Imagine a world where elementary school teachers spend over two weeks of prime instructional time several times each year administering individual assessments to students, while the rest of the children sit in their seats working independently awaiting their turns; where eight-year-olds take reading and math tests in ninety minute sessions for six days in Spring, also during prime instructional time; where students in first grade are evaluated on their fluency in reading nonsense words, and their scores affect their teachers’ performance ratings. Welcome to post No Child Left Behind, also known as Race to the Top…American Public Education 2.0. What a sad time to be a child, and a teacher.
As I walk around my school, I see the faces of stressed out colleagues, and listen to their constant bitching at lunch time. They feel constrained, hands tied by the noose of assessments and paperwork. As of this year in New York state, a teacher who is concerned about a student beyond normal concerns must record eight to twelve weeks of paperwork on individualized interventions before coming to the Response to Intervention team to ask for possible Special Education evaluation. The way this plays out, a child could be deferred for two or three years before an evaluation is done. While the teacher is carefully planning and monitoring for this child’s instruction (and these days, there are likely to be several students that a teacher is really worried about), she is also running a classroom full of other children who are all moving along the learning continuum at their own paces. The teacher cannot forget that she will be evaluated at year’s end on the test scores of every child in her room. Some teachers may have thirty or more students, especially inner city schools with the neediest of students. And many of those teachers have no teaching materials, no technology and not enough chairs, desks or pencils. Creativity in the classroom is hard-won, as exhausted teachers lack the energy and drive to tap into their own strengths as educators on their own time. Grade-level common prep times are spent (as directed by the administration) on discussing the progress of students on assessments, instead of on creating engaging instructional plans. Teachers feel the loss of professional trust and value- they have begun to feel like robots administering prescribed instruction. It’s a cold feeling.
As I walk down the halls, I also see the children. They are still children, thank goodness, who in spite of all of the pressure for the most part can barely contain their boundless energy. Their held-in smiles and stiff, silent soldier-like walking down the hallways belie the joy they can’t help feeling. These smiles say, “I will try to do what you say, but when you let me out of the cage and into the sunlight, look out!” It breaks my heart that we can no longer freely allow the sunlight into our classrooms. Truly the joy has gone out of teaching and therefore out of learning. Unless one resorts to subterfuge.
Subterfuge is my middle name. “Question Authority” was a bumper sticker in my high school and college years, and a personal mantra. I attend the meetings and dutifully schedule the multitude of assessments and record-keeping required to keep my job. But when the door to my room closes, and it’s just me and those delightful bundles of unbridled energy, I (gasp) let the joy reign. I read aloud to the kids at least two picture books each day, sometimes as many as five; we sing and dance and chant; we read and write and play and negotiate and discuss and problem-solve. We count and think and criticize and make decisions and deal with consequences. Our classroom is a happy, busy, buzzy place. Oh Kindergarten! The first stop for these kids in the next twelve years of their lives. If they hate school and see it as a dark, mean place, their next twelve will be torture. I will not be an instrument of torture, nor will I be a cog in the RTTT wheel. Just as I did years ago as a Whole Language teacher in a traditional school culture, I quietly do right by my students. And the proof is in the pudding: real learning that sticks; skills that develop over time and deeply; social and emotional growth. Wouldn’t you want a teacher like me for your kids? I would. Whenever I have a question about what I should do, I put the kids first. What a concept.
I hope the new crop of teachers (having been to a recent meeting where I was the oldest teacher in the room by ten years made me very aware of them) some day gets a chance to really connect with the true educators’ dream: to touch the lives and minds of their students in a meaningful way. I hope when that day comes where they have to plan and design engaging curricular units of instruction that tap into and celebrate students’ learning styles and intelligences, they can still think for themselves enough to find that long-lost creativity. I did say, “when” and not “if” for a reason. I’m a cockeyed optimist, can’t help it. I just hope the future comes sooner rather than later, at least before I retire in the next ten or twelve years. I’d like to come out of the teaching closet and be openly joyful about my chosen life’s work again.