. The most important change occurred when I became trained in Project GLAD. I learned how to integrate curriculum, utilize the knowledge of the students as a starting point, and to build on their strengths. I learned about language acquisition and brain-based teaching. I learned that no matter what their background or socioeconomic status, students come with rich experiences and literacy skills.
By my third year of teaching, I was nominated Teacher of the Year for my school. I went on to be my district’s teacher of the year. From that point on, things started to happen for me. I coauthored an article. I became a mentor teacher for my district. I became a Project GLAD trainer. I received several awards. But the best part was the teaching itself, and the responses I received from my students and their families. They always thanked me for the job I did. I often received thanks from the mothers of little boys; they thanked me for getting their sons to like school again.
I loved my job. My kids loved to come to school. And the parents were happy with the education their children were receiving. My students’ days were filled with hands-on activities, meaningful literacy activities, student-centered instruction, and the walls were full of the language of learning - their language, their learning.
But in the late 90’s, things changed. AB 1086 passed in California. Suddenly politicians and policy makers were deciding how I should teach. I had to attend mandated trainings. These trainings pushed the teaching of select isolated skills out of context. There was a heavy emphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness, almost to the exclusion of all else. Everything I knew and had read about how children learn did not fit with this new “model.” I was worried.
By this point I had obtained my master’s degree. The program heavily emphasized critical pedagogy. I had learned the importance of being critical, asking questions, and always keeping in mind “for who and on whose behalf” I was working (Paulo Freire). So I was critical. I asked questions. I requested the data, and challenged it. No one was going to tell me to change what I knew worked best for kids without some darned good reasons.
As educators, we always encourage our students to be critical and ask questions. I learned early (the hard way) that this is not what administration wants from its teachers. My questions and requests for information were met with contempt and reprimands. One administrator actually waved her finger back and forth in my face the entire time she lectured me. I learned so much. I learned do not ask questions. Do not be critical. Do not model the behavior we expect from our students. Go along to get along. And I did. God help me, I did.
Luckily, I didn’t completely shut down. I decided to engage in critical dialogue in other circles away from my district. I joined a teacher research group. I wrote an article. I wrote a chapter in a book. I started teaching part time at the university level. But I did not share my writing or my coursework content with anyone in my district except for close friends. I still haven’t. I did not want a finger waved in my face again. I still don’t.
So here it is now, 2004. Things are a lot worse for kids and their teachers. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the National Reading Panel (NRP) Report are here. Things are worse than ever.
I am no longer permitted to utilize textbooks as resources. They are viewed as scripts to be followed. I am told when and how to use my materials. I am told when and how to assess my students. The needs of children are no longer at the forefront of the discussion. Standardized test scores and multiple measures are what’s important now.
My stomach hurts most mornings when I go to work. For most of the day, I do not enjoy teaching. And for most of the day, my kids do not enjoy learning. Well, I don’t know if you can really call it teaching and learning. It’s more like test preparation most of the day. As teachers, we can only make this kind of curriculum so exciting. There are limits to what you can do with such a narrow and limited instructional focus. I do have one little window of time each day that I can call my own, and I use the strategies I know work for kids. My kids love that part of the day, and learn so much. So do I. But it’s not enough. Not enough to make up for the rest of the day.
I no longer consider myself a good teacher. I rarely receive notes and letters like the ones in my early years of teaching. I now get complaints. I now have behavior problems. I now have lots of test results. I now go through a lot more tissue. I should buy stock in Kleenex. I cry a lot.
What I have come to realize is this: teachers will never be treated professionally unless we start becoming vocal. We cannot “go along to get along.” We know what works for our students, and we need to stand up and fight for what is right for our students.
I am angry with myself. I am deeply disappointed in myself. How did I let this happen? Why did I go along to get along? Why didn’t I stand up and say no? I suppose there is no point in mulling this over. What’s done is done. What matters now is what I do next. What matters for all of us is what we do next.
I feel I have gained a great deal of strength recently. I think this is due to several factors:
• Having “faithfully implemented” the mandated language arts program, I now feel I can speak to its weaknesses and alter my instruction without guilt. Knowing the enemy is powerful. And it is important. We must be very familiar with the enemy if we are to successfully fight it and triumph.
• The amount of reading and research available to teachers to assist us in doing what is best for kids is phenomenal. I have been engaged in a great deal of reading. I now have an arsenal of knowledge to defend what I do and prove why it is better for students than the mandated curriculum and strategies.
• I have gone through a great deal of pain. Obviously, it is difficult to look at yourself in the mirror and realize you have succumbed to the powers that be and sacrificed meaningful instruction for students as a result. The guilt is almost unbearable. But through that pain and guilt, I have become a stronger person and a stronger teacher. It is part of what has made me who I am, and what I will hopefully start to be again: a good teacher.
Will I become a good teacher again? I hope so. But the mandates are strong and those who are willing to speak up are few. If teachers continue to close their doors and stay silent things will never change. I have recently started to find my voice again and share my concerns. Even though every teacher I know feels the way I do, they do not say anything. So what does that make me? How do I look to the powers that be in my district? I am a squeaky wheel, a troublemaker, a problem to be dealt with quickly or ignored altogether. Those who do not follow the mandates and testing insanity without question are not treated as critical thinkers. They are not treated as student advocates. Their opinions are not valued and listened to with open minds and open hearts. These people are reprimanded, punished, and often find themselves unemployed. Just ask Steve Orel, James Hope, Joanne Yatvin, Teresa Glenn, or any of the other authors whose stories are told in the book Silent No More. These people have paid the price. Why? They all worked in isolation to improve conditions and promote fairness and equality for all students. Their stories are inspirational, yet so sad and depressing. How can we stand up without being beaten back down again? A voice of one is easy to subdue and squelch when you have entire institutions or administrations against you.
But what about a chorus of 10? 15? 100? What if we all got together and screamed “Stop this insanity!”? Would anyone listen? I bet they would. Could they attack all of us? Could they fire all of us? My guess is no. Or at least my hope is no.
All I know is, we have to take our profession back. Well, I often wonder if we ever really had it in the first place. Teaching is such an unusual profession. We are isolated from each other most of the day. We do not have time to work together and collaborate. We certainly do not have time to conduct our own research and write our own articles. And when we do, we are told what we have to offer is not “scientific,” and therefore cannot be a part of the knowledge base. We are marginalized in our own profession. Does this make sense? Does this sit right with you? It sure doesn’t with me.
Stop the Bandwagon, I Want to Get Off! (2005 Update)
Well, here it is, a year later since I wrote the above. What did I do? What happened?
Good news and bad news. The good news is I did take the adopted materials and began to use them more as resources rather than Bibles. The students are more responsive and seem more engaged this year. Is it anywhere near what I used to do? No. But it’s better than what it was last year.
I was filled with hope this year. Our school seemed to be embracing student-centered strategies that were truly grounded in legitimate research. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, that light was a train.
Data analysis. Curriculum calibration. Test coordinators in our faces. Focus walls. Reciprocal teaching. Numeracy. Mandated strategies. Now, as much as I love GLAD, I do not believe it should be mandated and piecemealed out. As a matter of fact, none of these strategies and programs are bad. But what on earth makes anyone think we can do ALL of them and still be effective? Something’s gotta give, people! One guess what it is. That’s right, a quality education for our students.
I think my favorite moment of the year came rather early on. The test coordinator came to talk to every grade level at the Title I schools. (Hmmm…..) When it was my grade level’s turn, I went in with an open mind. I had never met this person. Maybe he had something to say that would be helpful. Then again, maybe ….
One of his first questions was, “Your language arts test scores went down for your English learners. Why?” My reply was, “Yes, we expected that. The adopted materials do not effectively meet the needs of our EL population, but the district mandated faithful implementation of the materials.”
Guess what his reply was? “I don’t want to hear excuses.” Hey buddy – you asked the question. Sorry you don’t like the answer.
This pretty much sets the tone in my district, as I am sure it does in many all over the country. Mandates abound from the feds, the state, and the district. Guess how often our district administrators visit our school? Once a year. That’s right. Once a year. And based on these annual visits (which average about 60 seconds per room, and not even half of the rooms), decisions are made about what we should be doing in our classrooms.
My second favorite moment came later in the year. Several of the schools that didn’t make AYP in our district went through “curriculum calibration.” This is a rather costly exercise to determine whether or not teachers are teaching the grade level standards. Guess what? Our school teaches the grade level standards! Darn, I guess you can’t blame those low test scores on those worthless teachers at that Title I school who don’t know what they’re doing. Too bad – that’s such a popular place to lay the blame.