On my best days as a teacher, I’d be at work at 7:15 a.m., spending the next eight hours trying to find a volume level for my voice that didn’t make it hurt by the end of the day – a skill that took me nearly two months to perfect at the beginning of my career. I would deal with common problems like classes who couldn’t keep quiet to save their lives and students who made it a habit of never doing homework. During my “break” I was working on lesson plans and creating homework, tests, worksheets, and the like. I was updating my website and making sure that the homework was available to students on the web so that they could have no excuse for not having it. Left your homework at school? No problem. Just print one off! Once the kids were gone, I’d change my boards and grade some papers, answer some emails or make a phone calls to parents. I would have to make sure my grades were in the computer. I wouldn’t have finished everything anyway, and so eventually I would pack things up and go home and continue to work well into the evening on whatever remained.
On my more common days, I would do all of that and more. My students felt comfortable talking to me as a trusted adult. Most days after school, and often during my planning periods, I would find myself with students in my room who wanted to talk or who wanted advice. I’ve listened as students coped with death, depression, heartache, teen angst, and school problems. If those students weren’t in my room after school, then I was advising (which is code for “doing everything”) a community service club that I was encouraged to start up during my first year. When all that was over, I would have to go one of two places: either to my second job (because teaching doesn’t pay nearly enough for all the work that goes into it) or to a night class for grad school. Most people aren’t crazy enough to work two jobs and do grad school at the same time, but as it turns out…I am.
And then there were the faculty meetings. They were always the same. “Highly qualified” this and “AYP” that. “2014 is our goal!” As if the job itself weren’t stressful enough, a ton of added pressure was coming from No Child Left Behind, which mandated that all students would be performing at a “proficient” level by 2014. Schools who regularly didn’t make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) faced their schools being taken over or shut down. Every year, more responsibility (and with that, more blame) was handed to teachers. When things worked well, great! Keep sorting through your data and keeping detailed records on every student you have who has ever fallen below that “proficient” mark, as well as the students who fall into the “low-income” category or have IEPs. We’ll want to see those binders of information in your goal meetings where you will show us exactly what you’re doing to help them. When your school needs improvement, the government comes down on the school district, which comes down on the administration, which comes down on the teachers, who come down on the students, who tell their parents the teachers are making them work too hard, and the parents, in turn, call the teachers and complain.
Let me be frank: teachers deal with a lot of shit. Do yourself a favor and never, ever, under any circumstance say to a teacher any variation of “What are you complaining about? You chose this career. And anyway, you get your nights, weekends, holidays, and summers off.” You will officially be hated. Forever. I’ll spare you the stories about the summertime professional development I’ve had to do and how all of my “holidays” have been consumed with grading and lesson plans, much the same as my evenings and weekends. If that doesn’t do it for you, imagine babysitting 30 kids at one time for 8 hours.
Yes, I chose this career. What I didn’t choose was the legislation that is constantly adding more pressure to it. Teachers don’t get to decide how these things work because legislators and politicians, most of whom have never taught a day in their lives, do that for us. That’s why NCLB holds students to unrealistic goals while also effectively sucking all the fun out of school. Students aren’t learning; they’re memorizing. They’re doing what they need to do to take a test that doesn’t interest them just so they can get out of high school. Teachers know that, but their hands are tied. While I was subbing recently, an 11th grade honors English student told me that she won’t be permitted to even try to take AP English next year because she didn’t meet the proficient mark on her state test in math. How does that even make sense?
So now the Obama administration is talking about education reform. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I’d be so glad to be rid of AYP and that impending guillotine, 2014. I’d like to hear a little bit more about what leaving high school “college or career ready” means, as “ready” is kind of a vague term in that sense.
What I definitely disagree with, and what falls under the Race to the Top initiative, is the idea that teachers should be paid by how their students are performing on these tests. First of all, test-taking disabilities do exist, and I’m not sure why they can’t see that teaching to a test is the worst idea…. ever. Second of all, do they realize how many teachers are going out into the most low-income and urban areas and just trying to get these kids to show up for school, much less perform at a certain ability level on a test? It’s ridiculously unrealistic and puts too much pressure on the teachers and students alike. I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t want to lose my job just because some students literally just don’t care, and no one can make them. I can only do so much before they have to take it the rest of the way.
All in all, I’m interested to see how this pans out with a new administration. My idea of utopia, to play off of Arne Duncan’s words, would first begin with including educators in this process, for who better knows what happens in a school and how the students can be more successful than the people who interact with them every day?