March 17, 2010

Response to the recent Newsweek article

by Robin Barre

While I agree with many of Thomas’ and Wingert’s points in their article “Why We Can’t Get Rid of Failing Teachers” (Newsweek, March 15, 2010), I disagree vehemently with their conclusion – that getting rid of failing teachers will save our public education system. In fact, I am furious with their conclusion. I am sick and tired of the blame for our failing schools being laid at the feet of teachers. And, yes, I am a teacher. But let me qualify – I am not a union teacher. I teach in a small alternative high school contracted with my local public school district. I am not an employee there. My students, as enrolled students in the district, are held to the same accountability and expectations as the rest of the high schoolers.

I am an excellent teacher. I have a B.A., two M.A’s, and am working on my PhD. I am intelligent and well-read. I did learn classroom management from my teaching certification program and from my supervising teacher. I have received glowing evaluations from my building principals. My first job 13 years ago as a full time teacher was to take over a 7th grade inclusive Language Arts/Social Studies class in a rural area. I came in at the beginning of second semester. The students had had three teachers, maybe four, by the time I arrived.

I have taught in rural and urban settings, mainstream and alternative. I have tutored children from 3rd grade through college. I have taught in buildings with great principals and not so great principals. I have taught with colleagues who should have retired years ago and taught with retiring colleagues who should have stayed. I have been teaching since before the first state standardized test was implemented and I am still in the classroom to witness its demise and the rise of a new one.

In my current position, based on Thomas and Wingert’s article and the push to evaluate teachers based on student scores, I would have been dismissed about three years ago. My students do not score well on the standardized tests; most of them do not take the standardized tests, which is, in essence, a failing score. About a third of my students do not finish school, and of those who do, only a handful have gone on to higher education at this point in time. But again, if you ask any one of them or their parents, they will tell you that I am an excellent teacher.

Let me tell you why. Every student and parent has my cell phone number and can call me day or night, and they have.  I have sat in the social security office with a student and her mother more than once. I have made multiple home visits. I have been to the psychiatric ward to visit one of my students on multiple occasions. I have sat on mental health wrap-around teams for my students. I have talked with lawyers, counselors, doctors, psychiatrists, child protective service workers, and police to advocate for my students. I have coached a student on the weekend as he prepared for an upcoming test that he absolutely needed to pass. I have assisted students in filling out FAFSA forms, met with a student and her mother for mediation after the mother had kicked her daughter out of her house. I have let homeless students keep in my classroom their black garbage bags filled with everything they own in the world.  I have brought my iron to school so a student could iron her thrift store dress for the upcoming fashion show she was to participate in. I counsel and soothe parents who are lost and at their wits’ end.  I have been there as much as humanly possible for my students, and I earn a fraction of the pay that the regular district-employed teachers earn. Do not dare to tell me that because my students cannot pass the standardized tests that I am not a good teacher.

I have endorsements in K-8 general education, English, history, and psychology. I have worked with students extensively on making curriculum relevant and accessible. I have modified curriculum for my SPED students. I have spent my own money on curriculum materials that the district will not provide for us. I work with students one-on-one consistently so they can master basic math and language skills. Students who have graduated years ago still come to my classroom for assistance they cannot get in their community colleges. Please, please, please do not tell me that I am not a good teacher.

And yet, very few of my students have ever passed the state standardized tests. I think out of the 75+ students I have taught in my current position I could count on one hand, literally, the number that have passed the reading, writing, and math state tests. But do not tell me that I am a failing teacher.  Because I have worked as hard at this job as I have ever worked at anything in my life. Firing teachers who are considered “failing” because their students are not getting passing test scores is not the key to saving education. We are having the wrong conversation!

For too long education has borne the brunt of society’s ills. We turn to education when things are going wrong, point the finger at our educators and our children when our children “fail.” We forget that the threads of our culture are woven tightly and imperceptibly throughout the education system. For example, we forget that the pharmaceutical companies can make a great deal of money by peddling medications for the diagnosis of ADHD, and all of a sudden there is an onslaught of children in our schools with ADHD. We forget to question for whom and for what we are educating our children. It is taken for granted–and unquestioningly and uncritically accepted–that our schools should be educating our children to compete in a global market; that our children should be competent, competitive money makers; and that our children should be ready at age 18 to step into a college or a job, regardless of their dreams, and the relevancy or access to said college or job.

Again and again we hear that our children of color are the ones who suffer the lowest test scores, the highest dropout rates. Yet, we forget that the textbook companies and the testing companies, who are big money lobbyists in the halls of Congress, provide the teaching materials and the push for standardized testing. And we forget that those same children who are underserved are underrepresented in the pages they are to learn from. Witness the recent Texas state school board’s proposed history curriculum that may drive the rest of the country’s history curricula in the next decade.

Many of those burned out, failing teachers that the authors reference are responding to a system that disrespects the wisdom, knowledge, experience, and passions of said teachers. How many other professional people are asked to give up their lunch and add hours to their work week for free? The teachers in Rhode Island are asking to be given the respect shown in other professional fields. Most employees who work overtime are paid overtime.  These professionals get fired.

Many of the people I know who come into teaching are idealists. They come in wanting to touch and change lives, to open up the world to the young people before them. They are passionate about their subjects – the mysteries of mathematical patterns, the miracle of language, the long, winding road of history, the interconnections of science and geography, the wonders of music, art, drama. Instead, they are made to pound test material into their students’ heads day in and day out. I know of one elementary school where the preschoolers, children who are not older than 4 years old, cannot have recess during the weeks that testing takes place. Four years old and not allowed to play. Or worse, poor kindergartners and first graders who cannot play and are made to sit through the hours of testing. We take away play, exercise, art, music, story, nap time, cut into lunch time, social time, imagination, creativity, and connection for the sake of standardized test scores. And you want to say that the teachers are failing our children?!

Our society is failing our children.

The health of a society could logically be reflected in the health of its children. No wonder we don’t want to look at these issues and just want to talk about test scores. How much easier it seems to change the rules of testing than to take a good, long, hard look at who we are as a culture and what we value.  The thing that we so easily and conveniently forget is that those homeless, abused, and poverty-stricken children are sitting in our classrooms, being taught by the good and the bad teachers alike. These are the same children that are expected to pass standardized tests that have absolutely nothing to do with their lives, that inaccurately and narrowly assess what they are capable of. I challenge any of those  adults who design, publish, score, and support these tests to get on with their lives in the face of what many of our children face.

For many of those children who are not being abused, who are not going hungry, tired, sick, homeless, the tests and the amount of energy, time, and money being spent on them make little sense. Our children are not stupid. We tell them that if they do well on these tests, graduate from high school, go to college, then they will be able to live the American dream. Hmmmm . . . . since I’ve been here on this planet, in this American “dream”, we have had political leaders assassinated, gone to war in Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan – all wars which many would argue we did not and can never win, witnessed the sociopathic shenanigans of the money mongers at Enron and various Wall Street offices play loose with the money of hardworking Americans (some of them those “failing” teachers), watched and worried as our schools and college campuses become more and more violent and unsafe, listened to inane arguments by our politicians who go back and forth about health care reform when it has degenerated into a lousy insurance adjustment package and the uninsured remain uninsured, and the list goes on. Our corporations have more human rights now than the citizens of this country. What American dream? I have friends with multiple master’s degrees who cannot make a living wage. And we want our children to pass standardized tests with glowing scores why?

We are having the wrong conversation. We need to begin talking about how our education, health, and commerce systems can begin serving people, especially our children. We need to begin having discussions about how to nurture and protect our most precious responsibility – our children. We need to begin talking about how to trust that our children are inherently gifted, talented, intelligent, and curious in a thousand different ways and how to begin tapping into all of their potential.

Teachers can only do what they are given the room to do. There is little money in schools and teaching. Children come to school abused, hungry, dirty, smelling, tired, thirsty, anxious, afraid, depressed, or just plain bored. They are made to sit in their seats hour after hour in overcrowded classrooms having subjects that someone way up high, far, far away from the classroom decided these children needed to learn. Do not tell me that failing teachers are the key to our education system’s failure nor their firing the key to our education system’s success. There are a few, a very few, mind you, teachers who should not be teaching. But to say that these teachers are to blame for a failing system is a simplistic argument that holds absolutely no water. Do not insult my intelligence or the intelligence of the thousands of dedicated teachers in this country who work in the classrooms of America which are a microcosm of our American culture. Do not lay the blame for a failing system at the feet of those who come into teaching because they believe they can change the very society that points the finger at them.

I am an excellent teacher. My students fail the standardized tests regularly. I have not failed them. The system has failed them, and our society has failed them. I will absolutely not take on that responsibility and don’t you dare lay it at my feet.

Go to Schooling of Imagination


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