Any casual observer of American public education has seen them-the unending, unbelievable, miserable charts, graphs and other statistics that affirm our colossal failure. From dropout rates, college retention and standardized testing data, we know without a doubt that something is not working, and that certainly no one is openly pleased about it.
In a semi-intentional survey of popular media, I see that concerned citizens have selected several particular demons upon which to focus this wrath, which, in my opinion, is a tragic misuse of passion and energy towards a policy area that desperately needs passionate people.
I recently saw the phrase “Arkansas Mom destroys Common Core in Just Four Powerful Minutes” captioning a grainy YouTube video-it was shared by several of my Facebook friends, and reflects the ennui of many education advocates within the US. Many are quick to attribute the lack of student achievement to the big three: the effects of poverty, bad parenting, or the Common Core.
Although each of these three warrant their own civil discussions, I propose that the root cause of the education crisis comes in what policymakers and parents say when teachers wail -“ what I am supposed to do?”. Between training, support, development and retention, we as a nation have a cloudier vision than ever of what it means to lead children in meaningful instruction and social development.
During my years at Cedarville, I was gifted with a strong foundation in special education, courtesy of my experienced professors and the core skills outlined by the National Council for Teacher Education, which lays out foundational beliefs and knowledge that they believe teachers must possess in order to be certified, even before they take state Praxis or other commensurate examinations. I learned the foundations of pedagogy, educational psychology, and philosophy, as well as many practical skills such as unit planning, assessment and special education methodology such as data collection, and behavior management. When I left Cedarville, and even during my student teaching experience, I often felt adequately prepared- or if not, adequately supported and developed- to fulfill what I perceived as the role of teacher. I only worked at home during student teaching as a result of what I perceived as bureaucratic obligations (eight page lesson plans, reflections, etc) that I certainly thought would go away when someone trusted me enough to lead my own classroom. When I stepped into my first full time teaching role at one of the worst performing schools on the Eastern seaboard, my mindset began to change.
In most traditional teacher training programs, the focus is on how you would craft a perfect classroom- in an ideal world. Although most colleges offer courses on behavior management (responding to students who are defiant, non-compliant or disruptive), there is no nationally mandated coursework for what do when children call you a “fucking bitch” two days into teaching. Furthermore, programs like mine hire traditionally trained teachers, although I also have the role of assisting in physical restraints when children go into full-blown, blackout crisis- not something most, if any teachers receive training on pre-service. More importantly still, there is no nationally mandated programming on dealing with cultural, racial, and sexual politics in the classroom- mostly with adults, but also with children. Although these are global issues that can’t be compressed into 2-credit university courses, I believe that intensive development on mindset, cultural communication and community building must be a foundation for teachers that desire to teach in our multicultural universe. Alternative certification programs like Teach For America or Urban Teacher Center often get this right, with a strong emphasis on examining prejudice or bias, but fail to deliver strong pedagogical background that teachers need in equal dose. In summary, teacher training must be do a 180 to accommodate the real concerns of administrators, parents and veteran teachers who tremble each time a “first year” walks through the door.
Onto teacher support: within weeks of beginning my teaching career, I fell into a deep depression. I felt as if I was a simultaneous social worker, secretary, nurse, parent, curriculum designer, cheerleader, and lackey until I received tenure. Assured that I would be provided with high quality curricula, I was awestruck at the lack of research-based, vetted and fleshed out materials that were available for my particular subject area and grade level. It’s not unheard of to expect teachers to create curricula or materials, but the intensive research and preparation needed for such a task- let alone the time at the copier- is simply not built into a teacher’s day. Aside from the search for great materials, there is the ever-shifting target of who is to be held accountable for what. On a foundational level, I am a firm believer that teacher mindsets and actions are the central force in any classroom, and that teachers should be respected enough to be held accountable for students learning and behavior. However, now in my third year of teaching my district with a strong reputation as an instructional leader in my program, each moment of victory my students and I achieve is quickly met with a blatant or inferred criticism from policymakers, researchers or even other adults in my school. If my students are happy and excited, then the assumption is that they’re not being challenged. If they are upset, moody or defiant, the assumption is that my method of teaching fraction (not their diagnosed disability) is to blame. If they lose a paper, it’s my fault. If they get poor grades, it’s because I’m not helping them; when they get A’s, I’m not giving them grade level material. As a society, we are so frustrated with student performance that we hold teachers up as the solution and strike down their every effort with the same hand, unsure of where else to place blame.
If we are to solve the problem of teacher support (or lack thereof), we must look to places where teachers are excelling not only in student performance, but in a strong sense of self-worth and work-life balance. We do not have to travel as far as Finland or Norway to see schools across the country that are empowering teachers with 2-3 times the normal amount of planning each day (time to create, collaborate and analyze student data), office spaces that promote professionalism, and an attitude that the teacher is an expert-in-training, rather than a babysitter who directs students’ futures with a red pen. Furthermore, teachers must have a hand in deciding how and when they will receive additional training. In my district, all teachers in a wide range of content and grade levels are required to attend identical professional development, despite almost all teachers I know naming specific areas where they would relish the chance for professional learning opportunities that address immediate concerns. The intentions are good- education reformers and policymakers latch on to the latest research citing that teachers with w, x, and y implemented in their classroom are making z percent more impact, which leads to district mandates or professional development centered around these ideas. For example, since pre-writing seems to work in suburban districts, my urban district is currently focusing its professional development around pre-writing rather than strategies to overcome 5 year gaps in reading ability, or high schoolers who still add to ten on their fingers.
Before delving in to the area of teacher retention, I ground myself in the story of a friend who has left teaching. Ms. Smith, we’ll call her, started a March morning last year with a student brandishing a knife in her face, throwing it in the ceiling and cursing her out. When Ms. Smith told a nearby administrator, she was informed that since they were in the process of mandated state testing, the concern would be addressed “in a little while, once the other students have tested”. The administrator shut the door and walked away, leaving both the knife, student and teacher in the same room. If these are the conditions in which we expect people to work, it’s not wonder that that bright, passionate people like Ms. Smith leave the profession for a corporate job hundreds of miles away. Teacher retention may not seem like an immediate problem, but the statistics tell us that regardless of their performance or impact on students, at least 50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. We cannot expect our students to have meaningful school experiences when their institutions of learning become revolving doors for increasingly depressed and burnt out twenty-somethings. When we speak about increasing teacher retention, we too often speak about pay increases rather than a shift to viewing teaching as a profession much like medicine or law, requiring extensive training, mentoring and continuous development to build effectiveness and belief in one’s own practice.
As I sit at my desk, preparing to continue working after 12 hours at my school building, I struggle with the knowledge that there are so many human rights issues that bear action on an undergraduate’s part. However, the arc of history has taught us that the best method of oppression is to keep a people uneducated about their own plight and opportunity. As I am constantly reminded which students are suffering most- students of color, impoverished students and those who are non-native English speakers- I am renewed in my belief that education is the civil rights issue of our day. Subsequently, research and many of our experiences would bolster the knowledge that the most influential factor in a student’s success is the quality of their classroom leader. Therefore I implore you, before you share another article about the failure of the Common Core, the problem of Charter Schools, or the evil of Teach for America, to instead, be passionate, educated and active about how the the teachers of this nation are taught, treated and retained before your children are in front of them.