What is the cost of edreform? For most teachers, and even their supervisors, it is not monetary in nature. I suspect that all educators—teachers, education support professionals, and especially building administrators are struggling to maintain a positive and hopeful outlook—to keep from falling too deeply under the spell of cover more, work faster, do better. So deeply that they lose perspective on balance, relevance, and merit. I imagine that all working educators are feeling some of the same psychological and physiological responses to the on-going and powerful pressures to excel.
I am no longer in the classroom. I have been away since last June when I took a leave of absence to serve as president of the Delaware State Education Association for the next three years. But—I have always been and will always be a teacher. However, I’m not there. I am no longer in my classroom. I no longer work in a school. I am not feeling the direct effects of frequent, long-term, intense demands to make the grade, change the trajectory, and move the system up and out of the 20th century—to cast off the shackles of “old school” ways and move into the light and promise of the right way and a new day.
If you ask some of my teaching colleagues, they will tell you that what they miss most may be those things that reflected creativity and/or humanity. Those extras—the important and special touches and opportunities for relationships that mean as much to teachers as they do to children. I know that in my last two years of teaching 6th grade science in a middle school, my own 11-year old students soon grew weary of my constant reminders that not a minute could be wasted. They were not impressed by my admonitions to hurry up, to move along, or to get the job done as I moved them efficiently and productively through another science lesson or activity.
I know now that in my last year, I should have stuck by my former practice of using the entire first three weeks of school to orient my 150 students to my 6th grade lab, to the nature of science, to science inquiry and the science process skills that formed the basis of our state-wide curriculum. I did that for years—until I heeded the admonitions of others that I was wasting time and falling behind in kit instruction. Instead, I allowed myself to be coerced into jumping right in to the first lessons of the first science kit before any of us were ready. We suffered all year from me not making the time to help them better transition from their 22 different elementary school settings (yes—thanks to school choice, they came from 22 different schools) to their new BIG school. And I struggled all year because I did not take the time to properly set the stage for what was necessary for more advanced science and higher expectations for science literacy— reading, writing, and talking about science—and for behaving like scientists.
I taught 3rd grade for seventeen years, and my original training was in early childhood education, so I know a bit about young children. [I also know how patriarchal and authoritative the management style of some elementary schools can be. The principal is the Daddy, and the teachers—mostly women—are the children.]
I heard the following story this week from a most reputable source. I know that this kind of pressure and this level of influence can permeate a school and hang up, hold back, or beat down a faculty. A kindergarten teacher explained to a sympathetic listener that she was so completely cowed by her school’s unrelenting focus on improving math scores that she felt she could no longer spare the time to properly greet each child as he or she entered the classroom. It was the rule throughout this school that every day was to begin immediately with certain math drills, and that no time was to be wasted on any other activity, and that this expectation would be closely and continuously monitored, and that any and all deviations would be noted and dealt with. Whew.
Of course, this teacher still said hello each day and still “welcomed” the children every morning, but she felt this year that there was no time to speak in a personal, meaningful way to each child. There was no way to communicate privately about what to her were some children’s obvious and important needs, without using up precious and committed instructional time. She bemoaned the loss of potentially time-consuming personal contact with a child whose mother was seriously ill with cancer; she felt guilty for not making the time to provide extra comfort for the child whose family had become homeless or to check in with the child whose family-life was dysfunctional and at times unsafe.
I feel this teacher’s pain, and I share her regret at what she and they have lost. I empathize with her sense of vulnerability and wariness. The threat of disciplinary action, insubordination, ill will, and retribution hangs heavy in some workplaces. It seems to me that her recounting of this situation was more observation than complaint.
There is reason why some of those among us become the teachers of young children. This level of sensitivity and caring is not unique, but it comes with the territory of pre-K and primary schools.