These Things Are Sent to Try Us

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I started teaching in 1995.  I was 22, straight out of my teacher training program, and completely ignorant of what I was getting myself into.  My first assignment was four sections of 9th grade English and two sections of 10th grade English.  During my first day on campus, my department chair handed me a slim binder containing the required curriculum for my two classes.

9th grade
Semester 1:
To Kill a Mockingbird
Short story terms (exposition, conflict, climax, etc.)

Semester 2: 
Romeo and Juliet
Job prep (résumés, cover letters, interview skills, etc.)

10th grade
Semester 1:
Black Boy
Poetry

Semester 2:
Lord of the Flies
Research Paper

And that’s it.  Aside from a book room filled with class sets of supplemental texts to use alongside the required ones, that was the sum total of the curricular oversight I received as a new teacher.  In some ways, this was intimidating. Contrary to the labor-free wonderland envisioned by non-teachers, where lesson plans are apparently stolen wholesale from colleagues or divined straight from the ether and students are grateful for the opportunity to work industriously while the teacher kicks back with a mug o’ joe and the newspaper, good teaching is hard.  How would I teach and assess the required texts?  What other books would I choose to complement them?  How would I make literary terminology not just interesting but useful?  And – most importantly – what would I do when I wasn’t teaching the meager curriculum required by the district?  In an 18-week semester, Mockingbird and short story terminology represent at most eight weeks of instruction.  Ten weeks is a lot of time to get to play with.

So a lot of my first few years of teaching were spent experimenting: inventing lessons, collaborating with colleagues, trying things out and then modifying them for future classes. It was exciting.  Thanks to my teacher education program I had a solid theoretical foundation from which to draw (even if my experience with educational technology began and ended with the Apple IIE), and at my school a handful of young colleagues – and one old, cranky colleague to whom I will forever be indebted – who were just as jazzed as I was about being in the classroom and who were happy to share and experiment with me.

My first few years of teaching were terrifying – I had the same challenges as most new teachers, figuring out classroom management, motivating students, contacting parents, etc., etc. – and they were exhausting.  Twelve or fourteen hour days were the norm, and I remember collapsing in a heap on the weekends just long enough to recharge my batteries for Monday when I’d get up and do it all over again.

But more than terror and fatigue, exhilaration is the emotion that really stands out to me when I think back on that time.  How many teachers currently feel like they have the freedom to  to experiment, to play?  I was in the enviable position of actually having my administration  trust that I knew what I was doing, and feel that I should generally be left alone to do it.  How many teachers today feel that?

If the preceding paragraph feels like a transition, it is.  I currently work with pre-service English teachers in a university teacher preparation program, as well as with practicing teachers through an affiliate site of the National Writing Project.  My dissertation was on standards, assessment, and education reform.  By necessity I’ve kept a close eye on the development of the Common Core State Standards and their implementation in my current state of Georgia.  I’ve made a career of trying (and, I hope, mostly succeeding) to be an intelligent, reflective educator who provides his students with a meaningful education.

All of this build-up has been to get to this reveal: If I were a new teacher – now, in 2013 – I think the current state of education would break my spirit in no time at all.

New teachers are facing challenges unlike any I’ve seen in my lifetime, and the truly shameful thing is that these challenges are caused by people who supposedly support education.  In my conversations with new and veteran teachers alike, I hear stories of low morale, early retirement, and administrator coercion, of being made to teach to scripted curricula, of being told the Common Core doesn’t just dictate what to teach (an important enough issue by itself) but how to teach it.  If teachers are so important – as I believe they are and as the educrats behind the current reform initiatives claim they are – why in the world are they being treated as borderline incompetents who can’t be trusted with a piece of chalk?  This loss of agency – and the subsequent effect it can have on professional identity – is of paramount concern.  If we want teachers to stay in the classroom past the long-established five-year “burn out” window – becoming, in the process, career teachers who have the ability to do the most good for their students – why are we now making conditions for them so untenable?

If I were a new teacher and, instead of the thin binder of curricular objectives I was handed in 1995, I was instead given the Common Core State Standards – an exhaustive list of narrowly-defined tasks that treats the teaching of English like an autopsy – I’m not sure how long I’d last.  Take a moment, if you have the stomach, to take a look at the linked document and compare it to the short list of curricular objectives I was handed as a new teacher in 1995.  I’m not arguing that my list was superior – I could, for instance, see a poorly-prepared teacher being a total disaster with the short list – but that it allows for a kind of freedom and autonomy that I’m not sure the Common Core permits.

Is there still room for the kind of experimentation I enjoyed?  I’d like to hope there is, but the catch is that administrators have to support it.  What I’m increasingly hearing from teachers – and what is just now being reported by the press – is that this isn’t happening.  In Georgia, for example, the Department of Education Common Core frameworks that were supposedly created as “guides” have been interpreted by some site and district administrators as mandates.  The result in some schools is that there’s now an artificial 50/50 split between reading literary and informational texts and explanatory and argumentative writing.  Teachers have been told that this is what they will do, and in some cases have had texts, assignments, and assessments selected for them.

As a new teacher, I’m not sure I could do this.

Well, okay.  I could, but would I be in it for the long haul?  Would I love it?  Would I make a career of it?  And, most importantly, would I be any good at it?  I’m less certain of those answers, and I find myself increasingly saddened that my current students may not have the chance to experience the joy and excitement of finding their teaching voice in the way I did.

There’s some truly excellent writing being done by folks who are pushing back against the current education reform initiatives (people like Diane RavitchP.L. ThomasAnthony CodyStephen KrashenSusan Ohanian, and the collaborative website Schools Matter), and, personal bias aside, their work is more compelling than anything so far published by the Gates Foundation or the other pro-Common Core voices.  What they’ve all rightfully pointed out is that the biggest problem facing American public education isn’t the perceived “brokenness” of the system, apparently embodied by legions of underworked, overpaid, unionized teachers.  The problem is the shameful proliferation of poverty – and especially child poverty – and the effect it has on student learning.  Read their work, and if you find it convincing, please consider adding your voice to the growing numbers who want to see American public education preserved, not destroyed.

Current listening:
Graham a
Graham Coxon – A + E (2012)

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4 thoughts on “These Things Are Sent to Try Us

  1. Rob,
    As a fellow veteran teacher, I agree that there are many issues we need to address with the Common Core. If it is used to dictate every thing we do in our classroom and removes our chances for creativity and choices, then it really is heading the way you indicate. Unfortunately, in North Carolina we seem to be moving in that direction. We now also have new Measures of Student Learning exams based on the Common Core that are being used as final exams for students as well as part of a new Teacher Evaluation system.
    I do see some good to these things if they were used as guidelines. I think that states have has vastly different standards from one another for a long time. The Common Core could help rectify that if used well. I also think that many new teachers I’ve worked with feel overwhelmed with where to start when they first begin teaching. Some don’t have a great background to start from, others don’t have the necessary support from other veteran teachers at their school or in their district. Of course, I don’t think the Common Core could replace these things, but it could supply a framework for new teachers to start from. Also, since it supposed to standardized (I hate that word – it always seems to mean to bring things down to the lowest common denominator) curricula across the nation, maybe that will allow for more national “support” groups (professional learning communities) or at least more effective ones? I’m not sure I believe that will happen, but I am trying to be optimistic here (not necessarily my forte). I do think that our education system needs some major overhauling. Just don’t know if what we’ve started with all of this is the best way to go. I appreciate reading your thoughts on the matter.

    • Thanks for this, Brian. I completely agree that one of the potential benefits of the Common Core is the opening of a dialogue regarding what counts as worthwhile teaching and learning. Unfortunately (and like you, I suspect), what’s happening in Georgia is using the Common Core to shut down that discussion in lieu of Dept. of Education webinars, packaged curricula, and top-down “professional development.” The really depressing thing (and I wish I had your penchant for optimism) is that all of this has happened even before the implementation of the Common Core-keyed PARCC assessment. I fear things will get worse before they get better.

  2. Rob, one thing I have noticed about the 50/50 split is that informational reading seems to encompass much of what I would have not put there before. Our state frameworks include memoir and sometimes even fiction texts as the extended informational texts for a unit. For example, in the state frameworks, The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Night, Anne Frank, and The House of the Scorpion are among informational texts. Here is a list by grade: https://www.georgiastandards.org/Common-Core/Documents/CCGPS_ELA_MODEL-UNIT-FRAMEWORKS.pdf. The state unit frameworks, I think, are going to undergo extreme revision or are going to disappear altogether. The ELA Reporter I received today alluded to that. Susan Jacobs from the state said in one of the webinars that we are building a plane up in air. I, too, began teaching in 1995. I don’t know how to fly this plane, and were I new teacher I would be even less equipped for this flight. I am definitely struggling with holding onto what I know should be sacred in the teaching of reading and writing while I try to navigate this uncharted territory. All the while wondering what is truly best for kids.

    • You touch on something really important here: once again we’ve implemented something on the fly instead of taking the time to get it right … or even to ask if we need it in the first place. I totally get that a lot of this is (and will remain) in flux, but the point I poorly made in my post is that A) the 50/50 text split is totally arbitrary and without any recourse to logic, B) isn’t even in the CCSS, which maintains a 70/30 split in text-type across all grade levels, with literature still given emphasis in English classes, and C) it’s absolutely ridiculous to separate writing into rotating 9-week chunks the way the framework recommends. Some of the choices appear to have been made without any consideration as to whether they make sense.

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