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Learning at its Best

What Am I to Say to Aspiring Teachers?

At my university, I serve as the Graduate Program Coordinator for the Masters in Education program.  Part of this job entails serving as an advisor/recruiter to people who already have a Bachelor’s degree in some other field, but who wish to now earn a Masters in Education simultaneous with earning a state license to teach.  Last week, a prospective student sat in my office, eager for a change from her stressful current job as a case worker in a community service organization.  She plied me with questions about what it is like to be a teacher, is this a good time to be going into education, is the work stable, etc.

What was I to say to her when so many negatives were swirling through my mind?  The courses I teach focus on the politics and economics of education and we have recently been discussing how the governor (and some other state politicians) in the state of VA have been trying to gut retirement benefits and job protections, and are pushing for more charter schools and test-based accountability for teachers.

Additionally, I could not help but think about a current kindergarten teacher’s/former student’s blog post that I had read recently titled Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Teachers.  In her post, Taryn wrote,

Yep.  I said it.  When my daughters mention wanting to be teachers, I tell them no way.  I encourage every teenager I know that loves children to find another profession to work with them – occupational therapy and speech therapy being the two most often recommended.  I LOVE children, and watching them learn and grow is exciting.  But public school teaching has become “bad business”. I know that if I keep up my crusade, there will be a shortage of good teachers.  That’s going to happen anyway, because the good ones are going to retire, or leave.  About 30% of teachers are looking to other professions now.  I have good reasons for my campaign…Today’s current political climate and involvement in education has really brought me down, and apparently, according to the newest MetLife survey, I’m not the only one.  Teacher job satisfaction is at the lowest in two decades. 

She continued,

I am being asked to do something I disagree with philosophically.  I am a firm believer in learning through play and involvement on a deep level with real life experiences, and students developing at their own pace, especially in kindergarten.   However, when I have a one inch binder document telling me the essential knowledge and skills they have to acquire at the end of their 180 day race to the top of kindergarten, it’s difficult to manage that.  I have asked myself time and time again – do I teach in the way that I feel is best, or do I teach them in the manner that will prepare them most for first grade?  For some students, this is not mutually exclusive.  I can let them be children, learning through play and involvement, and design activities and experiences that will give them a deep knowledge of the material.  But there is no time to waste….However, let’s take the child that started off behind.  In order for me to help him/her catch up, I need an intensive plan that usually requires parents to work a lot at home, lots of one on one time, trial and error to find out how she/he learns best, and quite a bit of assessment to find out where he or she is. This is going to translate into a five year child that pretty much does nothing but work all day. I need to find out why this child is not “ready” for kindergarten.  Lack of exposure in the home or no preschool experience?  Is there a learning disability?  Is there a medical issue that I’m only guessing about and can’t diagnose?  Or, God forbid, is the child five years old and not ready for the race to the top?

Was I to direct my potential student to my former student’s/current teacher’s blog post?  Or should I instead offer over to her a current graduate student’s/current high school math teacher’s reading response that I had just read the day before?  In this writing, Matthew expressed his frustrations.  He wrote,

When I first set out to teach I wanted to teach using differentiated lesson plans with lots of hands-on activities. I wanted my students to be able to understand the beauty behind mathematics and to apply what they had learned and connect those ideas to everyday life. I wanted my students to love learning about math because they would find it meaningful. However, my mindset was quickly changed when I opened up the curriculum framework for Algebra I and Algebra II established by my school division. I created a schedule that did not allow me a single day to do any “hands-on” until after the SOL [VA Standards of Learning] test was given. Most days I feel like I am simply shoving material down my students’ throats.

My daily routine is very strict: I spend 15 minutes answering questions about homework, 45 minutes lecturing about a new topic, 15 minutes for guided practice and one-on-one tutoring, 10 minutes on questions, and during the last 5 minutes my students start working on their homework. The next day we do the same thing all over again. Twice a week we take the last 30 minutes of class to take a quiz instead of practicing new material. If I didn’t stick to this schedule then I would not be able to “cover” all of the material that I need to before the SOL test. Last semester I was praised because I had gone so fast that I had a week before the SOL test to review. Other Algebra I teachers only left themselves two days or less.

It took over a month before we got the test scores back. Any student that made between a 375-399 was eligible to take an expedited re-take. (I am not sure that five weeks later is truly “expedited.”) We decided to pull students out of class for tutoring in small groups. Students would spend a total of six hours with a tutor. I opted to tutor my own students while a substitute covered my classes during the school day. To prepare my students for their re-take I purchased SOL preparation books from a private corporation. Our hope was that the practice items and test questions in the practice books would help students get a feel for the type of test questions they would encounter on the test. My school division also pays Interactive Achievement $38,000 so that we can give students simulated high-stakes tests that we call benchmarks. We use these assessments as predictors of outcomes on the SOL test.  Roanoke County also uses this software, simulations produced by Flanagan and other test prep materials that they pay over $85,000 annually to use.

Four out of my five Algebra I students passed their re-take. Did my students pass because they understood the topic? Maybe. Did I bury them in practice standardized test items? You bet. Did I shove a semester’s worth of material into six hours? Of course, all in the name of standardized testing. According to my test scores I am a pretty good teacher. However, I don’t believe that I did the best job that I could have. I did the best that I could to help my kids pass a test. I did not help them fall in love with learning.

The accountability movement has killed my dreams of teaching my students to love learning. I don’t know how to teach using hands-on activities and prepare my students to pass the SOL test all at the same time. I have often wondered if I should quit my job to work in a private school where there isn’t any testing. I sit down to dinner with a distant cousin every major holiday to discuss the heavenly private school that he works at. He loves his job and his students love to learn. He works at a very wealthy private school in New Jersey. I sit in shock when I listen to him tell me that he plans week long labs for his chemistry students and that at times he just sits back and allows his students to make discoveries about chemistry for themselves. On the flip side, all of his students are wealthy, white, and would excel in any school. I want to work at a school where I can make a difference in a student’s life. I don’t simply want to be a stepping stone for some rich kids. I teach students from all walks of life. I teach some students who drive nicer cars than I ever will and I teach students who live with their grandparents at an old trailer park. Public schools provide students an opportunity to learn and to have a better future than their parents. Isn’t that the dream of any parent? I know it was mine.

With these current teacher’s reflections dominating my thoughts, as well as all I know about what is going on in education, I felt a definite ethical dilemma.  Part of my job is to recruit new students for the university, but a bigger part of my job is to prepare people for the job of teaching. Should I sugar coat things?  Should I scare her away with the above teacher comments?

So, what did I finally tell the woman sitting in my office?   I stated that “these are dark days for education.”   But I went on to give her a brief historical viewpoint about how education swings like a pendulum, and that perhaps we are close to a new pendulum swing in the direction of more progressive visions of education.  I told her that despite the MANY challenges that teachers are facing, there are high points, that teaching is like an intense roller coaster, with many lows, but with some incredible, adrenalin-inducing highs.  I told her that the highs – -things like really humanly connecting with students, seeing light bulbs go on over their heads, laughing with students, throwing oneself into a profession that can inspire kids to do great things and that can honestly make the world a better place–can vastly make up for the lows one experiences.

I am an eternal optimist…I think intentions count for a lot.  If we enter into a profession with the best of intentions to serve the common good, then some positives are bound to come from it.  If I were a true pessimist, I would have left this career a long time ago.

What about you – long term, are you feeling optimistic or pessimistic about American education?

About Kristan Morrison

Dr. Kristan Accles Morrison taught for seven years at conventional middle schools in North Carolina, which drove her to research alternative forms of education based on critical pedagogy and social justice. She earned her Ph.D. in the Cultural Foundations of Education from the University of North Carolina Greensboro and is now a professor in a teacher education program at Radford University, where she makes a point of introducing her students to educational alternatives. In this blog, Kristan reflects on her attempts to bridge the worlds of conventional and “alternative” forms of education. She considers how to bring more democratic and freedom-based practices into the realm of standard education, and how to discuss educational alternatives with a conventional audience. She explores the paradox of many teacher educators: preparing her students for teaching in the schools as they are, while also preparing them to help create the schools that could be.


22 thoughts on “What Am I to Say to Aspiring Teachers?

  1. I often find that when we prepare our pre-service teachers for the world of education we have to walk a fine line between the reality of the public school system, and what we want the school system to be like. It can hard to walk that line without discouraging them on one side of the coin or not fully preparing them on the other side. Teaching has never been an easy profession, but like you I think hope and hard work really can make change.

    Posted by Bethany Smith (@bethanyvsmith) | April 12, 2012, 11:18 am
  2. Clearly, the thoughts expressed by these two fairly new (it seems to me) teachers represent “the dark days of education” absolutely as you note. The truly sad reaction to the total posting is that those 1 inch binders continue to be assembled and distributed with firm expectations of their use. Coincidentally, with grandchildren in Virginia schools, I can report that for those young students, such emphasis on test preparation is boring and makes no sense either!

    Here’s the really disturbing thing: It’s very unlikely that ANYONE who has done her / his homework on this approach has ever come to any conclusion at odds with those quoted in the posting! So why isn’t there an outcry that things must change? Why aren’t politicians, unions, parents, …. not screaming that enough is enough? Isn’t it way past the point where real reform must happen? There are reasons why so few students learn effectively, know how to prepare for meaningful careers AND the lifelong learning and skills necessary to enable success! If burdening them with the debt issues is not troublesome enough (AND IT IS FOR SURE), dooming their chances of successfully dealing with that debt because of a totally inadequate education IS EVEN WORSE in my thinking!

    To me, it’s well past the time for action, for letting those in power know that we demand better education options – not for those wealthy students who are able to go to those private schools in New Jersey and everywhere, BUT FOR ALL STUDENTS EVERYWHERE! I’ve heard frustrated parents demand “the free education that is their children’s right.” We of course know it’s never free but it is at least morally and ethically their right. We need to demand that it happen AND join the efforts that will be needed to get it to happen.

    The probability of winning the lottery I’ve heard is less than being struck by lightening twice! No other “quick fix” efforts (such as those regularly mandated for educators) are any more likely. AND in my thinking at least, returning to the educational approaches of times in the past – but with increased resources – wont succeed any better. THERE ARE NEW RESEARCH RESULTS informing us about effective learning and THERE ARE NEW TOOLS enabling improved approaches to that effective learning. Why would we ever want to revert back to any earlier approach?

    I always think about the numerous quotations od Albert Einstein that ring true today maybe even more than when first stated: “INSANITY: Doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” “The important thing is to not stop questioning.” “We will never solve the problems that exist by using the knowledge and skills that led to their existence.” “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” “Imagination is more,important than knowledge.” AND “I never teach my pupils. I only provide the conditions in which they learn.”

    Time to stop any finger-pointing and to stop all mandates! Time to get together in local Education Communities and deal effectively with the local issues – to provide an environment that provides the motivation and the opportunity for teachers such as the ones quoted in the posting to do what they know is best, what they have been educated to be able to do!

    Posted by John Bennett | April 12, 2012, 11:57 am
    • John – you’ve made points on both EdWeek (assuming you’re the same John Bennett) and the Coop that I wholeheartedly agree with this morning. This is another favorite Einstein quote of mine:

      “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
      ― Albert Einstein

      I also believe strongly that we, as a nation, are focused on only one of TWO learning outcomes. Not sure this video will come through in the comments, but here goes. It’s not just what we’re able to pack into the classroom that matters, it’s how well we’re able to inspire our students toward self-directed learning during out of school time. (Versus running from learning because they’ve learned in school not to like it.)

      “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
      ― William Butler Yeats

      Posted by Jen Lilienstein - Founder, | April 12, 2012, 2:59 pm
      • Thank you John and Jen for your great comments (and I love the video, Jen!)! I wish more people heeded what Einstein had to say on this subject!

        Posted by Kristan Morrison | April 12, 2012, 4:06 pm
      • Jen, John, Kristan, all:

        The more time I spend here, the more time I spend researching alternative methods of schooling (for my own children as well as for my own students and myself), the more I find that what is true of all bureaucracies is true of public schools: The system is more important than those it serves. All of those who are employed by the system have a vested interest in staying employed. So we’ll comply to those forces that ask us to do what we believe to be wrong headed or just plain, morally wrong, in order that we might achieve some measure of success, even if we do not agree with the standards/criteria for that success. I’ve written about his far more and more prosaically here:

        I’ve grown so frustrated with how the system dumbs down the innate drive to learn in my students that I’ve created a final project for my 8th graders in which they are challenged to: Design or redesign a course/unit of study, the method in which you learn, or the actual architecture of the learning environment so that your design helps you to learn in the way you learn best.

        It’s not original, I know. Many have done this. But as a culmination of two years in my classroom (I teach a semester long, 7-8th grade class), this represents the pinnacle of what I’m going for. If my students learn nothing else in my class but this, I will be happy. I want them to live their lives with two questions as their guides (I read these questions in a design publication some years ago): “Why are things the way they are? How can I (we) make them better?” I’m not sure students have ever really asked why school is the way it is. Judging from how engaged they are in the unit, I’d say not many of them…

        But that is actually a sidetrack from what drew me to this comments section. This quotation by Einstein…it’s so crucial and I hope that more of us can find in it a new energy to stand against the powers that be.

        The first day in my 7th grade classes each year I clearly and directly say that I believe that each and every child who walks through the door of my classroom…through the doors of the school, has the potential for genius. I believe this whole heartedly and take my charge from the book AWAKENING GENIUS IN THE CLASSROOM by Thomas Armstrong, a book which I read every August before school begins. I recommend it to all teach with whom I work and wish more people would read it: teachers, parents, administrators…children. It’s only 80 pages long. It is a ritual I have never broken since I first picked up the book over a decade ago.

        I’ll not go into a summary of the book here…perhaps that’s a blog post in the near future. However, Armstrong and Einstein are clearly of the same minds in their usage of the term “genius.” We need schools that reflect these understandings, otherwise we are participants, willing participants, guilty in our tacit consent, in the murder of wonder, curiosity, creativity, and the sheer joy of learning for hundreds of thousands of kids.

        I used to think an evolution of the system would be fine, but more and more I’m siding with Sir Ken Robinson…Bring on the Revolution. I’ll suffer the consequences so long as we are doing what’s best for the students.

        Posted by Garreth Heidt | May 13, 2012, 1:03 pm
  3. Such an excellent post! When I talk with pre-service teachers at our school about public education today, I welcome them into this system with a warning—- they must be prepared to radically change the status quo. Unless future teachers and those of us currently working in schools are prepared to do this, education will get darker and end times for public schools will draw nearer.

    Posted by Francesca Blueher | April 12, 2012, 3:22 pm
  4. Not sure how to reply rather than submit a new comment. I am the same “John Bennett” and I really like your Einstein quote, Jen. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by John Bennett | April 12, 2012, 6:50 pm
  5. These are indeed dark days for education: But there are rays of hope. My recent tours of the Giles County schools sent me into outer orbit with optimism for our educational system. If they can accomplish all that they have with a limited budget in a rural area due to the enthusiasm, dedication and unwavering faith of their teachers, then it can be done anywhere. It really does begin on the ground level with us – the teachers. We are the ones on the front lines, on the ground (insert appropriate “Rocky” movie comment here!) and in the trenches with the students. Our administration and politicians can say and do whatever they may, but we are ultimately the ones who can, and will, make a difference. It’s why I left my career behind and never looked back – I didn’t do it for money, or for a retirement plan or for tenure. I did it so my life could take on some sort of meaning and not be a wasted thing. Let us never lose hope, no matter how bleak the political climate might be.

    Posted by ramblinron | April 14, 2012, 9:10 am
  6. Are there any ed schools out there developing programs in school-starting? In that it took my the better part of a decade to discover any my iconoclasm, I wonder how to help new teachers understand the system sooner and how being given the chance to start something new might help young educators sidestep the traps of standardized education.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 17, 2012, 1:08 pm
    • Goddard College supports educators in creating schools, but does not have a program that is based just on supporting school starters. I think it is an missing link. AERO does have a school starter class, that is work checking out! I will have Sue Fleming chime in here… and maybe some students who have started schools…

      good questions!

      Posted by dloitz | April 17, 2012, 2:04 pm
      • Ah, you beat me to mentioning Goddard College! I also teach an online graduate class at RU in the summer that gives some of the history and looks at alternative schools, altho we really do not go into what it would take to start such a school.

        Posted by Kristan Morrison | April 17, 2012, 2:12 pm
      • I’m a current Goddard edu MA student, and I would love to see some program time devoted to what it takes to be a school starter. I’ve been nurturing that little pipe dream for a while now, myself.

        Posted by Emma | April 17, 2012, 2:29 pm
      • I took the school-starters course through AERO this last fall. It was great, but a bit overwhelming. One really neat aspect was reading the stories from people all around the world working on democratic education. Very inspiring! I enjoyed talking to Jerry Mintz on our phone sessions, too, and I got a lot of pointers.

        Posted by Kelly | April 17, 2012, 8:58 pm
  7. If my son were to come up to me and say: “Mom, I am thinking of becoming a teacher”. I would respond: “more power to you”. I would not hide the truth behind rosy color glasses. I would make sure to tell him: “It is going to be hard work”. But what makes that hard work rewarding and even pleasurable; the opportunity to contribute positively to the advancement of the human race, to have a chance to help individuals discover themselves, others, and the world. I would advise him: “learn to intelligibly resist and oppose the oppression of ignorance and social injustices. I would remind him to: “do what is right because it is right,
    not because it will win you the esteem or the appreciation of others. And most of all I will tell him: “I am proud of your love and courage!

    Posted by Dee Harris | April 17, 2012, 4:15 pm
  8. I share the same sentiments with the author as well. I see myself as in between the optimist (the teacher with good intentions entering public school) and the pessimist (the teacher that leaves the career altogether). I have decided to teach outside of public school by opening a small private school in my home. This way I am able to teach according to my values as a teacher. As far as serving wealthy white kids, there are not many where I am (Central Oregon Coast). This is a rural, working poor area. Culturally speaking, I don’t think Our Living School would be a good fit for wealthy families, anyway. Parents have to be ok with childhood, not turning children into adults when they’re still kids. I am charging tuiiton, though, which is hard for everyone. That’s why I am planning to hold fundraisers to help with the costs for everyone. I do believe education is a social-justice issue, and I want it to be afordable to anyone and everyone. Jerry Mintz, director of AERO, has convinced me that there are ways to make this happen. I don’t have to depend on state funds or rely on the deficit models that many children-serving nonprofs require.

    Posted by Kelly | April 17, 2012, 8:54 pm
  9. Thanks for your comments, Kelly. I wish I were brave enough to start my own school, but it just seems so daunting as well as financially worrying. I admire your courage!

    Posted by Kristan Morrison | April 18, 2012, 7:35 am
  10. Kelly –

    So sad that you felt you had to go outside public school to be able to facilitate learning for your students along the path that makes sense to you! You are the type of educator that needs encouragement and support – not a push out the door in the public arena. Having written that, however, I commend you for following your passions and working with rural students, one of the forgotten student populations all too often. A school such as yours might be expected in metropolitan areas but not rural areas.

    Posted by John Bennett | April 18, 2012, 7:42 am
  11. You can encourage undergrads to teach in International Schools. I’m not talking about teaching English – I mean teaching in regular classrooms with expat and some local students. It’s terribly rewarding and not subject to NCLB. We are paid well and well-respected by families (in general).

    It’s not teaching, it’s the environment of distrust.
    Janet |

    Posted by Janet Abercrombie | April 30, 2012, 9:12 am
  12. I’ve had the same experience, as former students have approached me excited to tell me that they have chosen to “be like me”, and teach. While I cringe at the toils that they will face, I encourage them. The only way we can hope to change the face of education is to encourage strong, determined, new blood to come into the profession and provide the energy that this change will take. Mentor them. They’ve chosen this profession likely because they had a teacher that meant something to them. If they can be that for someone else, it is worth it.

    I spoke at a beginning teachers conference once and told them to keep a journal. Keep a record of the good things. Don’t record the bad. Yes, we could all write a book about the bad. But the good things, no matter how small, are what keep us going. When I was putting together a portfolio to use to apply for my current position, I asked former students to write me letters of reference. They were stunned at first, then eager to do that for me. You can’t imagine how I cried when I read those letters. I still go back to them at the end of a long and trying day to remind myself why I do this job.

    Is education a mess right now? You bet it is. But perhaps change only can come from cleaning up a mess.

    Posted by Jody Seidler (@JodySeidler) | May 3, 2012, 12:40 pm
    • Thank you for this comment! I love your idea of the journal and getting letters of recommendation from former students. While I mostly work/learn with elementary/ early childhood age kids, I think it would be great to have them complete my letters of rec.

      A beautiful comment!

      Posted by dloitz | May 3, 2012, 9:41 pm

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