School year blues. The kids sing them every year. Usually the refrain highlights the miseries of reading another wordy, hard-to-understand 19th century novel, writing another fake-world essay that no one in his right mind will ever want to read, and surviving the predictable quizzes that may or may not have any relevance to ideas and words that can change our minds, if not our very lives. These days, students aren’t the only ones singing the blues.
What with standardized test performance posing as the near sole indicator of student AND teacher success, is it any wonder that few find learning its own reward? Should we be surprised that the ‘liberal arts’ education molders from lack of care when we’ve traded in shaping the next generation into wide and voracious readers and astute, critically thinking problem solvers into box checkers who try to find a ‘right answer’ and write based on a formula? I’m wondering today, why I teach. Most days I know. But not today. Today, I’ve read an article about teacher evaluations tied to standardized test scores. It’s disheartening. Mostly because I agree with Nunez’ premise, that, testing harms “students and schools — and is now poised to bring down the whole enterprise by taking over teacher and principal evaluation.” And I’ve read an article that rather deceptively promotes formulaic instruction over deep literacy.And the thing is, the school highlighted in the Atlantic article is TRYING.
And it’s only Monday.
I’ll admit, I’ve occasionally become the teacher who really doesn’t exactly want to participate in the hard work of teaching. You know, the kind of teacher who complains about the administration’s lack of vision, or the DOE’s emphasis on testing and evaluations, or the ‘other teachers’ failure’ to adequately prepare students for the rigors of the complainer’s (that would be me) classroom. I’ve run across teachers such as these when I tear myself away from my own navel-gazing, but changing them is not my job. Changing me is. Complaining is easy. Easy to throw stones at administrators. (Usually we throw the stones because, well, administrators make more money than we do, and we could soooo do it better if we were in charge) Easier still to hurl boulders at state Departments of Education. I mean, bureaucracy. HELLO?!?! (And, I didn’t vote for that guy. And, how many of the bureaucrats are actual ‘educators’?) Easiest of all to blame my colleagues for the work I still have to do. This is especially true in ‘English’ class. Honestly, if we’re not careful, the Language Arts’ department does the same thing for at least 6 years, with the only variation being the difficulty of the reading material, the length of the papers and speeches produced, and the number and difficulty of the vocabulary words on a MC test. Today, I found myself wondering — what have these students been doing for the past few years!?!? Poor me. I found myself having to do my job. What a tragedy. What I am discovering is this:
Students rise to the level of challenge, rigor and expectation delivered each day in the classroom. I must consistently aim high. They’ll go further, faster, and better with the ‘shoot for the moon’ philosophy than if I aim low, expecting little. Kids are sponges! They have nearly endless capacities to explore, think, create, write, change. Learning remains an extraordinary privilege and responsibility. On a good day, it can even be enjoyable — you know, FUN! Next thing I know, in a challenging, invigorating environment that forgets about ‘the test for a moment,’ kids are smiling, interacting, caring about their work, loving what they can do.
May the discouragement from the DOE, the standardized testing craze and the general malaise or distrust of the systemic problems in ‘education’ keep their distance. Learning matters. And it is fun. Oh, hey! THAT’s why I teach. I knew I’d remember it…