Friday, February 2, 2007

On teachers and their critics:

I am so sick of armchair experts passing judgement on teachers. I’m sick of the low pay and little respect accorded teachers in this society. I wouldn’t think of going into a software firm or a nuclear power plant and telling those folks how to do their jobs. But look at the No Child Left Behind law. It is Big Brother for teachers, designed by politicians-- many of whom have no experience in education.

We have to have statewide standardized tests that are so difficult and which are given so much weight that we literally have kids in tears or staying home sick because they can’t deal with the pressure. And we have to teach to these tests rather than just teaching. We have to have standards and schedules and everybody teaching the same material in lock step with no room to utilize the teachable moment or capitalize on kids’ interests and curiosities. We have to have federally-dictated yearly progress goals which are, if the truth is told, random numbers, and because the goals keep increasing no matter how much progress is made, unreachable. We have to have punitive measures for not reaching these goals which include schools being taken over by state bureaucrats (how’s that going to help?). We have to have all this because people do not trust that teachers know how to teach or care enough or work hard enough.

Unlike the armchair experts, teachers are not people who just know about school from having gone themselves or from sending their own kids.

Like experts in any other field, teachers have earned degrees (in Massachusetts most teachers have a Master’s or more) They continually undergo professional development (probably more than in any other field). They know kids because they work with many kids over many years. They know better than any law or policy what is best for their particular kids in a particular year because they spend 5-6 hours a day, for 185 days, teaching them. In general, it is not the teachers who are the problem. The problem is what they are up against.

Not that teaching isn’t rewarding. It is, but it's also just damn hard, and getting harder. A teacher spends most of her time as the lone adult in a room full of kids-- it’s lonely and exhausting. At the elementary level a teacher is standing before her class teaching for about 5 hours a day. Imagine giving a presentation that lasts 5 hours! Imagine doing it every day. Imagine how long it would take to prepare for it.

We are not reading a few paragraphs out of teacher’s manual, mind you. In Boston, where education reform has brought instruction a long way, a teacher is creating reading lessons tailored to small groups of students at the same reading level (she may have 7 or 8 different groups in a class) and based on trade books (a new one everyday in the lower levels) which she has chosen for their fit with students and the teaching point. And that’s just one subject of 5!

I used to work from 5:30 - 6:30 in the morning over breakfast, then get to school at 7 to do more prep, teach from 8:35 until 2:35 (I didn’t usually sit for lunch because I was copying homework or giving extra help or mediating arguments or meting out punishments) continue prepping until they kicked me out of the building at 6, eat dinner then work on responding to journals and grading work from 8 till 11 while trying to watch a little TV. Even my husband got roped in-- he’d help me cut out cards for math or word games and exercises.

There are many more kids with special needs in Boston than the district has funds to provide services for. This means teachers have to serve special needs kids in regular ed. classrooms along with the expected range of levels. In my 2nd grade class I had kids reading at a kindergarten level and kids reading at a 4th grade level and everything in between.

Kids today have more discipline problems. Many have little experience sitting and listening or following rules. Because of the standards, we are asking them to do more sitting and listening when they are younger and younger. This is a recipe for frustration for everybody involved. Kids get turned off of school and teachers struggle to create an environment in which all 23+ children can learn.

Dealing with parents is harder because half of them think you aren’t challenging their kids enough and half of them think you are too hard on their kids. The era when parents respected teachers and parents and teachers presented a united front is over. I’ve had many parents question me in front of their children. I’ve even seen parents swear at principals in front of many children in the hallway or office.

And despite all our passion and caring and hard work, research shows that the school achievement of children is highly correlated with their parents’ wealth and level of school achievement (link to an American Educator article that cites this research below). Much of a child’s education takes place at home. We have read to my son almost every day since he was born. At five months, he would turn the pages of a book– an important behavior teachers note on the road to reading readiness. Some families can’t afford books and don’t have time to go to the library because they work several jobs. Some parents didn’t have a good educational experience themselves or don’t know it’s important to model reading. Kids from these homes may come to school at 5, never having seen a book. They may be average or even above-average kids and they will learn, but they start 5 years behind some others. No matter how good the teaching methods, they may not meet the standards at the same time others do.

Bush and his brethren (armchair educators all-- except maybe Laura Bush) talk about how important it is to attract high quality people to teaching. As if the people already in teaching aren’t the salt of the earth. I’m here to tell you that the bigger problem is retention. By pretty much any measure, I am one of those high quality, highly educated, capable people who could do something else and make plenty money and I chose teaching. I taught for 5 very rewarding but very draining years. I’ve left because I find it to be a nearly impossible, thankless and maddening job. I need some time to myself, I need some peace, I need some energy left to raise my own kid and I need to feel like someone appreciates all my hard work and my and my students’ little victories. Not all my students met all the standards– maybe not even most– but they all made progress.

I’m not the only smart young person who has lasted only 5 years– it’s an epidemic. We don’t need to use tests to prove our teachers are failing and then punish them, we need to support teachers and students to start from where they are and grow.

Here’s what we should do:

1.) Use innovative professional development to support our teachers in their never ending quest to do better

2.) Continue to innovate in instruction

3.) Allow and encourage teachers to capitalize on kids’ interests and curiosities. We need standards but every classroom shouldn’t be exactly the same because all kids are not exactly the same.

4.) Offer parents more guidance in child rearing from the time their kids are young

5.) Decrease class size to about 15 or put a second teacher or smart, well-educated paraprofessional in every room

6.) Increase parent and community participation in schools

7.) Increase special ed services to meet the need

8.) Stop teaching to the test– it is not education If the test doesn’t measure kids’ progress in what we are teaching day to day, then it is the wrong test. One test is not an accurate indicator of how kids or teachers are doing. We need various ways of assessing, including formative assessments (basically work that students are already doing which the teacher is using formally to determine their levels of achievement) and observations of classrooms.

9.) Show teachers some respect with better pay and a more professional work environment (if we need to raise taxes it will be worth the investment; this is our future, after all)

10.) Phase in new curricula and tests. It’s not fair to institute, as Boston did, a totally new math curriculum system-wide when students are in 9th grade and then require those same students to pass the high stakes test aligned with the new curriculum before they graduate high school. The requirement should begin with the students who had the new curriculum from kindergarten.

source: "...How to Make AYP Work...", American Educator Magazine

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

11) Add 10 minute recess every hour. Nobody, even adults, can keep focused for whole day with only half an hour lunch break.