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Guest Posts, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Teaching in the Dark Times of Corp Edu-Reform (Guest Post by G. A. Steele)

(First written September of 2011 updated and revised June 2012)

Boxed Lotus: Negredo By G.A Steele

Long, long ago, before the dark times of the federal education takeover, first with NCLB law during the reign of Bush II, which was soon followed by the bait-and-switch corporate edu-reform days of RTTT during the reign of Obama, teachers had the freedom to create classrooms where students were actually being educated for understanding.

In previous times, which lets face it, were not always the best of times either here in Chicago, the home of our non-educator, basketball playing Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan.   Before the mount of doom created when the data crusade began students were not solely taught to pass yearly high stakes testing of state standards as in the current reign of pedagogical terror begun with Bush II and reinforced by Obama.

The hope of President Obama at the helm has been a huge disappointment for me: testing has only increased with his basketball buddy Arnie, the czar of testing, forcing all children into being data driven sheep.  With his basketball playing crony, never an educator himself, leading our national education system, students will soon be taught again and again to the quarterly-higher-stakes testing of national standards without focus on the bigger picture of educating for understanding, not regurgitation.  Fortunately, the new Common Core Standards support best practice and critical thinking, yet with teach-to-the-test firmly in place no doubt there will just be more of the same, but this is best left to future blog.

Educators who had the great fortune to teach before the gloom and doom of AYP (when all kids were required rise to the top like 100% cream by 2014)  experienced teaching as a profession requiring ongoing creativity, minute-to-minute sophisticated problem solving, and an emphasis on teacher-student-parent relationships which are, after all, the foundation of all great teaching and learning.  Teachers were not systematically commanded to unwaveringly teach a tightly scripted, research proven, expensive basal curriculum supported by the publisher’s promise to raise test scores (yet only if the curriculum was strictly adhered to with oh-so-crucial fidelity).

Oh no, teaching was a highly creative, engaging, profession with its foundation built upon relationships with students and their parents not data.  We teachers were once allowed to use critical thinking when it came to decision making about our own classrooms and thus pass on teach critical thinking to our students.  Now, teaching is all about testing all the time and teaching must guarantee results, regardless of socio-economic factors which everyone knows have great impact on individual student test scores.  Critical thinking?  Lost with teaching to the test and it’s frantic cramming of information and jump-through-the-hoop essay writing.

In the scripted search for achievement certainty, I have felt myself becoming drained of every drop of inspiration to teach – that is, until entering my classroom.  My students have always inspired me to continue creating a warm, safe, inviting classroom container for ongoing engagement of discovery some call teaching and learning even when administrators have insisted I teach a scripted curriculum.

It has always been my students who have given me the energy I need to subvert the system and do whatever it takes to reach them, then willingly accept the consequences of not following rigid guidelines and endless assessments of their performance.

FYI all of my teacher evaluation ratings the past three years have been Excellent with my only weaknesses as an educator being bureaucratic not pedagogical.  In fact, the only reason my administrator has evergiven to explain why I have never had a Superior rating was do to my lack of effective, timely paperwork and I have been told,  “Teaching is not all fun Ms. Steele!” No, I suppose I am not a yes-mam’ or yes-sir teacher-as-soldier in the war on low-test scores, I am a performance-artist-as teacher who does what it takes to engage, thus inspire, students to thirst for knowledge and ask “Why?” not “What?”  Yes, when I prioritize my endless duties as a teacher, pacing myself to avoid burnout, I always choose the needs of my students above the needs for data collection and filing.

You see, I have never worked for my district or any administrator because they do not pay my salary: I am a public servant and I work for the public – my students and their parents – whose hard earned taxes pay my salary.  Until recently, beginning in the early 1900’s, teachers across this country were protected by unions to do the right thing as educators in spite of the lobbied whims of politicians and others who wield power thus the purse strings.  Do you realize the U.S. is the only modern country in the world whose education system is controlled by the by the winds of politics, not the intellect of educators?  Perhaps with education being an intellectual enterprise with educators making decisions about education in the U.S. our education system would not still be heading into shambles, yet perhaps that has been the goal, again fodder for future blog.

Not that all countries are perfect.  Last summer I had the good fortune to meet, talk with, and listen to presentations given by educators / therapists from Norway and Korea, at a Theraplay Institute conference last summer here in Chicago, you know, those countries whose test scores are so much higher than ours?

What I heard them saying about education in their own countries mirrors ours:  children are being taught to the test and hurried to learn, often beyond many student’s developmental level, without the foundation of attachment at home with parents, without relationships in the wider culture with adult mentors, and without caring relationships with teachers who are now predominantly focused on the bottom line of testing and bureaucratically organizing / amassing vast quantities of data about each child to account for every minute of every day they teach.

Without fail, the educators, therapists and social workers I met at the conference last summer spoke about the detrimental emotional impact of teaching to the test instead of teaching the student.

Theraplay, not play therapy, is a hands-on, predominantly non-verbal, form of adult/child re-attunement based upon attachment theory where-by the foundation of cognition is emotional development through relationship to adult care givers, which begins in the womb with the most important foundations of emotional developmental being laid by age two.

(Note:  Theraplay is based upon relationships between children/students and adults.  It can be individual with a parent or child with a therapist or it can be a group activity with students in a school setting with a teacher.  In fact, Theraplay was not developed by a therapist but developed by educators Phyllis Booth and Ann M. Jernberg, who were early Head Start pioneers at the University of Chicago.  For more information see

Since attachment is the basis of all relationships, in a hurried home, school or society there is no time for relationships, just doing and more doing.  In schools focused upon testing and more testing that means students swallow and regurgitate information without digesting or assimilating the information into understanding.  The results of this focus upon accountability above attachment / relationship in our schools: more broken spirited children, thus students, of all ages whose last bastion of hope – qualitative relationships with caring teachers – are being eroded by an unyielding emphasis on quantitative testing.

Yes, I may be going a bit overboard,  all teachers are not always the last hope of all students and as teachers we cannot save all struggling students.  However, I don’t know about you, but I will never forget those teachers who understood me and took the time to show they believed in me when I needed it the most.  Yes, I came from a loving, supportive home, yet sometimes I needed more than parenting, and that is where the nurturing, guidance, and high expectations of my best / favorite teachers came in.

It is with the spirit of those favorite teachers I myself strive to teach:  to see students as individuals in relationship with me not as data pumpers determining my salary.  It has been relationships with students, thus their parents, parents driving my teaching from the very beginning when I was a starving artist who began substitute teaching in 1989 to pay the rent on my un-rehabbed loft located near one of Chicago’s then most notorious gangland territory.   Because I focused upon students and my relationship with them, I was able to manage the most unruly classrooms and I began to be called daily to substitute teach at one school where gunfire was weekly if not daily occurrence.

With relationships as my guide I have always viewed the emotional to come before the cognitive in teaching and this has helped in maneuvering through countless situations with struggling students and their struggling parents.  (In fact, I have been told I am more like a social worker or therapist than a teacher on more than one occasion by fellow teachers and usually this was not always meant as a compliment.)  This focus on relationships has not always served me as well with my administrators, however the thanks and appreciation I have overwhelmingly had from students and parents has kept me in good standing.

I mean really, who can argue with the resulting data of my students?  Or being told “Ms. Steel you are the best teacher EVER!”,  “Thank-you, my David has never liked school before you were his teacher.”,  “Thank-you for taking the time to call me on the weekend about Paradise.”, “You being there for my Tarion means so much to me, we have all been struggling since his auntie, my sister was shot last year, we are till not over it.”, and “My son has never wanted to go to school and you are the reason he does now.”  My focus on relationships and teaching beyond the test has not hampered learning thus test scores.

 So, when I close my door and face my students each morning, I take a big, deep breath and make a conscious choice to forget I’m living in the dark times of federally mandated, corporate lobbied, political edu-reform where the bottom-line accountability for each student’s test scores rests solely on my shoulders. Each morning I choose to shut out the ceaseless chatter about endless standards, tests, and political accountability and seal my classroom from such mindless adult stresses.  Instead, I remind myself education will be reformed one student – teacher relationship at a time.  Then I get on with educating for understanding, not teaching for testing, knowing I may never be completely certain I am making a difference but I am going to teach as if I do, in spite of test scores.  Because what makes  teachers value-added are their relationships with students:  feelings and relationships greatly impact learning and also test scores.


Gretchen Steele is an artist/educator/performer who prefers to help her students understand the world around them through the arts – visual/written/movement/drama. She sees the classroom as a democratic three-ring circus and likes to take turns with her students as ring-master. Although her heart remains attached to the Rocky Mountains of her childhodd, she lives in Chicago with her partner Chris and their dog Nakita.





One thought on “Teaching in the Dark Times of Corp Edu-Reform (Guest Post by G. A. Steele)

  1. Here’s to relationships and work that matters to kids.

    I’d love to read about a day in your classroom –

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 14, 2012, 6:46 pm

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