Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Teaching

I have been a teacher for nearly 17 years.  In that time, I have taught 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th grades.  I have taught at two schools.  I have taught children from Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga, Samoa, Bosnia, and a number of other countries.  I sometimes get teary eyed as I read to my class about Martin Luther King or sing "A Man Named King" or listen to his "I Have a Dream" speech...because while there is still a long way to go, I have, to some extent, the fulfillment of his dream in my classroom each day.  I have always wanted to teach in Title 1 schools with at-risk students.  I have felt strongly that it was part of my role in life.  They need good teachers.  They need good role models.  They need people who care deeply about them and see their strengths as well as their struggles.  I have felt that I could be one of those people.  As I have talked to other teachers in my school (and at other schools), many of us feel this way.

But I am rethinking that commitment right now.  As testing and data analysis have come to be front and center in education, I am uncertain that I can continue to teach where I am teaching.  For a number of reasons.  This past few months, I am putting in increasingly long hours...most nights after my children are in bed I spend 2-3 hours doing school work.  I am willing to do that.  But for the past few months, I am also starting to have regular migraines, nightmares, difficulty sleeping and difficulty remembering things.  I think I have suffered a minor depression, something I have never experienced before.  Things that are usually easy for me, suddenly seem much harder.  And it is affecting my ability to mother my own children.  When I get home from work, I don't have the energy I need to cook, help with homework and music practice, listen to my 6 year old read, etc.  Most days I get it done, but often on auto pilot without being truly engaged with my   children.  As much as I care about teaching, it is my JOB, not my whole life and I refuse to allow it to become my entire life.  50 years from now, I am not going to remember or care what scores my 2nd graders got on their end of the year tests...and neither are they!   But I will remember whether I made it to my daughter's violin concert and whether I showed love and kindness to my children...both biological and those at school.

The media, especially movies, often portrays amazing teachers.  But I have become increasingly bugged by their portrayal of these teachers, because more often than not, these teachers give up their entire lives to teach....destroying marriages/relationships, working extra jobs to buy school supplies, and devoting all of their spare time to their students.  In a way, that is commendable.  But in a way, it is sort of twisted that our society seems to applaud when a teacher is so self-sacrificing that she destroys other parts of her life to give to her students.  And it is unrealistic.  Most teachers simply cannot...and I would argue, SHOULD NOT sacrifice everything for their students.

The testing frenzy is hurting us.  It is sending the wrong message to the people that matter most.  As a colleague pointed out, we are teaching kids that we, as a nation, have to be number 1 at everything and if we aren't, then something is wrong.  That's not the message we should be sending.  In addition, this overreliance on test scores and data begins telling many children at a very young age that they aren't good enough.  That even if they are working hard, their test scores show they don't measure up.  Often, these are children who are still learning to speak, read and write English.  Sometimes these are children that have seen unspeakable tragedies in war torn countries...or in violent homes.  These are children that are already unusure if this world is a safe place and if any adults can be trusted.  These are children that need to find comfort in the written word, that need to find solace under the tutelage of a trusted adult, and that need to find hope that the future can be better.  Education can provide that for them...but only if teachers are allowed to let these children grow at their own speed and nurture them along the path of education so that they want to read, write, communicate and learn.  William Butler Yeats said, "Education is not the filling of a pailbut the lighting of a fire."  But these days, often I feel like our current system is putting fires out.  Recently, we had a professional development meant to inspire us.  We watched clips from a movie and compared it to teaching.  The movie was inspiring...but the comparison, for me, lost all power when we began talking about how we could help our students to be "trained."  Trained to do what?   Take tests.  Not inspired to explore the world with curiosity, not inspired to read great books, not inspired to use creative thinking.   Trained to take tests...because that has become the sum goal of my job now...to help kids pass tests that do seem designed to trick them.  I fear for our future.  I am not usually a doom and gloom person, but if things don't change, I do see some doom and gloom ahead.   Why?  First, social studies is not a tested subject.  So in many schools we are raising a generation of students who have no understanding of history, government, etc.  So how will this generation vote and make informed decisions about the future of our country?  That's frightening to me.  Second, teacher attrition is becoming an alarming problem, and I think it is going to get worse.  For the first time in 17 years, I am considering teaching somewhere else, somewhere that is not a Title 1 school.  And I am not alone in that.  And the students who will be most hurt are the students who MOST need great teachers.   Third, in many schools, education is no longer well rounded.  In the search for higher test scores, music/art/dance/PE and recess are being cut.  The message being sent is often that no matter how hard kids work, their effort isn't enough.   No matter how hard teachers work, how much they care, it isn't enough.  It is discouraging to all involved.  I fear drop out rates will climb, suicide rates may climb, etc., if the current testing  climate doesn't change.  I saw a t-shirt recently that I wanted to have the courage to buy and wear.  It said, "A student is more than a test score...and so is a teacher."  There is so much more to what my students know and can do and WHO they are than just how they score on a test.  I believe we are on a train headed in the wrong direction and the train seems to be accelerating each year rather than decelerating or changing direction.

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I began typing this post in April.  I didn't finish it or post it because it felt too raw.   It is now June 16.  School is over.  I applied for a transfer back in April.  I interviewed at several schools and ultimately accepted a job teaching third grade at Ensign Elementary.  Ensign is not a Title 1 school, and while I feel certain there will still be challenges, I feel excited for these changes.  And heartbroken.  I am leaving behind a school and students that I genuinely loved.  But it was having a negative impact on me personally and on my family, and it was time to change.  I am excited to work in a different environment where hopefully my talents and abilities as a teacher will be recognized and where hopefully I will feel successful.  I look forward to having the opportunity to develop new relationships with new colleagues, to try new things in my teaching and hopefully become reenergized to do a job that I have usually loved.  But there is a part of me that is terribly sad to leave my Parkview family (as that is how the staff has felt to me) and I worry for the children.  Next year many of the teachers at Parkview will have taught 3 years or less.  I do not believe that is what is best for students.  New teachers often bring new ideas and new enthusiasm and it can be wonderful to add some new teachers to a faculty.  But to have the majority of a faculty be new is generally not in the best interest of the students or teachers.  I hope that next year goes well for them and that my concern is unfounded.