I retired from teaching in 2008 but I like to keep my finger on the pulse of education today.
Ugh, that cliché: “finger on the pulse.”
If I was still working with students, I’d challenge any who used it to come up with something more original if they could.
And I know they could.
Even now, I enjoy looking at the posts and comments and seeing the passion for the job displayed by so many young educators on various Facebook pages. Today, I spotted this comment by Felicia Swanger on the Middle School Social Studies Teachers page. I asked to copy it to my blog and she gave the okay.
Here is what she wrote:
Today a student broke my heart. My fifth period class was rowdy while I dealt with a personal problem in the hallway. This isn’t something I do often, but today was that day.
When I came back in, I read them the riot act. I was lecturing them on responsibility and taking things seriously and stopping the nonsense and foolishness, when I looked at those kids and changed tactics.
I told them we were going to gain some focus and I started with a random kid and told him what I saw in him, all of the good things. Then I went to the next one, and so on. When I got to the fifth kid, his head was down and I said, “And you sell yourself short. You have told me several times that you want to quit school as soon as you can and have it behind you. You would rather be outside than sitting in this room, and that’s fine. Academic learning isn’t for everyone. But I want you to know that there are plenty of things you can do that you enjoy that can make you very successful”. We discussed his love of mechanics and I tried to show him that he did in fact have a functioning brain because he was good at things that the rest of us weren’t.
I went on with my discussions and told one little girl that she made the world better just by being in it, that her smile and happiness made people feel better and that she would be great with scared kids because she could put them at ease.
The previous kid speaks up and says, “I wish I had had a teacher like that in 3rd grade when I moved schools. I was scared and lonely, and no one made me feel better.” That’s when this child’s light was extinguished. One careless teacher made him feel worthless for the next five years. I hope I lit his spark again today.
We have to be so careful with our actions and words. Our students are so important. They begin their journey 100% good and 100% curious and 100% accepting of others, and then the adults in their lives shape them. We let our stresses over testing mandates steal the joy from them.
We have let school become a place of worksheets and assessments at the elementary level where kids need to be fostering a love of discovery. The end result of a child’s education is not to score well on a test; it’s to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in life. Every child is capable of success. We just need to change our definition of what success looks like.
First, I wanted to copy her words because I love the way she addressed the children in her room, finding the good in each. I had served with the Marines before I became a teacher, myself, and I trust my old students would tell you, I could chastise the recalcitrant with the greatest of skill. Yet, my purpose was always the same as hers. I always wanted to put my teens on the right path, if they weren’t—and most were—and spent all my years in a classroom trying to do what she was doing this day. She was set on finding the good in her students, showing them it was there, if they didn’t realize, and bringing it out.
When I asked if I could post her words, I got a second, powerful but negative jolt.
She had this to say about her original post:
I think I have humpty-dumptied this week and decided that things need to change in education. I haven’t slept but one night this week because I decided to launch a crusade. Lol. I have sent a deeply heartfelt email to legislators in my state asking them to change our education practices and structure. I got generic responses, so I am taking it to social media next. It’s an awesome platform.
Sorry, for the long response, but even after seventeen years I remain passionate about this cause.
To be honest, after recovering from the jolt, I was almost relieved to read what she said. When I retired, I wondered if I was losing my mind. I already thought standardized testing was a curse. I told my last principal in my mind I felt teaching to the test was a form of “educational malpractice.”
She neither had a good response to offer, nor did she have a choice. She had to push us to teach to the test or risk losing her job.
I taught American history, myself, but I had a passion for books and tried to pass that on to my classes. I couldn’t work miracles with every student, of course. But I had more than enough success to make the effort worthwhile and convince me I was doing the Lord’s library work in getting teens to read more and read better books. Not long ago, I had lunch with one of my old students and she presented me three books she has come to love. The inscription in the first captures what I believe education is truly about, exactly what Ms. Swanger was trying to achieve with her kind words.
We all reach young people in our own meaningful and different ways. I taught with a great band instructor who turned teens into musicians who made music a career. Two colleagues took decent runners and transformed them into cross country stars. I taught with several English teachers who taught teens to find pure joy in writing and words. There’s no way to measure what these people did—but I believe they were doing something great. You can’t “measure” the solace Ms. Swanger provided to her students on just this one day; but that solace, that shot of well-timed kindness, may resonate down all the years of their lives. I could cite a hundred examples more from my career, of educators who made their marks in ways that will never show up on any standardized test.
I feel confident in saying Ms. Swanger could too. The more I believe that, the more I worry about what is happening in education today.
Last Friday, I was reading with Ellora, my four-year-old granddaughter. She’s just figuring out how to decode words, and I was giving pointers, when I remarked, “You know Papa used to be a teacher, right?”
“Papaukulele,” she replied, using a nonsense word she has coined, that never fails to spark my “outrage,” and provide her a laugh in turn.
Then it struck me.
Would I tell Ellora to go into teaching someday? I loved teaching every day of my career. But I don’t know if I would.
I took her to the park that afternoon and she had fun on the teeter-totters, balance ropes and Astroturf sliding hills. At one point we sat down on a large swing to rest. (She might not have needed the rest but I definitely did.)
A young mother made room for us both. She was watching her youngest scamper about and I started talking to her about raising kids and grandkids. She turned out to have been a teacher herself, I think she said for twelve years. Terry Hurt was her name and she said she’d taught in Texas, before leaving the classroom in 2005.
So I asked her the same question I ask every educator I meet. I’m like Rain Man, always posing the same query, always in a flat tone, hoping not to tip my opinion from the start. “Do you think all the standardized testing and focus on scores has helped education, hurt education, or had more or less a neutral effect?”
“Hurt,” Ms. Hurt answered almost as soon as the question was posed. “Does anyone ever say anything else?”
“Not really,” I laughed.
But what if this is no laughing matter? What if this is the existential question in U.S. education today?
If testing is hurting—as Ms. Hurt, Ms. Swanger and this old codger agree—what should we do?
Ms. Hurt told me her youngest would soon be going to school all day so she’s substituting and thinking about returning to the classroom full time.
“I went in to observe at my daughter’s school recently,” she told me, “but I’m not sure I could do what they’re asking young teachers to do today. It’s sad, too, because teaching was always my passion.”
Thinks about that word. Can we measure passion for learning—and for imparting that passion to the young? I read what Ms. Swanger said. I thought about my response when reading with Ellora. I heard what Ms. Hurt thought. I’ve been asking the same question for more than a decade. I’ve heard hundreds of educators reply in the same way, in grocery stores, on the sidelines of soccer fields and seated at wedding receptions, too.
What if we’re doing real harm with our tunnel vision focus on testing? What if we’re selling our soul in return for transient scores? What if we’re ripping the heart out of our children’s educations? What if we’re all playing a small part in a tragedy not of our making—but a tragedy, nonetheless?
I think this might be the most profound statement about standardized testing I’ve seen in some time. It comes from a veteran educator, Jennifer Ballard Pinkowski, who taught Secondary English for several years. She has spent the last seven years working in Special Education:
Want to hate these tests even more? Watch students with Specific Learning Disabilities take them.
You see, these students still have to take the grade level tests their age indicates, not what the content they are learning on their IEP indicates. So they sit, hour after hour, frustrated, angry, discouraged, bitter, frightened, but sometimes, occasionally, still trying to do their best. It’s exhausting and heartbreaking and I hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. I hate the politicians who jam it down our throats every stinking year and claim it’s for the greater good. I hate the state education officials who buy into that garbage.
And I HATE having to inflict this pain on my students.
I wonder. How long is it going to be until teachers, administrators and support personnel all band together and say, “Enough is enough. We’re not doing this to young people anymore. Enough.”
I think if people like Ms. Swanger and Ms. Pinkowski—who clearly put children first—have had their fill, something is seriously, seriously, seriously wrong.
|I pray Ellora's kindergarten teacher next year will try to do what Ms. Swanger did.|
I don't believe my granddaughter's success in life will boil down to a few test scores at all.