Public school teachers as a group are under fire. In fact, I’d venture to say that most who go into teaching today do so because they feel a calling, much like priests. Teachers in the sixth grade and on up have been affected by the testing environment brought on by the “No Child Left Behind” philosophy. This bit of un-funded legislation is well intentioned; it seeks to level the playing field between socio-economic classes in the United States. Standardized tests are easy to implement, cheaper than other methods of assessment and the results are immediately available. This mostly makes them attractive to politicians, who can flaunt the statistics at campaign time. The numbers never lie, but people often use those numbers to throw smokescreens at the general population to manipulate votes.
Laypeople like the tests because it’s a yes/no dichotomy, one which requires little thought or knowledge of a system that might have failed them too. In short, a quantitative, numbers-driven judgment is passed on a qualitative, human environment. Standardized tests are useful as one point of comparison, but one must triangulate data (that is to use three different means of measurement) for the assessment to be valid and reliable. Schools used to collect data from teacher and administrative evaluations as well. Not anymore. In colleges and universities, I have often been evaluated by my students. They are invited to formally and informally have input into instruction. As nerve-wracking as that can be, it stands to reason that if you’ve done a good job, students will know it. Questions on student evaluations are rarely gear towards whether or not the teacher was pleasant or amusing. I have never feared student evaluations; mine have always been overwhelmingly positive. What written comments I get, I take to heart. In addition, I ask for students to give me input at the end of every instructional unit, that I might take their input and make my curriculum and approach better. My colleagues sometimes come to observe my classes and student-teachers show up as well.
When I am peer-reviewed, that is to say that when a co-worker comes to watch me teach, look at my lesson plans and ask me about my practice, it’s always been a pleasant and constructive opportunity. We sit and talk and figure out where I am hitting the mark and where I might improve. Where else can I get great input from someone who does what I do, who has great ideas and knows where I am going with a particular lecture? Wouldn’t it be great if peer-evaluation were one way to assess teachers? But no, in public school, it all rests on the test.
If your school passes the tests, everything is fine. If not, your school goes on probation with the threat of losing funding. Probably a teacher will be made accountable, which is code for “gets fired”. What I hear from my counterparts in public school is that they spend an enormous amount of time and psychic energy preparing for the tests. For weeks at semester break and at the end of the year, life revolves around testing, P.A.S.S. objectives and the all important EOI’s, the “end of instruction” tests.
My 20-year high school reunion is this summer. I went to primary and secondary school a long time ago. I remember school. I loved kindergarten and couldn’t wait to be like my older sisters who left every day with their Trapper Keepers and back packs. I took a metal lunch box with me every day those first few years. I was in California until second grade, and my lunchbox was CHiPs themed. CHiPs stands for California Highway Patrol and Erik Estrada was a sexy, sexy law-enforcing man. School was fun and we read stories and grew bean plants and sang “This Land Is Your Land” every day. Even in fourth grade, when we took turns going up to the front of the class to repeat our times tables for the teacher, one-on-one, the pressure wasn’t in whether or not I’d pass but hoping that Mrs. Nelson would be proud of me and if she would tell me that I did a good job. In sixth grade, Mrs. Wyatt gave us penmanship tests every week, and whoever did the best got their name on the board and a color-coded felt star to keep. Red was for first place, purple for second and I think orange for third. I won second place one week and had to try hard to just attain that.
After I moved away, Mrs. Wyatt and I continued to write letters to each other, in long hand and in cursive. Eventually, she was my niece’s sixth grade teacher and I am thankful for the education provided for such a great kid. I think all kids need teachers who care for them and hold them to higher standards, who demonstrate that teaching goes beyond the classroom.
We moved a lot, so when I landed in a school that I did not appreciate, I didn’t bother to make many friends and junior high school hit me like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, amidst acne and expanding hips, I learned to change classrooms and deal with other adolescents as well as mastering algebra. My family ended up staying in that small town and it’s from that high school that I graduated.
But you know what? We only took one standardized test per year and that didn’t start until junior high. One bubble test a year and nobody spent any time preparing us, past showing us how to fill in the bubbles properly. So how did anyone know we were competent to graduate from high school?
Our teachers evaluated us. They knew who did their homework. They asked questions in class and interacted with us. They gave quizzes and asked us to make speeches and in my typing class, we typed. In English class we read and in government class we memorized the Constitution and the amendments and talked about what democracy means. In short, they freakin’ paid attention and the administration trusted their judgment.
I see my high school self from a teacher’s point of view. I was curvy and soft before the other girls and grew into a big-boned girl with fuzzy yellow hair. Other students had shiny hair, Walkmans (give me a break, it was the 80’s) and stick figures. I avoided cheerleaders, jocks and other popular kids, often eating lunch off campus at home. I had trouble looking teachers in the eye and strove to stay in the middle of the pack, where I would most likely to be missed. I was steadfastly average in my school work- except English- and exhibited no behavioral problems. Even in a small school, I became a ghost, missing all ten of the allowed absences each semester. As far as I could tell, only a few of my teachers even noticed and seemed not to worry because they knew that I was at home, reading voraciously beyond what the students in school were doing. I was the kind of kid I look for now in the crowd; I can pick her or him out from a hundred faces- teetering on the brink- unknowing even of what they need. That face, that look of defeat mixed with intelligence. It pokes something in my liver and I either have to approach that student and do my best- change my policies, adjust lesson plans- whatever it takes to reach out.
I probably learned the most useful real-life skills in my Agriculture class. I learned about the cuts of meat, extemporaneous speaking, crops identification and judging, and all about primary and secondary noxious weeds. I even learned to weld, as painful and exciting as it was to wear a helmet and heavy gloves and melt things together. It was science and fireworks and practical experience all rolled into one. I once wore a v-neck shirt and got slag burns in what would become my cleavage. Ask me sometime and I’ll show them to you.
Junior year my business teacher, Mr. Moore, urged me to run for Vice President of the Washington State Future Business Leaders of America. And I won. Mr. Moore seemed to see me. He cared enough to help me find some success in school, taught me typing, business writing and extemporaneous speaking. At the end of my senior year, he drove to Spokane to attend the final awards ceremony and stood in as my dad. How do you assess a teacher for teaching that way? How do you assess what I learned? Nobody looked at my English scores and compared my comprehension level to that of students in Vermont or South Carolina—I had read at a college level in 7th grade. Nobody filled in a bubble when I hit 65 words per minute on the electric typewriter. My school and our scores had little to do with schools in other geographic areas.
My education had some holes in it, so please do not think I lived a pastoral educational experience. I didn’t learn how to do any algebra, geometry or chemistry until I went to college. Initially, college wasn’t an option because I was really poor. Most people went from high school into the work force, either because they had jobs waiting for them or because it wasn’t encouraged in our culture. During our one and only meeting just before I graduated, my high school guidance counselor suggested I take secretarial courses at the local community college. We just couldn’t figure out how I was going to pay for everything.
Don’t worry, even though I took a single freshman chemistry class in high school, and with little foundation in math and sciences, I taught organic chemistry for awhile as a TA at Oklahoma State University. I have made a career of teaching composition, so not all is lost forever. I have degrees in English and biology and am almost done with my doctorate in English Education.
Testing the ever-loving shit out of students is stressing everyone out. It is not helping at all. The stress trickles down from the state to the school district. Administrators must hit their marks. Teachers must hit their numbers too, lest they be taken out and hanged or made to wear a scarlet A, B, C, or D- or all of the above. Children are the other victims of this cycle. Time that should be used for instruction, listening, talking and interacting with students is instead devoted to test taking classes and practice exams, and occasionally, the shame of encouraging those who might drag down scores to be absent on test day. What are we demonstrating when the results of a test taken at the behest of the all-powerful government takes precedence over teaching?
My school probably would have passed the tests. But who cares, and what do those tests show? They sure didn’t tell the story of the students who went there. Me, I was what you might call a marginal student. I didn’t make waves, I rode them. I worked in the main office and was a teacher’s aide. I was in the agriculture club, the business club, the homemakers club (try not to scoff) and participated in the annual musical theater production. Pretty unremarkable, since everyone else did the same activities. In fact, when I skip my 20 year reunion this year, I bet it won’t be much noticed, even though there were only 56 people in our graduating class. I already keep in touch with a few old friends and that’s enough for me.
No, it was the teachers who cared about me, about us, who made a difference. The Mr. Moores. And now we don’t believe them when they talk. In Oklahoma teachers don’t want to stay because moving across the border into Texas means an automatic $10,000/yr pay raise. It’s more for other states. The same degrees are required, plus a demand (unfunded, of course) for professional development every year, the same standards placed on doctors, lawyers and accountants. Only we work with children and get paid less than those other professions. And we get less respect from other adults.
Whenever I meet new people and tell them that I teach English, I get one of two reactions. The first reaction is one of gushing approval, as I am somehow credited with saving the English language from the destruction of slang, and by extension, saving America from the erosion of a dynamic and expanding lexicon. This is usually accompanied by an impromptu hug or “I loved my high school English teacher!” The other reaction is fear: they suspect that I will reach into a pocket of an imaginary wizard robe and pull out a red pen-wand and publicly humiliate them by correcting grammar. For the record, I have never done that. This reaction includes the person stepping back ever so slightly or rocking onto the balls of their feet in case they need to turn and run, and putting their hands in a defensive posture, palms out, with a nervous half smile, half grimace on their faces.
National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie grew up on a reservation about 75 miles from where I graduated from high school. He told me that when he came home to visit from college, his friends would ask about his experiences and sometimes say “So you think you’re better than us?” “Yeah,” he would mutter, “Literacy does that for me.” Because language- and by extension, education- is used to both free people and to oppress them. Often students have little choice between freedom and oppression. The educational system does a lot of the choosing for them. What educational system they fall into is usually dictated by what neighborhood they grow up in. That neighborhood depends on how much money their parents make. Do we ever wonder why there are so few rich people in prisons and why so many incarcerated people can neither read nor write? Maybe we should wonder.
How do you assess the people who educated me? How do you figure out whether the teacher who changed the English curriculum at the high school because he knew I’d already read my sister’s books was good or evil? What is more important, the proud scars I carry on my chest from slag burns when I learned to weld, or the percentage I make on a standardized test? I can tell you which one stayed with me. Here’s the biggest question of all: Why would good, competent and professional people ever get into education the way it’s going now? Here is my answer: as long as we continue to gut the educational system, good teachers will continue to leave or choose other career paths. Our citizenry will be less educated and less democratic. It’s not too late. We can make teaching a real profession again in the United States. I’m a long ways from a little girl with a CHiP’s lunchbox or a disengaged high school student who didn’t know she was looking for someone to be her dad. I’m defending my doctoral dissertation in October. Some great Oklahoma teachers and I want to do our jobs, and we want to keep our eyes on the most important part, the part outside of the bubble: the students.
Our new contributor Antoinette Dieu is a teacher living in Oklahoma City.