It is getting harder and harder to stand up in front of 75 student teachers each August and welcome them into the wonderful profession that has been my life for 37 years. I wanted to be a teacher since 4th grade, when I had Mrs. Debbie Smith. She used an integrated arts, thematic approach, although of course I did not know that at age 9. All I knew is that the year began with self-portraits that hung all year on the back wall; we learned about the history and geography and agriculture of where we lived–we learned that through choral reading of poetry and from children’s books. We took countless field trips and each time returned to the classroom and used a different art medium; we did chalk drawings, used finger paint, made puppets from papier mache and then did puppet shows. Each week we explored different parts of the world and focused much attention on the newly independent countries in Africa. It was from Mrs. Smith that I learned about apartheid in South Africa and first began to know that people can organize to fight injustice. We also did tons of map work (I love maps to this day) and learned about all different types of projections. When it came to music, we learned the music from those parts of the world. And of course, there was reading. So many books to read and we had so many ways to share our excitement about them — but we were only allowed to write one book report a year; the rest of the ways of reflecting on the books had to be multimodal (a word I didn’t know then!). And then when we did country projects we had to always find a new way to express what we had learned. I recall making a couple of Jeopardy games for the class, and standing up in front of the room at the green chalboard playing the game host. The year of learning is etched in my body, in my mind, in my heart. It was Debbie Smith who guided me as I used project-based, place-based, integrated arts methods as a teacher for 15 years.
So when I greet the new master’s students who want to be teachers, for many, many years I did so with incredible enthusiasm: “Welcome to the best profession in the world: where you get to sing and dance, and love and play and read and write and create and bring things to the world the world has never seen. There is nothing better than being a teacher!”
Only now. I dread late August.
How can I prepare new teachers for what awaits them?
Still, we try, and we don’t let on how much we worry about them.
We try to help them negotiate the insane external demands that have NOTHING to do with learning and everything to do about compliance with external mandates that are not based on student learning, but on some strange theories of “close reading” and lexile levels. Has David Coleman ever sat side by side with a child who crosses the reading bridge and magically begins to make sense of print? I can tell him, it does not come from a close reading of the author’s intent. It comes from deep interest in the subject matter (I taught one child to read by reading all the books in the library about sharks and writing a book about sharks. Three months later, he could read almost anything!) It comes from sitting side by side while you encourage the child to believe in him or herself when s/he does not yet believe in her/himself. It means playing the believing game (Peter Elbow) even when you worry, ‘When will s/he break the code?”
None of this is measurable through the metrics that the corporate school deformers have convinced the government and the philanthropists are “objective’.
I worry so much about the young teachers who are going out to this hostile atmosphere that tells them hungry children can learn just as well as well-fed children. That is a lie. There are many, many lies that make up predatory, corporate school reform.
And many of the lies are based on the Big Test. The tests that are not vertically aligned so cannot measure learning from year to year. The tests that are developmentally inappropriate and way too long. The tests that are supposedly for assessment of achievement (never learning, did you notice? learning is never mentioned anymore) but then are magically supposed to also measure teacher effectiveness. No matter that the corporate school reform own researchers (Gates, MET study, 50 million dollars) found the tests actually CANNOT measure teacher effectiveness. Lies, more lies, and damn lies.
I am sick.
I am ill.
I am enraged.
(And, for the record, I am not delusional that there was ever a golden era in U.S.public education. For poor children and children of color it has never been right.)
How to fight the insanity is all I think about. And then, when I think the news can’t possibly get worse, I get an email that takes my breath away. Breaks my heart.
Dear readers, please reply to this blog posting and offer advice to this first year teacher. Per (Marge Piercy’s gender neutral pronoun from Woman on the Edge of Time — “per,” short for “person”) writes:
It’s [PER’S NAME]. I hope you’re doing well!! I miss being at TC and around all the supportive people there SO MUCH. How I’d give anything to go back to life before graduation and the real world right now…
I‘m writing to you because I need your advice on what I should do. You were my teacher at TC, after all, so I figured you might know what I should do best. As you may (or may not) know, I am now finishing up my first year of teaching third grade at this public school in STATE. It’s been a crazy year to say the least.
Last month I was asked to give my class of eight-year olds the new, Pearson state tests. I was asked to dedicate several weeks of my classroom instruction prior to the three-week exam window prepping kids them for the test (i.e.. conditioning them to write things such as “I know this because in the text it says…,” training them to filling in three bubbles when the question asked for three answers, and whatever other garbage counts as good teaching these days. I did this, despite knowing that it’s not what being a good teacher meant. The week before the exam I spent a lot of time reflecting on what being a good teacher meant, and what it meant, specifically, to be a good PUBLIC school teacher, who thinks about the needs and wants of children, rather than the needs and wants of a big corporation that controls them.
So, anyway, I went to my principal the week before the March tests and I told her that I was not going to distribute the exams to my class. She tried to rationalize why it is that I should do this, and at the end of our hour-long conversation I said, “I told you I made up my mind. I am not going to give it out, so do whatever it is you have to do now.” The next morning she shows up in my classroom and hands me an official letter of reprimand stating that my behavior was insubordinate and unprofessional. Mind you, it was not unprofessional because I was standing up for my kids, and their rights, just the way the superintendent had asked me to do the day I signed my contract in his office. The official letter of reprimand also stated that I could lose my position as a teacher in the district if I did not hand out the tests. I contacted the union person and she said I had no choice but to give kids the tests, and so I did, because I have TC loans to pay back. I wasted a good three weeks of teaching time in March handing out these developmentally-inappropriate, ridiculous exams to my kids.
Now that we are nearing the end of the school year I’ve started looking into seeking certifications in other states. I realized, however, that I have to now put down that I have a “disciplinary action/ official reprimand” issue on all of my applications. So my first question is, does this mean that I might not get certified in another state now?
My second question has to do with the state tests that are still to come. There are two more weeks of testing coming up in May. AKA- another two weeks of valuable teaching time gone entirely down the drain. This puts us at FIVE weeks of instruction wasted on tests so far this year. How wonderful, right? My second question is, would it be the worst thing for me to stand up for what I believe is right versus what is wrong and not hand out the May assessments and say screw it, even if I get fired? Do you think I would ever have a fighting chance of getting a teaching job elsewhere (even if not at a public school) if I did this? Maybe if I did this someone would learn a thing or two about what it means to be a teacher.
I know I’m a good teacher, regardless of what anybody else has to say about it.
Maybe I’m just being completely irrational, but then again, maybe I’m not. Maybe everyone has just forgotten what public education means. Maybe there’s no such thing as public education in twenty-first century America? Maybe there never was such a thing? Maybe public “education” was all just a lie. I don’t know. I need your help!!!