You know what we don’t do?
Talk about how one day they may have to use their own bodies to shield their students from the bullets fired by a semiautomatic rifle that our politicians are too cowardly and greedy to regulate.
Maybe I should. After all, there’s zero evidence that even now, even after Columbine and Sandy Hook and Parkland and too too too many others, anything will change. The Democrats will make a few feeble overtures toward gun control, the Republicans will ignore fucking everything while pocketing the NRA’s money, and I’ll see you back here again in a couple days at the next shooting. So does finding a closet to hide in work better with a lesson on Shakespeare or vocabulary?
The reality is that I don’t know what to tell my students. The craven response is, “Hey, this is the new normal. They need to be aware of it.” But how cynical is that? How defeatist is it to refuse to entertain the notion that maybe there are some practical things we can do to curb gun violence in this country?
But this isn’t an essay about solutions. I don’t have them, and that’s not my job. This is an essay about triage. About doing what I can in my own context.
The best I can do in the short term is keep my focus where I increasingly believe it needs to be: on teaching with kindness and empathy. I can only control what happens in my classroom (and some days even that is a stretch), and so at these terrible times all I can do is be present for my students and make sure they know I care about them and I’m listening to them. Curriculum is important. Of course it is. But whatever content I’m teaching, it has to have at its foundation the aim of helping students be more thoughtful, more sensitive, more empathetic.
If I can impart that to my students, and they can go out into the world and impart it to their students – and, crucially, other teachers begin to understand that all the book learning in the world is meaningless in a society where human life is devalued – maybe, just maybe, we can begin to move the needle.
Typing those words makes me uncomfortable. I’m not accustomed to sharing hippy-dippy idealism. Snark is my default. But one of my mentors told me when dealing with students she always tried to err on the side of kindness. That seems more important now than ever.
Be kind. Be kind. And help others to do the same.
The unavoidable flipside, of course, is that this means having some uncomfortable conversations with our students and colleagues. And I say this as someone who, when faced with confrontation, usually just mutters something passive-aggressive while scrolling angrily through his phone. But we need to let people know when they’re acting shitty. I don’t mean lecturing tediously from a place of dubious moral superiority. I mean literally saying, “That was a shitty thing to do.” Sometimes it’s enough to let people know we see them acting shitty – because if no one calls them on acting shitty they’ll think no one saw them acting shitty or, worse yet, they’ll start to believe what they did wasn’t shitty in the first place.
Being kind doesn’t mean being easy. Letting people get away with shitty behavior is just another way of saying we could have done the right thing but chose to look the other way.
So what do I tell my students? These passionate young people who want to get out there and make a difference?
You’re the front line in the battle against all this ugliness, and I can’t imagine anyone better suited for it.
You will make more of a positive impact on this world than you realize. I’m in awe of your willingness to take on this most vital of responsibilities, I will be here to support you in your efforts, and I’m so, so sorry for the mess we’ve left you.
This is and isn’t a review of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.
I’ve been in my current position in teacher education for nearly eight years – roughly 2,750 days, excluding weekends and breaks. I’ve been comfortable in this position for exactly zero of those days.
I’m a self-aware enough guy to have recognized this for years, even if I haven’t really been able to diagnose the problem. I mean, I’m a bouillabaisse of anxiety disorders at the best of times, but recently it’s also felt like more than that, and somehow inherently different than just garden-variety mopes (which I can usually cure with a good record on the turntable and a slug of scotch). I never felt discomfort and anxiety this acutely as either a high school teacher or Ph.D. student, and I’ve spent the last year in a fairly profound depression, only some of which is Trump-related. Of course there were challenges in my previous positions – shots to my self-esteem from students and parents and my own restless brain, and the process of researching and writing my dissertation was its own unique test of my tolerance for failure – but there was never a persistent voice haranguing me about my inadequacies like there is now.
But Amy Poehler kind of helped me figure it out.
Early in her book – part memoir, part humor – she writes about her days as a developing comic and actor, first with ImprovOlympic and Second City in Chicago, then as one of the pivotal figures in an early incarnation of the Upright Citizens Brigade. She relates those times as a crucible of inspired creativity, where she met and first acted with some of comedy’s future big names (Tina Fey, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser) and started developing the voice (and, really, the style of comedy) that has become one of the most pervasive in 21st Century pop culture. She tells of their successes but, crucially, she doesn’t discount their failures. In fact, she goes out of her way to mention on more than one occasion that her failures outnumber her successes. At one point she says she and Fey have done “hundreds” of improv shows together and “perhaps ten were very good.” There’s some false modesty there, to be sure, but as someone who knows a little about the combustible, crash-and-burn nature of improv, I understand the feeling.
But the key (for her and, in a moment, me) seems to be this: you grow with the support of other people.
It is, as Poehler says, “easier to be brave when you’re not alone.” There’s a cushion when you fail and a team of cheerleaders when you succeed. It’s that supportive environment that enabled her to take risks as an early actor, to fail and learn and grow.
And so, for me, this:
I read most of Poehler’s book at 30,000 feet. I always have a greater propensity for sentimentality on airplanes – it’s something to do with the lack of oxygen, I think, or my discomfort at being so physically close to strangers – but as I reflected on the confidence I felt as a high school teacher and doctoral student versus how inadequate I’ve felt for the last eight years (and how it’s actually gotten worse the longer I stay where I am), Poehler’s words felt exactly right.
As a high school teacher I was lucky enough to fall into a group of veteran educators – who quickly became my friends – who were patient with me, sharing what they did in the classroom, helping me get my feet under me, and providing a constant sounding board for new ideas I wanted to try. They provided me with the helpful criticism we all need to evolve professionally – “I’m not sure that lesson will work that way; let’s try it this way instead and see what happens” – but importantly for me they weren’t stingy with the praise. They always let me know what I was doing well. They borrowed my ideas – the good ones, anyway. They asked me what I thought. They recommended me for opportunities in which they felt I would thrive. I grew the most in my early teaching experience the year I taught a class for special needs students as well as a class for honors students. Both those classes were offered to me after being recommended for them by my friends.
It’s now a well-cited statistic that roughly half the new teachers leave the profession by their fifth year in the classroom. I, on the other hand, felt constantly supported and validated. It was an exhausting and frustrating and wonderful time. I’d go home on Friday more tired than I’d ever been, but somehow Saturday and Sunday would recharge my batteries to get me ready to do it all over again on Monday. And my colleagues were instrumental in that. By letting me know what was working and treating my missteps as opportunities to get better, I didn’t suffer the steep learning curve so many teachers seem to feel.
I owe my career to those friends, and I’ve not shown them nearly enough gratitude for their professional generosity. Jeannie, Norb, Sharon, Mark, Richard, Marcia: thanks. And thanks again.
The same kind of thing can be said of my time in graduate school. I was expecting a confidence-shattering siege in which my ideas were briefly considered and roundly dismissed. But again, I was lucky to be surrounded by a small community of people who challenged me in all the right ways while helping me understand how to leverage what I was good at. Central to this development was my adviser and eventual dissertation director, who is unique in his capacity to make you feel like you’re the smartest person in the room while still helping you strengthen your thinking. There’s nothing quite like having him read a section of your dissertation, lay a level gaze on you and say, “That’s really, really smart.” And then keep reading, as though I actually had something to say.
Which isn’t to imply that my time in grad school was one long victory narrative. There were frustrating conversations where I tried to figure out exactly how to finesse the approach my adviser seemed to want me to take (but which I wasn’t smart enough to nail) and emails with written feedback where I had to swallow my pride and just soak up the criticism, as well as torturous periods of revision where I had to constantly tamp down on the sneaking suspicion that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. He pushed me and challenged me and reminded me how much I still had to learn, but it was tempered with a steady stream of compliments that never left me questioning my worth.
And that, as it turns out, is the perfect transition to my current situation as a teacher educator, where questioning my worth is pretty much all I do. I see now that I’m one of those people who needs validation and support to grow. I don’t need applause 24/7 – as I mentioned above, well-meaning criticism is hugely important and I welcome the opportunity to get better by recognizing my faults – but because of my knack for self-sabotage I really don’t have a clue as to what I do well. Ask me to summarize my first eight years as a Ph.D. and you’re going to get a laundry list of failures with a single footnote that reads, “Here’s one day where I didn’t suck too bad.”
So, to turn this back around to what I’m learning about myself from Poehler’s book, I can start to source my perpetual discomfort to the nature of validation (or lack thereof) in my current position. I talk a lot to my students about how teaching isn’t the job to take if you need instant gratification, but the gratification you get as a high school teacher is U2-at-Red-Rocks level intensity compared to what I’ve experienced as a professor. In teaching, one form of validation comes from seeing your students’ development, and I could usually see the growth my high school students were demonstrating. I could see them become more sophisticated readers, writers, and thinkers. I could take a piece of their writing from August, put it alongside a piece of their writing from May, and see the difference I made. I had students who began the year as non-readers asking for book recommendations by the next summer. The other form of validation is the same in teaching as it is in every other field: simply hearing you’re doing a good job. And I have a grocery bag of notes from students (and their parents) thanking me for the investment I made in their (and their children’s) lives. It wasn’t a standing ovation at the end of each class, but I could feel pretty satisfied most of the time that I was tipping the scales in the right direction.
But now? It’s much harder to point to student success. They write learning objectives better? They really aligned that one assessment with the standard at the top of the lesson plan? The growth I see within a course is largely facile, which is no knock on the students; it’s just the nature of the work. And what about praise for my teaching, that other external support mechanism? Once a year I sit down for my annual review, I get a pat on the back for staying so busy, and that’s it for the next 364 days. Maybe it’s because we’re expected to have figured it all out by this point. Maybe the assumption is that once you’ve worked your way up to a Ph.D. you’re beyond such earthly concerns as routine praise. But for someone like me whose default setting is, “Well, at least nothing’s on fire,” I’ve found university teaching to be a solitary, uncomfortable time where I don’t really know if I’m doing anything well at all.
I should add that I don’t necessarily think I’m unique in this. The lack of a support mechanism for faculty is, in some ways, a product of the way the university system is set up. We’re all in our offices or teaching our classes or working on our individual projects, and the kind of supportive cross-pollination I wish I had more of isn’t easy to come by when the very framework of our profession is scattered. I just think some people are better at dealing with it. They either find other ways to derive satisfaction from their work or they’re simply more confident and don’t need as much external validation. (Alternate scenario: We’re all just a bunch of seething malcontents who never give voice to our collective frustration.) But when you combine the fundamentally diffuse nature of the university with my own introverted, standoffish nature, it actually starts to make a lot of sense that support and validation would be hard to come by.
Student evaluations get their own paragraph, because end-of-semester feedback would seem to be one concrete way I could point to specific successes. These evaluations can be nice, but they’re largely too anonymous and general to be of much use. It’s like a Yelp review from a total stranger. “I learned a lot in your class” is the educational equivalent of “Your taquitos were just the right amount of crispy.” It’s fine, but what am I really supposed to do with that feedback? It’s so vague as to be virtually meaningless. I’m not going to win many awards with “The readings were appropriate and not to [sic] long.”
This, too, is important: I’m completely cognizant of the fact that I may not deserve praise in the first place. If I felt like I was doing a solid job, I’m not sure I’d care too much about what anyone else thought. I’d be all, “Suck it, world,” and go about my business. But when you feel like you’re largely a garbage fire on legs, praise from other people becomes more important than perhaps it should be. I wish it wasn’t. I wish I was wired in such a way that I could go about my business with little input from the rest of the world. But this particular garbage fire needs a little encouragement from time to time.
And yeah – maybe I should stop being such a ninny and ask for feedback when I need it instead of waiting for it to come to me.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also talk a little bit about writing, since that’s another metric of success at the university level and an additional way to receive validation and support. But that presents its own set of problems. When it comes to the research component of the professorship, all that matters is publication. You can tell me, “That’s a fine piece of writing,” but a folder of “fine pieces of writing” means absolutely zero if no one wants to publish it – which actually means that as far as the profession is concerned these aren’t “fine pieces of writing” but are, in fact, garbage. It would be nice if man hours counted for something in terms of promotion, but unfortunately a folder of unpublished writing is useful as wallpaper for my office, but not much more.
So, if I’ve got a largely unsuccessful track record of publication (which I do) and not much validation for my teaching (which I don’t), that only leaves me with the third component of my job: professional service, as the undergraduate adviser. And that, friends, means my big contribution to the field is clerical work. Which, when I think about the people in my own life whom I want to emulate, is just too depressing to think about.
I’m drifting into gripe territory, which isn’t my intent. To be clear: I work with world-class colleagues who are all doing amazing stuff (winning awards and publishing books and making a difference for their students and all that) in a department that’s stacked with talent, and it’s their own dumb luck to have to work with someone who’s the Adam Sandler to their Daniel Day-Lewis/Jessica Chastain/pick your favorite thespian. I don’t mean for any of this to come off as a criticism of them, and it shouldn’t be read that way. I’ve tried to make clear that I situate most of this on my own (surprisingly broad) shoulders. And, of course, on the very nature of teaching at the university level. When you’re working in an environment where you have less contact with your students and your colleagues have less access to your teaching, it only makes sense that if you don’t have a pretty strong faith in your own ability you’re going to wonder if anything’s working.
What’s the takeaway, then, from Poehler’s book and my midair epiphany? I don’t really know. It’s a problem without a simple solution. I’m not just going to wake up one day and suddenly feel good about my work when I’m lacking the evidence to support that feeling. A solution to this problem will be labor intensive, and who needs that in his life when he’s already got a digital stack of lesson plans to grade? But I guess I know this: I’ve either got to figure out how to muster up some personal satisfaction in what I’m doing or I need to make a more concerted effort to go somewhere or do something where I’m going to get what I feel like I’m missing.
But this, too: My dumb brain circles around to gratitude a lot of the time and how it seems as though Facebook likes and Instagram hearts and whatever the hell it is we’re supposed to do with Twitter has somehow replaced substantive acts of generosity among friends. I’m guilty of it, too, clicking the “like” button when it’s been years since I told that hypothetical person how much I (hypothetically) value him or her as a (non-hypothetical) person/friend/colleague. I think we all (me included) need to remember to show more gratitude for what we recognize in others. And I’ll be the first to admit I fall short much of the time. I’m uncomfortable with emotion and the last thing I want is to seem like the skeezy dude who overshares. But be the change you want to see in the world and all that. If I feel like my world isn’t supportive enough, what am I doing to be supportive in my world? It’s a fair question.
Poehler writes at the end of her book, “The only way we can get by in this world is through the help we receive from others.”
Also, because this is (and isn’t) a review, Amy Poehler’s book is really, really good. You should read it.
So, when I’m not traveling to Iceland or reading lots of books or viewing lots of movies or listening to waaaaaay too much music, I teach. I spend most of my time working with pre-service teachers, specifically those generous, patient, not-insignificantly-crazy souls who are studying to be high school English teachers. As a former high school English teacher myself, and, importantly, one who was profoundly dissatisfied with the quality of his own pre-service education, my goal has always been to provide my current students with all the theory they need to create innovative lessons, but to ground that theory in practice by sharing the things I did in my own classroom and dissecting why they did or didn’t work.
My classes are, by necessity then, highly participatory. I introduce an activity I conducted with my own high school students, my current students take part it in as the high school students did, and then we debrief (or, if it went poorly, conduct a post-mortem) to figure out why it went how it did. These classes tend to be high energy, boisterous and free-wheeling, full of the noise made by passionate students who are excited to start seeing themselves as teachers. Crucially, their energy keeps me engaged, too, and in the best moments I see the difference I’m making. Last year one student told me candidly, “Help me teach the way you teach.” I tell my students teaching isn’t a game to get into if you need instant gratification, but there are certainly moments that rival any applause I got in my days doing improvisational theater.
But this semester is a semester of tension. I’m developing an online class, see, and the hardest part so far is rethinking how I teach, to somehow take these energetic lessons, full of lively conversation that cascades across the room like brightly-colored confetti, and translate that to a comparatively monochrome online setting. How do I replicate these organically evolving discussions where the students and I don’t meet face to face? How do I show them how activities can work in their own classroom if we can’t conduct them the way they would with their own students?
The short answer is: I can’t. Even if I provide my current students with an activity I did with my high school students, all I can do is ask them to follow the instructions and then write about it later so I can see how it went. The closest we can come to actually debriefing in the way that seems the most helpful is to try and arrange a Google Hangout, which still isn’t the same thing. Because so much of pre-service teacher education relies on trial and error, on seeing what doesn’t work for you but does work for someone else, and on the opportunity for me to assist and guide in the moment, I worry about what I’m sacrificing in the translation to online teaching.
I don’t mean to imply it’s a total loss. It’s a compromise. In the six modules I’ve developed for the summer semester, I’ve tried to incorporate a mix of activities that will give the students a chance to interact online using text-based technology, as well as audio and video. I think it works. I think it’s good. But it’s been an adjustment that’s pushed me to think about my practice in a way I haven’t in a while.
Here’s the upshot of all this: I’m still a beginner, which means there’s nowhere to go but up.
Neon Neon – Praxis Makes Perfect (2013)
My mom used to get so frustrated with me.
She lived long enough to see me through ten years of teaching high school, four years of grad school, and the first two years of my college teaching career. In all that time I only rarely volunteered any of my accomplishments. This is the way I’ve always been. People tell me I’m hard to get to know, and I don’t disagree with them. It’s an unholy combination of Midwestern stoicism, introversion, and social anxiety that causes me to play my cards close to the vest. It is, as much as anything, my overriding belief that there’s nothing about me that’s worth getting worked up about. I try to keep my head down and do my thing. There’s nothing remarkable about me.
But my mom, like most moms, wasn’t so easily convinced of that.
When she was alive I’d mention any recognition or awards I got only in passing, or I’d let Wife of Monty take care of that once she was on the scene. I just didn’t – and don’t – see the fuss. But my mom would good-naturedly scold me once she’d learn about the teaching award or the publication or the grant and tell me that I need to be prouder of my accomplishments and publicize them. I’ve tried to do better with that, partially to honor her memory, but also because Wife of Monty constantly reminds me that people want to hear about these things and celebrate them with me. I don’t get it – and I’m not sure I agree – but I know when to yield to an unstoppable force.
So it was in that spirit that I turned to Facebook this afternoon to relate a conversation I had with one of my students. At the end of class I shooed people out of the room citing a meeting I had to run to across campus. One of my students said she didn’t want to keep me, but asked if we could walk and talk. Never one to turn down the chance to feel like an actor in an Aaron Sorkin show, I obviously and immediately agreed.
It was a good talk (and walk). She said she admired and respected the way I teach, the way class is structured, the way I facilitate discussion. She asked if it was possible to teach high school that way because it didn’t look anything like what she experienced. I assured her it was, that it takes time, but that’s true of anything worth doing in the classroom and that it took me five years to really feel like I knew what I was doing. She expressed anxiety at not becoming the teacher she wants to be, of not being good enough, of not living up to her own expectations for herself. She ended the conversation by saying, “Help me teach the way you teach.”
It’s one of the best compliments I’ve received in my professional career. My goal of course is to help my students find their own teaching voice, but I understand the desire to walk in the footsteps of the people who have come before us. I owe an undeniable debt to some of my own teachers, so it would be silly of me to downplay the sense of pride that I could be one of those teachers to someone else.
So I turned, as we do these days, to Facebook. I shared the quote, but because old habits die hard and I didn’t want to be seen as bragging, I undercut the story with a self-deprecating comment at the end – something about someone wanting an extension on the final project. I hit “Post” and immediately felt remorse. Here this student had come to me with honest concerns, paid me a genuine compliment, and I chose to diminish it with sarcasm. It didn’t matter that she wouldn’t see the comment; it just felt disrespectful to the student and the honesty of the moment.
To course-correct, I edited the post to air some of what I’m writing now in abbreviated form. I ended by admitting that even though I’m sarcastic by default, I feel immensely lucky to have the chance to do what I’m doing with my life. What followed was a string of comments from current and former students telling me how much they appreciate my teaching. And I started to feel worse.
Let me stress this: From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate each and every one of those compliments. Any teacher will tell you that in a career where there isn’t a lot of instant gratification, that kind of feedback keeps us going.
But I deleted the entire post anyway.
It suddenly felt like I was fishing for compliments, that the edit I made to show love and respect for my profession had suddenly made it all about self-promotion – that I was being disingenuous in my gratitude, all to hear more about me me me. Obliterating the entire exchange seemed like the best thing to do.
If you left a compliment for me earlier, remember: It’s not you, it’s me. I don’t know how to take compliments, and the act of sharing them feels like I’m begging for more. And this is something of a problem, my refusal to really be able to enjoy praise because I’m constantly filtering it through the consequences of sharing it with anyone else.
I know this doesn’t make any sense. I love hearing teacher stories – successes and catastrophes alike, as well as the accolades my colleagues receive from their students – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. But as soon as I open my mouth about my own teaching, the voice in the back of my head groans, “Great. Not this guy again.” For some reason the stuff I enjoy hearing from other people turns into a big existential crisis on a personal level.
And it shouldn’t be this way, for any of us. We’re inarguably at a time when it’s more vital than ever for teachers to share the ways in which they seem to be making a difference. The profession is under attack from all directions – politicians, the media, the wealthy – and the last thing we should do is double down on the destruction by attacking ourselves from within. We should celebrate our successes and share the ways in which we grow from our failures instead of modestly (and figuratively) scuffing the toe of our shoe in the dirt and mumbling, “Aw, shucks,” when something goes our way. I shy away from self-promotion (sez the guy writing the blog), but who else will promote our profession if not us?
And that’s the tension: balancing my natural inclination to just shut up and do my job with the feeling that I should do more to share good news about the profession and my role in it. So I’m curious: For those in the audience who teach, how do you handle this issue? Do you struggle with anything similar, or is this just my own anxious navel-gazing? What do you do when you get recognition for your work? And should all of us do more?
Love and Rockets – Self-titled (1989)
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.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Short story terms (exposition, conflict, climax, etc.)
Romeo and Juliet
Job prep (résumés, cover letters, interview skills, etc.)
Lord of the Flies
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 Ravitch, P.L. Thomas, Anthony Cody, Stephen Krashen, Susan 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.
Graham Coxon – A + E (2012)