About a month ago, I began writing what I felt like might manifest itself into a book. I was working on a book about teaching skills through literature. I had been encouraged by my dad, husband, and principal to attempt this. So I began. Chapter 1 that I posted last week was actually my introduction. I was prepared to post Chapter 2 this week. The following words you read are part of what I wrote for chapter 2…but then something happened. I got a call from Mississippi. There was a discussion about standardized test scores. A discussion I cannot divulge, but can say that rage kicked in. Steam blew from both ears and my face turned red hot. Not because I’m above failure….but because I’m perceived a failure because of how a child bubbled in a standardized test. Granted, I do not know my individual students’ scores, there was still an overall tone of displeasure within the conversation. So please forgive this post….it’s a bit longwinded and a bit sporadic with staying on topic. I revisited my draft of Chapter 2 and vented. This is a teacher’s rage.
“It is very risky. But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere.” ― Lois Lowry
From very early on, even my first year of teaching, my idealism was never outweighed by the realities of my profession. I won’t say I have always been an expert teacher. I’m not an expert now, either. I have made many blunders in the classroom. But I can say with every ounce of confidence in my bones, that I have always seen the big picture of what I wanted my students to walk away with. I have never felt overwhelmed with the tasks of school paperwork or making sure our test scores result in perceptions of intelligence, simply because my main objective as a teacher is to teach. Novel concept, huh? In fact, I was such an idealist and naïve beginner that I didn’t even know about state standardized tests. I taught for the pure joy of passing on knowledge to a child. In today’s educational culture, red tape and test scores are the name of the game, though. From my experience, however, building a love of learning accomplishes much more than checking items off of the state frameworks list. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are years where “my” test scores were less than what my principal probably wanted. There have been years where there just weren’t enough “advanced’ students on my list when the scores were calculated. But I refer back to a post I wrote once. I see with my eyes and hear with my ears on a daily basis what these students have within them. It is such a grave injustice that our educational policies force negative perceptions on these students, schools, and teachers for less than great test scores.
My first teaching experience was in Los Angeles, California. I was unaware and bewildered by my new surroundings. I was a small town girl who had moved to the big city. I was terrified. I was given a position in sixth grade language arts. Both of my student teaching experiences were in lower grades, and certainly did not prepare me for what I imagined to be a huge city school with drugs and gangs. Were these things prevalent? I don’t know. I just perceived them to be, because of my insecurities and fear. Even through the midst of this fear, I was excited and anxious to get started. I knew immediately that I needed to create an experience for my students. Every school is going to have their own ways of accomplishing the same goals. Every school will have their own programs and curriculum ideas. As a teacher, though, we ultimately have the power to determine how our children receive the message. This is what I loved about teaching, when I first began. Having that feeling that you are integral to the academic, social, and emotional advancement of the crowd in front of you every day. It can be overwhelming or it can be exhilarating.
I began that summer pouring over the language arts text book. I read each story and made many notes. I began feeling quite overwhelmed seeing all I needed to teach. So rather than creating a checklist of skills I needed to teach, I began looking at what life lessons do I want my students to get. I began diving into and researching particular themes that would lend themselves to the emotional aspects for middle school children. I certainly did not start my teaching career as progressive and effective as my most recent year of teaching. It was by accident really, that I discovered that my love of sharing great literature could benefit my delivery of instruction. By my third year of teaching in California, I had moved from language arts to ancient civilizations. This was a milestone year for me, because I learned through teaching a subject not particularly inundated with literature, that literature could be added to create a better experience. So the summer prior to teaching ancient civilizations I created a calendar. It was a calendar of all the literature that would accompany my historical topics. We started with, of course, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, moved into They Egypt Game, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and many Greek and Roman myths. By the end of the year, I had an experience that turned a light bulb on for me. A parent requested a conference. As I gathered my things after school to meet with her, I was prepared. I had her child’s grades and portfolio of work from the year. I was sure this parent wanted to speak to me about their academic progress during the year. What I found at that conference was not merely insightful, but poignant to the remainder of my teaching career. She walked into my classroom, sat at my small round conference table, and looked at me with a somewhat confused look. After our cordial greetings and small talk, she revealed to me why she had requested the meeting. She looked at me with such heartfelt sincerity and said, “Mrs. DuBose, I have never met a history teacher that reads so much to her students.” She then went on to explain that her child had become a reader because of a history class. She called the meeting to thank me, but it was I who thanked her. I thanked her for sharing with me an aspect of my work with children that actually worked. Her child did not make straight A’s. Her child didn’t perform particularly well on tests. But her child had become a reader. That was it for me. Once a teacher feels the fruits of her labor taking root and blooming, there is no stopping her. From that year on, I have taught my skills, whatever subject I was appointed, through literature.
If I were to tell you that every skill on your state frameworks can be taught through a connected yearlong study of great literature, would you believe me? Some would, but there are usually more critics and pessimists than idealists. There will always be excuses, critics, and pessimists. A teacher might say that their principal makes them use a textbook and stick to it. Other excuses may be that there is a curriculum guideline to stick to. And of course, some of those excuses might just have something to do with needing to teach test prep to ensure better test scores than last year. Disgusting! It infuriates me to know that there are schools and teachers feeling less than valued, less than appreciated, and less than effective because they didn’t produce the right number. Good teachers are going to leave the profession. Our children need teachers who are willing to forget what the state department says about “quality education.” Harder said than done, right? It can be done though. Here’s the catch though. You have to jump on the bandwagon of idealism, and you have to love what you do.. You can’t pretend. Children see through that. Students need to leave for the summer seeing that each book read was a piece to a puzzle that led to the overall picture. Each day in your class should reveal a bit more along the path. That’s how you’ll see their light bulbs turn on. That’s when you’ll find a ha moments. That’s where you’ll see children become immersed in what they are learning. Our students’ academic experience doesn’t have to be simply learning the list of items we are instructed to teach them. Their school years do not have to be filled with just facts and statistics. When a person can walk away from an experience having had an emotional connection of some sort, doesn’t that make for better learning? I can tell you what an emotional experience encourages. It encourages students to independently search for more. Students will leave your class, wanting mom or dad to drive them to Barnes and Noble to get a book that is similar to the one their teacher talked about and cried over. It will encourage them to go home and Google a YouTube video of the famous baseball sketch “Who’s on First” because their teacher read a funny story about Abbot and Costello. Think back to your years as a student. There are years we remember, years we don’t, and years we wish we could forget. Don’t we, as teachers, want our students to remember us? Don’t we all aspire to leave our students with knowledge and inspiration they can use throughout their lives? That’s why we teach. At least, that’s why we should teach.
My most recent year of teaching was a year where I felt most rewarded. It was such a rewarding year because I saw clearly that my students were becoming immersed in a world of books. They were loving literature. They were discussing highly advanced topics with me on a daily basis, they were growing academically right before my eyes in such a profound way. They were motivated and motivating. They were inspired and inspiring. As a team, my partner and I were amazed at the progress our students were showing us. Honestly, my team teacher and I were blown away some days by the intellect our students showed. But guess what? Our test scores would lead an outsider to think either we didn’t do our job as teacher, or that the students were not capable of learning what we “tried” to teach them. Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not teaching next year. Because honestly, if I had to teach after hearing that what I felt was my most effective year yet was less than acceptable, I just might feel a bit defeated. That’s what will happen to great teachers. Eventually our public schools will be left with only a handful of dedicated passionate teachers with hearts full of spunk to pass on to children, DESPITE what the state tests say. But there will be a great number of teachers who opt out. Feeling defeated, overwhelmed, confused, mad, and sad, these teachers who have so much heart, will opt out. Shame on our government. Shame!
My own daughter, entering into second grade, reminds me daily that numbers placed on children are not only unfair, but also insulting. My child doesn’t score as high as her peers. I know this only because I was a teacher inside her school and was privy to this information. Her scores, if I were to take them into account, would indicate that she might even have a slight learning disability. But I have seen her every day this summer sit on her bed for hours reading books to herself, laughing at the funny parts, understanding them. These aren’t first grade level books either. So am I going to believe a number or am I going to trust what I see? I am grateful for teachers like Mrs. Williams, who taught Emerson based on what she believed she could do rather than what the numbers said on MAP tests. I am grateful that my daughter had a teacher who pushed her based on her potential, and nurtured that love of reading.
That’s the problem with standardized tests. Parents, district staff, interventionists, new prospects researching schools for their children, and yes even principals do not see what teachers see. The teacher has the ultimate honor of seeing and hearing and KNOWING her students. I’ve been apart of four schools over the span of 12 years. Out of those schools, I have honestly only seen maybe three teachers that weren’t there for the right reasons. Most teachers are HIGHLY effective and COMPLETELY dedicated to ensuring that their students walk away with a positive experience and with more academic knowledge. How insulting to throw a number on a website or a newspaper to associate a school with a grade, or a teacher with a grade for her efforts. How absolutely, unequivocally, downright disgusting. I walked into my beloved school every day feeling blessed to be apart of a staff who loved learning and loved children even more. I saw daily adults who nurtured children, pushed children to reach their potential, protected children from harm, cried with children over heartaches, laughed with children over joys, played kickball with them on the recess field, and taught their hearts out to ensure that those precious children would become world changers.
Can you tell I’m mad? I’m mad! And all teachers should be. Not just the teachers who “scored low” but every teacher in every public school in America. Unless teachers stand up and fight, there will be no change. What if every teacher, in every public school, in every city, in every state wrote or called their local representatives? What if we were heard? What if something changed… for the better? What if?
Teachers are feeling defeated, and children are feeling anxious for all the wrong reasons. Personally, I may just have to keep my own children home this school year during state testing. What are we teaching anyone if we don’t take a stand? Every year during state tests, I think how great it would be if every parent kept their child home that day. Our children are not numbers. Our teachers are not numbers. We are heart and soul. That should be protected!
It’s summer. State testing is a long way off… but let’s start thinking about it now! Teachers, go get “em! Take your passion and teach your hearts out this year. I love you ALL, even those of you I don’t know. You are who determine how our children receive the message.