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.
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?