I am a twenty-one year old, fresh out of college with three months of substitute teaching and one semester of student teaching under my very loose belt. Other than babysitting when I was twelve, this is the sum total of my experience with kids when I stand in front of my first class of third graders. I quiver in my sneakers as they look expectantly up at me waiting for instructions. They know what to expect better than me, after all they have been in school for three years already. They are the experts on what is supposed to happen; I am the novice. Even though they don’t seem to realize this, thankfully, I feel it in every cell in my body. They are waiting for me to tell them what to do, I think in terror; I have no idea what to tell them to do! Finally I just begin to speak. I tell them a bit about myself and how happy I am to be their teacher this year. I ask them to tell me about themselves and they open up like a tidal wave. Once they start talking, I can’t get them to stop. I realize quickly that I have to eventually get them doing something else, but for now I am just relieved that they are doing something. And I listen. Their stories of their little lives are so interesting! They live in a barrio in Tucson, lots of poverty, drugs, neglect, hunger, fighting; but they are also scrappy, street-smart; and I recognize and identify with that and we fall in love. We have a hell of a year. It turns out they love to learn anything new- my biggest problem that year is managing all that they want to do. I follow their leads and as they come up with project after project, researching and creating, reading and writing, making and solving problems. We write a newspaper every week on topics of interest to us. We write and present plays, learn about and enjoy a Thanksgiving feast complete with turkey and trimmings, write letters to local politicians on issues that bother us, take the public bus every week to the public library to use our new cards to take out books. We dance, sing, play games, have really deep and caring morning meetings, make daily goals for ourselves and check in several times a day to adjust them and assess them. These meetings include my bringing the list of skills we need to cover and learn and master, and negotiating with the kids when and how we will do this. I meet with individuals, small groups, pairs of partners. We are in chairs, on the counter tops, under the tables. People walk in to speak to me and cannot find me as I am in some corner sitting on the floor having really engaging conferences with my eight-year olds. I am constantly assessing their growth and knowledge and adjusting my expectations and lessons.
For the next seven years, I grow, they grow and things only get better. I have one really tough year when my first graders (I moved grades several times that first seven years) were such a mess, they didn’t learn a thing. That year, I had an elective mute, a fetal alcohol syndrome student, a sexually abused little boy, two students who were alingual (or could not communicate in either English or their native Spanish), a little monster who destroyed my classroom on the first day of school and continued to do so until he was transferred to a different teacher, at least one physically abused child, and eighteen other little ones who couldn’t sit still. I own that I couldn’t reach and teach them, and wish I could have that group now so I could make sure they get the skills they need to succeed, now that I have the skills I need. That is what it means to develop the craft of teaching- reflecting on what works and what doesn’t work, and gathering a “bag of tricks” or a repetoire of strategies to insure student learning. Over that seven years, I completed a Master’s Degree and gave birth to twins and a third baby. All by the time I was 28. To say that I changed as a teacher over that time is an understatement. To say that I became truly the professional educator who knew and understood kids, and could match them with resources and instruction to ensure their striving to meet expectations is more accurate. During that time, there were objectives for each grade level- a list of skills they were required to master. I had the complete freedom to design curriculum and assessments to meet the objectives. Each year they took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills as a formal assessment to check up on their growth. It was taken for 45 minutes a day over three days and included reading and math tests. It was incidental to our daily work and learning. I did no test prep at all, other than to be a cheerleader and tell them to do their best. Looking back, I see what an incredible experience that was for me, and for my students. My first class of kids, who now turn thirty-eight (!) are mostly parents, working and raising their own families. The ones that I hear from or about through the grapevine have become adults I am proud to have taught.
I am teaching first grade, back on the east coast. My students live in a wealthy suburb of New York City, Westchester County, but they are an anomaly. They live in abject poverty, with parents who do not speak English and are working two and three jobs to pay rent and buy food. Their parents are mostly illiterate in any language and although they fear school, they respect and support teachers without question. I am having a ball, working with these little ones and watching them learn to read and write in two languages, meeting and exceeding grade level expectations. I have lots of freedom to design curriculum and assess the children; I work hard, they work hard and we all learn. But there are rumblings from above. New terminology is being thrown around: standards and standard-based learning; high-stakes testing, and later in this period, the effects of the 1983 study A Nation at Risk are coming to the forefront in the poorly nicknamed No Child Left Behind act. By the end of the 90’s there is state testing in grades 4 and 8 that create a backwash of panic and test prep. Our students performed poorly on the new tests, and everyone now, including the custodians and secretaries, are taking ability-level groups and reams of copied worksheets and practicing with the students to prepare them for the tests. Although I am teaching early childhood, our faculty meetings now consist of discussions about how the lower grade teachers can support test prep by incorporating verbal and writing activities designed to prepare those students for the fourth grade test. Results are being published in the newspapers, and real estate values are affected. Teachers are being bullied into spending more time in test prep, and social studies and science, as well as music and art, all but disappear in our low-performing district. I fight for the kids at faculty meetings; continue to attend conferences, workshops and book studies on teaching and learning; and take suggestions to my colleagues, the principals and superintendents; then close my door and teach the way I know kids learn. I earn a reputation as a troublemaker, and grow weary of trying to protect my students from what I believe is at best a waste of their time and at worst, permanently damaging. When I began teaching, I swore an oath to myself: I would never do to any of my students anything I would not want done to my own children, nor anything that was done to my friends and family who had poor experiences in school. I was losing sleep and struggling with my conscience, and after many years, I left that district and went to heaven on earth- a district whose administrators verbally stated, and backed up with practice, that they shared my vision for kids.
I have been in my new district for several years. I have moved grade levels a couple of times, and found joy in each experience. I am able to share creative ideas with colleagues, and listen to theirs. Our kids perform well enough on the state tests to allow us some freedom to negotiate curriculum and be the professional educators that we are, although we are expected and encouraged to teach the same units and information at each grade level in all four elementary schools across the district. We, as colleagues, do not always agree on what works, but generally there is respect at our meetings; the administration mostly loves and appreciates what we do. We work hard, the kids work hard and everyone grows and learns. But there are new rumblings. The federal government is watching now. They are closely monitoring our high-stakes test scores and leaning on the state for improved scores and more testing. No Child Left Behind is taking affect in a big way and two things are happening in schools: either they are bending to the mandates or they are protesting. Those that protest receive reprimands, sanctions, threats. Parents are mostly unaware at this point of the snowball charging down the mountain, gathering speed and ammo and headed directly at their children and teachers. Teachers who sound alarms are being talked about as lazy or crazy or worse. We begin to feel pressure, even in our high-performing district, that we are not doing enough to raise test scores. I fight for the kids at faculty meetings; continue to attend conferences, workshops and book studies on teaching and learning; and take suggestions to my colleagues, the principals and superintendents; then close my door and teach the way I know kids learn (sound familiar?). But it gets harder for me to buffer and protect the kids. My principal complains each year that I am not giving her enough “4’s”, or exceed-level test scores. I tell her I teach children, not tests. She asks for compromise; I ask if she would say that if her own children were in my class. She moves me to kindergarten, which is wonderful by me. It’s the last bastion of joy in school, but I see the writing on the wall: for how long? I have to justify play time, I have to follow scripted programs, I have to do constant formal assessments and report results.
The new APPR, or teacher evaluation system, kicks in. It is a new instrument, and my evaluation is suddenly 40% based on student test scores and 60% based on administration, including a second unannounced formal observation. But wait, kindergarten does not do state testing. Oh yes they do now. All of this happened between September and June of this school year. The federal government has made it clear that unless states and their districts jump through the mandate hoops, they will lose all of their federal funding. Everything is putting the cart before the horse, as those at the top say we have no more time to waste planning and making sure we are doing the right thing for kids. Committees and task forces are formed at the state level and do not include a single educator or school administrator. State Regent Board of Education members throw up their hands at public meetings and blame the governor. Parents are finally wide awake and worried, now that their children are taking tests over six days for 75-90 minutes a session. They are writing letters, attending protests, joining groups like Opt-Out; pulling their children out of public school. It is an unmitigated disaster. I, who have always been a strong public education supporter, believe that if my children were in school right now, I would take them out and either home-school or private school them. Classrooms in poverty stricken areas still have no materials to help the children learn, and the teachers are burning out even faster than before as their jobs and pensions and retirements are being held ransom to get these at-risk children to pass the tests. I still smile at my students every day and make every day special; I believe that some other teachers I work with also do this, but lots of them are folding to the pressure and becoming frighteningly robotic in their systematic teaching. Children do not smile as much inside the building, although they still find fun and happiness wherever they can, being kids. Things are dismal and getting worse, and the only thing the State Regents gave me in response to my query about what I can do to bring change in the insanity is to wait it out. I have less than ten years of teaching ahead of me and I can only hope things get better before I retire.
I am aware that I look back on some of the early years of teaching with nostalgia. By no means was it all rosy and by no means were states and districts making the best decisions for kids even then. But they had not yet crawled so far up our ahems and tied our wings and micro-managed our days. Gone is any semblance of professional trust in educators; apparently we are all lazy, shiftless, cheating, lying, stealing, selfish kid-haters. Gone is any leverage for teachers to make decisions about their students’ learning based on ongoing, informal assessments. Gone is all the evidence of developmental stages a la Piaget, of multiple intelligences a la Howard Gardner, of learning styles and teaching styles. We are in a new age of “one size fits all or else.” It’s a brave new world; I’m still fighting, but I’m more than a bit worried.