Damned If You Do; Damned If You Don’t

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.

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This entry was posted in Accountability, Early Childhood Education, Education Professionals, Faculty and Staff, My Opinions, Quality Teachers/Quality Teaching, School Administrators, School Days, School Improvement, Students and Schools, Teachers and Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Damned If You Do; Damned If You Don’t

  1. John Young says:

    Hard to deal with the hungry child, the beaten child, and the child with cockroaches crawling out of their pockets nowadays…..just get your DCAS scores up! Your school is in the ESEA Flexibility application as a focus school…….such a shame. This Governor and his DOE just cannot comprehend the vast and significant depth of disconnect,.,….

  2. A Delaware Teacher says:

    Do what you know is right. How many stories do we read where the hero goes against the authority because he knows the system is flawed? But to say that the whole public education system in Delaware is flawed is to oversimplify. There are things about the educational system here that are constantly changing. Those things are beyond my control. What can’t change is who I am as a teacher and my resolve to make a difference in the lives of as many of my students as possible. Regardless of whether my students meet the State’s strict definition of success, I know that I gave my all to give my students a rigorous, intellectually stimulating, writing rich year that they will not forget. (Most of them took advantage of this opportunity.) However, they might not remember my lessons, but they will remember that I cared for them.

    I was just thinking back to what I remember most about my football coach from high school. I don’t remember him because of the wins he helped us get… because they were few. But I remember how much he cared about us as players. He focused on how we practiced and taught us lessons about character. For him, who we were in school and on the field was what was important. He was still the coach whether we won or lost. Winning was great, but playing on a losing team showed me that it wasn’t everything.

    I cannot see how my school will make AYP this year. That’s OK. For those who get 3’s and 4’s and care, they will feel success. For those who don’t pass, I hope they will reflect on their middle school years and remember the teachers who cared about them. I hope they don’t remember the scores they earned on their state tests. In my classroom, I teach life-prep, not test-prep.

    • fsjenner says:

      DT: Thank you for your comments. I especially appreciate your last line. I, too, saw my classes and my instructional program as life-prep–not in a glib or unsophisticated way, but in a real and substantial way. The 6th grade science curriculum, combined with good instruction, science literacy skills and strategies, opportunities for hands-on activities, and pathways for students to construct solid learning about important science concepts, would help set them up for what followed. Set them up for 7th and 8th grade science instruction; set them up to be successful in other classes in school; reinforce their positive feelings and experiences in our school; and give them some of the tools necessary to become science-literate adults. Another goal was to make more kids “like” science; for more girls to love science and experience confidence-boosting successes; for more kids to see themselves as having an interest and future in the sciences; and finally to persuade them and their families that science is not hard, not boring, and not just for middle-aged white men–which was a repeated finding in surveys of students in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. With DSTP, 6th grade science was “tested” near the end of 8th grade, in combination with instruction from 7th and 8th grade classes. I never doubted that our 6th grade program produced real and deep learning.

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