Tuesday, February 4, 2014

I Used to Be a Good Teacher

I looked at this blog recently. I haven't written in it in any meaningful way in way more than a year. It has been a tough time for me, as it has for many teachers in the US. I am slowly starting to come out of my funk. I wrote this tonight to try to explain why I have been absent for so long.

I Used to Be a Good Teacher

I used to be a good teacher. 

But that was a while ago.

I have some awards. I have students that I run into in town who usually seem to remember me fondly. One even told me he still had a poem he wrote in my class 25 years before. 

I even wrote in this blog fairly frequently. It was a place to share good things that were going on in my classroom. 

But I think that has changed in the last few years. I still try my best every day to help my students learn, but with the loss of autonomy I have experienced, I feel that I am much less effective than I used to be, though there has been some slight improvement this year. 

I teach to a curriculum map that I have virtually no input into. It is a map that goes, literally, day by day into what I should be teaching. Sometimes to the point of what state and corporate core standards I should be teaching that day. It is a major change from what I did for most of my career before that. 

I am, by nature and training, a constructivist. As such I ran my classrooms as student-centered as I could. I used reading and writing workshops, pretty much exclusively. We did a great amount of reading and a great amount of writing. Every day was a new adventure as I used the work my students did to plan the next day’s lesson. And often that was scrapped when a student would ask me a question and we’d explore that instead.

I was excited a couple of years ago to go to my first curriculum mapping at the middle school I teach at. I had started there the year before after spending five years teaching writing at the high school and 18 years before that as (primarily) a seventh grade teacher in a different district.  I had not been able to attend the curriculum mapping the year before because I was on staff with my local Writing Project site. 

Imagine my disappointment and frustration when I entered to learn that I was not going to contribute to mapping the curriculum as I had thought and as I had been told. Instead the mapping had been done with no input from me, but with the aid of the Alabama Reading Initiative. I was appalled. A day to day schedule. No time in the schedule for beginning of the year icebreakers or getting-to-know-you activities. 

On the second day of school we were to be teaching “Rikki-tikki-tavi.” Why that story? As nearly as I could figure out, because it was the first story in the textbook. I never got a better explanation than that. And the entire year we were scheduled to be in that literature textbook. Absolutely no provisions had been made for teaching a novel or doing an author study.  

I talked about this with the assistant superintendent, and was told that I could “get happy with [the new plan] or get somewhere else.” I was also forbidden to teach Greek and Latin root words systematically, despite the research showing how much good it did for comprehension, because she did not want me “wasting time with something that was not in the state course of study.” 

The year before 86% of our seventh graders made a 3 or 4 on the state standardized reading test. My students had a 90% rate of 3s and 4s. Even though this was the case, it was my methods that had to change. I was not teaching the way they wanted, and even though I had better results, they did not care. I was to do it their way. 

I tried to keep to the schedule. After all, I might be a day or two behind here or there, but I was trying to teach their way. A way totally alien to me.  It did not take long, it was November, that I was called to the principal’s office and written up for “blatant insubordination” because I was not on schedule and had, in fact, taught a writing assignment several days longer than was in the schedule. Didn’t I know that we didn’t test writing anymore? I was to concentrate on following the curriculum to the letter or be fired. 

It was my 25th year of teaching, my “retirement” year. I had a mortgage, a load of bills, and a daughter. I could not afford to be fired. So I did what they told me to do. I used the PowerPoints that the other teachers made and taught their way. I even took my turn creating lessons and PowerPoints for the department, keeping to the model of what my department head had been doing.

All four members of the seventh grade English department were on the same hall that year. During the numerous walkthroughs, we were to be teaching the same lesson, the same day. In fact, the observers were told that they should be able to go from one room to another and follow the lesson class by class through the hallway. And to note it if that wasn’t happening. We were praised for doing this. 

This continued into the next year. Again we were observed and judged. The middle of the year we had a new School Improvement Specialist on board (though she was used more as an assistant principal than anything else). Then there was a major review. Students and teachers were interviewed. The English department was called together and then called on the carpet. 

Our lessons were boring. We were too uniform. We showed no individuality or creativity. We were all doing the same lessons the same way and that was a problem. I explained as politely as possible that this had been what we were told to do. The assistant principal had the utter nerve to sit there and say we had never been told to teach the same thing the same way. The floor was cold when my jaw hit it. 

We were "encouraged" to be more individualistic in the way we taught lessons. Teach them our way. But, stay on the daily curriculum map ( we could be a few days off, but not too many--maybe not more than three?) and still give the same tests, the lame tests from the textbook, as our common assessments. I had to wonder if any of them had ever read Joseph Heller. And I was reluctant to deviate very much as I had that letter in my file warning me of what would happen if I did.

And still, before the end of the year I had my second write up for “blatant insubordination.” It wasn’t that I did not have my lesson plans. It wasn’t that I wasn’t teaching my lesson plans. It was that I didn’t have them printed out and put in the folder at the front of the class as ordered. That there was not a working printer on the English department hallway didn’t matter. That the library didn’t help out and print out a copy when I emailed them in a panic didn’t matter. 

I was told by the principal that I had a conversation with the media specialist earlier in the week and was told I could print things out in the library. No conversation ever took place. I told him that. His response was, “Well, I think it did.” Based on that, I was again blatantly insubordinate. 

I made it though that year. Still not sure how. 

This year we've been granted a little more autonomy. We are no longer in departments, but in teams again. Our class period are a little longer and our overall student load a little lighter. I was able to get a few minor, minor changes to the curriculum. Mainly a few days for geting-to-know-you activities at the beginning of the year before jumping into “Rikki-tikki-tavi.” Also, as the state course of study has changed a bit, I can now teach Greek and Latin root words again. 

With the longer classes, I can--and do--incorporate SSR on a daily basis. (More on this in another post.)

I am still not teaching writing to any degree. I find it hard to do that with any kind of good conscience. I am not teaching them to be independent thinkers as much as I would like to. I am teaching them to pass tests. And tests that are usually poorly written and don’t cover what I, in my professional judgement, think is important. 

If my students all do poorly on a test for a story/poem/article we read from the textbook, we don’t go back and reteach and try again. We move on to the next lesson on the curriculum map. If they come in with an interesting question, we don’t explore it. We do the lesson on the map. Follow the plan. The plan I have almost nothing to do with creating.

So, even though I have not been written up for insubordination this year (yet), I am not a good teacher. I am not meeting my own expectations for what I should be doing with my seventh grade students. And, even though I am making some progress here and there, it is not as much as I feel I could be doing. As I should be doing. Not nearly as much as they need and deserve.

What used to be a profession has become a job. 

Hi, I’m Mr. B. Would you like some fries with that lesson?


Robin Johnston said...

Oh wow, this made my heart hurt. hank you for documenting the horror that has become American Public Schools. I am also a Middle School teacher, but I live in Texas, and teach at a private school -- in a very poor area of town. I am blessed to be free to teach the way you USED to be allowed to teach. What you are being forced to do is create automatons who follow dictates handed to them by someone higher up in authority, without question. Maybe you should consider moving to a private or charter school? Beautifully written, I bet you are a great writing teacher.

Jennifer Reynolds said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. This is a very sad state of affairs.

Hyper Homeschool said...

This breaks my heart, mostly because I know what you feel. It brings up a lot of bad memories, and leaves me nearly in tears. You go into something like teaching to change the lives of students, to impart knowledge and teach them how to explore it on their own. Then you're left in a situation where succeeding means failing them. I spent years in college dreaming of what teaching would be. Modeled by professors on how to create my own lessons. How to incorporate wonderful activities that included all subjects, all learning types. What I walked into was a classroom where none of that was possible. In the end I quit. I couldn't live that life for 25 years, or even 1 more year. In the end I was lucky enough to be provided the opportunity to teach my own son. Through him I've found that dream I longed for. I'm lucky... and my heart breaks for those who're stuck and even more so for all the students living that life, even doped up, to sit in a chair. Simply there to learn to listen and regurgitate, rather than to understand or explore.

Sleepless in Lancaster said...

I used to be able to teach the way you did. This is my fifth year "teaching" the new way. Each year a little bit of my soul dies...

Lisa Swaboda said...

2 years ago I was subjected to the same horror you were being told exactly when and what to teach. I sank into depression and dropped 35 lbs in one year. I was written up, told I wasn't a "team player" (for not wanting to follow "team" plans verbatim), and cried every day to work. I made it through the year and left the county I worked in for 14 years. I tried a charter school that employed mostly TFA grads who busted their butts for our 7-5 pm schedule (+ Saturday schools). Loved the kids (even though I was told 3 days prior to the start of the year that I would be teaching math/science to all ELL students without an ELL certification of any kind). It was still better than the previous year until I was told to follow the "team plans" and teach using their algorithms and pacing. Disgusted, I applied too late for the start of this school year. I watched my energetic and creative son be bored out of his mind and escalate his frustration until I pulled him to homeschool. Financially I can't do it next year, but it was truly a blessing and I got to breathe. I tried to start a homeschool support business at Atlas Educational.org but we'll see how it goes. I've wanted to do nothing but teach since I was 9, but it's not education anymore. Read some John Holt and some John Taylor Gatto. Follow John Spencer and pray. I really hope that more teachers shrug soon because the system needs to implode before actual learning will take place in classrooms again. It's heartbreaking...even from the outside now. Hang in there and know, you're not alone, but you are helping to keep the system going and we need people who know what they're doing to stand up and say "ENOUGH" for the good of "our kids'" genuine learning.

orchidflower53 said...

I am so sad to read your blog today. I went into teaching as a second career, the first being a Pediatric Occupational Therapist. I went back for my 5th year, teaching cert, and Masters in Ed. Tech when I was 40. I taught elementary school for 15 years and decided to quit when all the dictates began to come down so that "we were all on the same page" on the same day! I think the Common Core is a step in the wrong direction. If we want people who CAN teach and who are EXPERT in their content areas; we need to pay them commensurately, and give them guidelines for student achievement. Sadly, the current system does not allow for the unique combination of great teaching skill WITH great academic skill in a teacher to be adequately compensated...thus we lose them to industry.

Lianne Alcon said...

It's so sad, school today makes me think of this anonymous poem.....

He always wanted to explain things
But no one cared
So he drew
Sometimes he would draw and it wasn't anything
He wanted to carve it in stone
Or write it in the sky
He would lie out on the grass
And look up at the sky
And it would be only the sky and him that needed saying
And it was after that
He drew the picture
It was a beautiful picture
He kept it under his pillow
And would let no one see it
And he would look at it every night
And think about it
And when it was dark
And his eyes were closed
He could still see it
And it was all of him
And he loved it
When he started school he brought it with him
Not to show anyone but just to have it with him
Like a friend
It was funny about school
He sat in a square brown desk
Like all the other square brown desks
And he thought it should be red
And his room was a square brown room
Like all the other rooms
And it was tight and close
And stiff
He hated to hold the pencil and chalk
With his arms stiff and his feet flat on the floor
With the teacher watching
And watching
The teacher came and smiled at him
She told him to wear a tie
Like all the other boys
He said he didn't like them
And she said it didn't matter
After that they drew
And he drew all yellow
And it was the way he felt about morning
And it was beautiful
The teacher came and smiled at him
"What's this?" she said
"Why don't you draw something like Ken's drawing?"
"Isn't that beautiful?"
After that his mother bought him a tie
And he always drew airplanes and rocket ships
Like everyone else
And he threw the old picture away
And when he lay out alone and looked out at the sky
It was big and blue and all of everything
But he wasn't anymore
He was square inside and brown
And his hands were stiff
And he was like everyone else
And the things inside him that needed saying
Didn't need it anymore
It had stopped pushing
It was crushed
Like everything else.

f said...

This breaks my heart and is the very reason I left New York public schools for Connecticut private schools. I'd rather work until I'm 80 and die while having creative license in my class then get a fat pension and teach pre-fabricated lessons. Who the hell wants to do that? Who benefits?

johncnolan said...

They fired my ass last year.
18 years of teaching.
You see, the principal came in to evaluate me and rated me as "ineffective."
I asked her how long had she taught before she became a "principal" and she responded that she had never taught in a public school in the United States.
I then wrote 18>0 on a piece of paper and asked her to solve the problem.

Abby R. said...

It honestly breaks my heart to see the state that the education world is in. I was in a slightly different situation, as I was an ECE teacher (which is a completely different jungle than Elementary, Middle, or High School teaching). So while I got to avoid the state, I didn't get to avoid administration who wanted to churn out "smart kids". This meant pushing projects on kids way before they were ready. I was able to circumnavigate our version of "core standards" a bit when I taught Pre-K, but there was no way I could avoid it when I was moved to the nursery wing. I would get in trouble because I refused to force one- and two-year-olds into activities and projects that they were not ready for (but, oh, don't they look nice when hung on the walls for the parents to see?) I eventually quit before I got so indignant that they would've fired me for insubordination, and it breaks my heart to see my love for teaching turn into a drudgery.

What has happened to our education system? How the hell can we still look at things like No Child Left Behind and not realize the damage it does? There is a horrific irony that, as we move farther and farther away from the Industrial Revolution and into the Informational Age, administration clings more and more to the Industrial Revolution way of teaching.

Lisa Casillas said...

I feel the exact same way...I used to LOVE teaching, and I know my lessons before the testing obsession made a difference in my students' lives. Now I morn not only for my students but for my two sons who are being left behind by NCLB.

Karin Copperwood said...

I am exhausted. Every day is a challenge and a pep talk on the way to work. Panic attacks in the parking lot are not unfamiliar to me. Being ridden hard by under-qualified leadership, who believe that being overly critical of staff will help them try to succeed that much harderT, is exhausting and counter productive.

he kids are bored, the lessons are boring, the materials are dummied down and have no rhyme or reason. The loss of grammar and spelling and writing and geography and...well, we all know how much we are cheating our students out of each day.

I fear for my elderly years because these kids will be the ones that care for me when I can no longer care for myself.

We are robbing them of a future.

Administrators, in my opinion, should not be allowed to be Principals until they have taught a couple of years in elementary schools, middle school/jr. High, and high school. They need to experience the classroom on many levels and across many grade levels. They should also have to reveal their student's scores to their staff. Let's see what their skill set was in the classroom. Ya, I have looked some of them up. I am not impressed. Lets not put them in a position to tell others what to do until they themselves can do it.

We have done a disservice to our students when we started saying everyone can be whatever they want and everyone takes a trophy home. That is not real life. We are not training students for "Career and College," but for a life of dependency and entitlement.

This too shall pass, but I am tired of fighting the fight. I am out after this year. I will leave the fight to the younger folks.

Alice Carlson said...

I am so sorry. This will have to change, but how many good teachers will we lose first?

Laraf123 said...

This is exactly what it is like. As a teacher in a public middle school, I don't make a lot but I scrape together enough to pay private tuition for my sons. People ask me why and I answer "Because I know too much."

TiSC said...

I suspected it had gotten this bad. Having retired from a career of teaching my way with all the freedom and joy that comes with bringing a fresh approach to your classroom each year, it comes as a shock to see that others didn't/don't live this dream.

My more recent dalliances into the public schools revealed this steamroller coming. It was crushing everyone. Fortunately, I could jump to private school. However, earlier in my career it was not like this even in public school. I saw teaching as a banquet where you selected all the best ideas you would bring to the classroom each year. Summers were spent putting this all together. I couldn't wait for the first day of school because I knew the exciting journey I'd be taking my students on that year. My areas were usually 1st grade and 4th.

When I arrived in SC from AZ, NM, and CA I discovered the rigid testing systems coming in and read the distress on the faces of other teachers. I began to feel the crush as the country was enamored of a particular Language Arts guru who peddled her merchandise as if there were no better way to teach and the Holy Grail had been found. The testing and benchmarks came along at the same time. Gone was the creativity of the individual teacher.

Back to private school where I finished up my career enjoying each new year with my students as we explored the world around us as well as beyond.

Now I have all these materials collected over the years that launched the most interesting discussions and enlightened those who never thought they'd love science or find a whole new world in a novel. What do I do with these materials? No one teaches anymore because they aren't allowed. They are monitors, test proctors, test prep experts. There is no one left to take these boxes of materials because there is nothing in them that could be used today.

Just a teacher said...

Hi TiSC, I would happily take your boxes and use them with a group of homeschoolers!

Also, I talked to a Mom on Thursday who said her second grader said that he'd rather commit suicide than take any more tests. Second grade!!!!

Jolie Lindley said...

I left a 17-year high school teaching career in Indiana to teach middle school at an independent school in Nevada just for this reason. Although I gave up job security and further contributions to my pension, I gained autonomy, freedom from CCSS nonsense, more planning and collaboration time, and the ability to use my creativity in planning lessons as I see fit. I work my butt off writing all my own curriculum, but it's worth it.

Jeff said...

Maybe after reading this I should be happy my son attends school in Colombia this year. My friend, please feel free to call me. I'm out of academics now. Trying to re-enter, but I'm in the business world.
It sounds like you've become a 'trainer,' not a 'teacher.' Since I value your intelligence, wit, and dedication, I find this situation noisome. When a teacher can't teach because of mandates that come down from the state and the federal straw-bosses, there's a need for a change.

TiSC said...

Thanks, Just a teacher, I hadn't thought of homeschoolers. I'll check my area for local groups and see what I find. I have no idea where you are, so I doubt it would be reasonable to mail all this material.

The story of the second grader is very disturbing indeed.