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Sunday, June 16, 2013
The teachers, I mean. The ones who remain in the classroom, despite increasing public criticism and decreasing net paychecks, close administrative scrutiny and ongoing parent demands, burgeoning student apathy and diminishing test scores. This is my letter to you, the excellent faculty I leave this week, when I close the door to my high school English classroom for the last time, carrying my copies of “The Great Gatsby” and “The Stranger,” “Huck Finn” and “Othello,” and images of the thousand-plus students I have had the privilege to teach.
This isn’t about me, though, or why I am leaving a job I had planned to continue for another few years. It is about what I hope for you in the coming years — and for the students who will come into your classrooms. It isn’t a long list of things, really; nor do I mean it to be presumptuous in telling you “what to do.” You have had enough of that in faculty meetings, administrative reviews and evaluations.
This is, for what it’s worth, one perspective on what matters in the classroom and — more importantly — outside of it. A few things that teachers may need to accept, and a few things they ought not to accept. And this is for anyone interested in the current direction of public education and our future.
First, accept that meeting the individual learning needs of 110 students every day is simply impossible. No matter how many benchmark tests you administer, how precisely you think you have identified each student’s Achilles heel, how much you love them — you can’t control when they went to bed (or didn’t) the night before; what they ate for breakfast (or didn’t) that morning; whose parent just went to prison or lost a job. Life doesn’t get measured very well on Quia tests, when you get right down to it.
Think of it this way. Put a physician in a room with 25 patients, every single one of them with a different state of health/illness. Could the physician diagnose all of them with the same set of tests? Could she treat them all effectively in a 50-minute session? Accept that you are not a miracle worker, even if you are expected to be. Know you are doing the best you can do, as often as you can do it.
Second, know that the act of learning is the job of your students, not you. Teachers are responsible for teaching effectively, efficiently, creatively and memorably. Students are responsible for engaging with the teacher’s offerings, internalizing them, and demonstrating understanding, and then mastery.
For the mathematically inclined, the formula looks like this:
Teacher Quality and Effort + Student Quality and Effort = Long-term Quality Learning.
Realize that if you remove one of the factors on the left, the unbalanced seesaw crashes to ground. So if your students choose not to do an assignment, or fall asleep in class, or doodle on their sketchpad rather than engage in discussion, they are not holding up their end of the bargain.
Remember: The act of learning is the student’s responsibility. Not yours. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
Third, you would do well to accept that technology in education is here to stay. Make screen-oriented activities work for you in ways appropriate to the task at hand. Not technology for technology’s sake. But technology for reality’s sake. Remember, though, that spell-check doesn’t usually recognize homonyms, and therefore may “uncorrect” the best student writing. And as far as I know, there is no app for reasoned syntax and sound logic, so we would do well to keep working on that in real time, face-to-face, in good faith. Talk to us, my students say.
It’s harder to think about the things to which we should Just Say No. Teachers aren’t by nature contentious people, nor are we prone in a right-to-work state like Virginia to speak in a unified voice for change. And as teacher salaries become more tightly bound to administrative and student evaluations, the potential literal cost of Just Saying No rises alarmingly for those whose salaries are already substandard.
Just a few things to which saying No may well be moral imperative: an act of courage and faith. Think about these, find your comfort level, and go forth, remembering Audre Lorde’s reminder that “Your silence will not protect you.” Remembering the price of turning away in books like “1984,” “Fahrenheit-451,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
First, Just Say No to allowing student evaluations to influence your salary for the coming year. Do 15-year-olds really have the ability or inclination to rate your teaching skill or subject-area knowledge? Can still-maturing children let go of personal agendas to rate impartially the skills and knowledge of those who hold them accountable for things they don’t want to do? (Personally, I don’t even want to think about the “score” I’d have received from my own children after making them wash dishes, rake leaves or clean their rooms!)
Second, Just Say No to larger classes and more work for less money. In the 10 years of my public school teaching career, my student numbers have increased by 25 percent and my take-home salary has decreased due to nearly nonexistent cost-of-living raises and increased employee-borne health-insurance and pension costs.
(A reminder, too, to Just Say No when your neighbor says that you work only 10 months of the year and get paid for 12. Public-school teachers sign 10-month contracts, with the option of spreading out that 10 months’ salary over 12 months. That is, teachers are effectively laid off for two months every year, and many of them spend part of those two months doing coursework for recertification (often spending their own money), or working second or third jobs.)
Finally, Just Say No to relentless pressure to jump on the latest educational bandwagon rolling by. The balance changes, the language changes, but the bottom line doesn’t. We can call it Mastery Learning or Assessment For Learning. We can talk about differentiated instruction and integrated curriculum. We can create Literature Circles or Personal Learning Paths. But regardless of the name attached, it is what it is: the hard work of teaching meeting the hard work of learning every day, on as level a playing field as we can construct.
Remember that you are a professional trained to do a hard — perhaps impossible — job. Do it in good faith with as much energy and integrity and patience as you can. Keep your standards high, your due dates firm and your expectations clear as glass. Carry on, keep calm, tell the truth and trust yourself.
You do good work against impossible odds. Don’t let anyone suggest otherwise.
Weather Journal7 wintry scenarios for Sunday