Lost in the Woods

In the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel the two children are left in the forest, and when adventuring deeper into the woods, they leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind to find their way back.  Of course, what they don’t realize is that the birds will come and eat the breadcrumbs and their fate with the wicked witch is secured.  When they come upon the beautiful cottage of cake and confectionary, they are drawn in…unaware of the child-eating witch inside…



I was talking with a first grade teacher in our weekly consult the other day and I started our conversation asking her how things were going.  She paused, looked at me with great intensity and replied, “I know what I am doing when I am not using a program.” 

I was stunned and awed by the beauty and sadness of her confession.  I asked her if I could write it down.  Tears came to her eyes as she went on to say that after teaching for more than 30 years she felt as though she was losing her heart.  She even admitted it would be so much easier to just turn the page and do the next required lesson, but she was trying to do both.  Suddenly an image of a tightrope walker flashed in my head.  She was teetering on the edge, stepping lightly to try to find balance on a very thin rope where there is little balance to be found.  How does one teach from a program while trying to maintain what they know is good teaching? How does one teach when they know what is good for their students and maintain the rigorous lesson plans that must be checked off day after day?  How does one survive when they know, dare I say, too much? 

Our conversation went further as we reminisced in the “good ole days” of teaching when you were allowed to “think” as a professional, access and embrace one’s own creativity and ideas to problem solve to best meet the INDIVIDUAL needs of each and every student.  She lamented and her eyes turned downward as she talked about how she had not done one creative thing with her first graders all year and here we were half way through October.  She said she was trying to be a team player and do what was expected of her and even said that she had learned from investigating the many new programs, but still there was a great sadness there, an utter lack of joy. 

Her soulfulness is threatened as she runs through her day checking things off her list to be done.  She is lost in a sea of busyness and she knows she is drowning but she is still not sure what to do.  She does not want to be like some of the other teachers in her school who simply refuse to consider new ideas or programs.  She wants to be supportive on her new principal and his efforts to improve test scores.  In short, she wants to do it all…but I question…is this even possible?

In the past 5 years there has been a major shift in my conversations with teachers.  When I sat down recently with a wonderfully talented kindergarten teacher and asked her how she was and what she was thinking, she simply started listing off her list of what she was “doing”.  She was “doing” CAFÉ.  She was “DOING” Math Escapades, she was “doing”, “doing”, and “doing” and all with the very best intentions. 

This teacher is smart.  I was instantly drawn to her energy and her sense of herself as an educator, but it was this conversation about “doing” that made me realize that this is how most of my conversations today with teachers begin.  5 years ago, all of my conversations with teachers started differently and I never knew where we might go.  No longer do I hear about the struggling writer, or a great reader who doesn’t engage in challenging material.  Very rarely do the words, thinking, learning, teaching, or children enter into our conversations. 

We talk acronyms such as RTI and Leveled readers, and Dibles, but nobody is talking about the children, kids, teenagers, and adolescents, people.   It hit me then.  In our effort to “Leave no child behind” we have left them all behind.  We no longer keep every child in mind, as we are all preoccupied with what we have to do next, and what we are DOING to get everything done on the list.  The list that will ensure that our little robot children will perform, as we need them to on the test.  We have replaced our thinking about children with thinking about programs.  We are lost.  And as that first grade teacher said “I am losing my heart”.

So without any breadcrumbs to find our way back, what can we do?  Who will rescue us?  Certainly not the Common Core.  But, in Hansel and Gretel’s story, it is the children themselves who outwit the witch and create their own freedom.  And I do believe that if we give ourselves the luxury of time to reflect on our teaching and begin to uncover what really matters, then we too, as a profession and as a system can find our way out of the woods.

 “The ungodly witch to be burned to ashes





12 thoughts on “Lost in the Woods

  1. “It hit me then. In our effort to “Leave no child behind” we have left them all behind.” Tomasen, my wise friend, I think you have figured it out! You are right!

  2. Tomasen

    This is brilliant and I have goosebumps! I was just at NCTE and after sitting through one very well-attended presentation about assessment and common core, I had to spend the next 2 hours in my room, trying to stop my body from shaking. I cried and felt helpless. You’re giving me some strength! I will absolutely share this. I’d like to blow it up and post it on a billboard!


    • Your article is reminding me of a boy I worked with for about 2 years when I was a tutor. He was struggling and was assessed as “below grade level” on reading. I realized a big part of my job as a tutor was to make sure he didn’t get totally turned off of reading and that his self-esteem and confidence stayed intact while we practiced skills in a way that was fun…without a lot of pressure! This was back when teachers were able to support this approach and they were able to be flexible with him. Then, in third grade, his reading skills took off and he was suddenly well above his “grade level” in reading. I would like to say I discovered a magic “system” or “program” that worked for him and we should use it on all kids. But I know that isn’t the truth! What worked was support, patience and the flexibility to meet his needs as an individual while he slowly grew into the amazing reader he was ready to be. Every child I worked with taught me that there was no “cookie cutter” approach for teaching as nice as that would be! What worked well in my experience was support for the students, support for the teachers and flexibility to accommodate each individual.
      No more broken hearts! Keep writing Tomasen!

      • Kirsten,
        You were so amazing with those kids!! I love how clearly you remember them in their struggles as well as their triumphs!! I agree…no more broken hearts!!
        Thanks for writing! It means more than you know to have your feedback and well…I plan to keep writing!!

    • Renee,
      Goosebumps? Yay!! Mission accomplished. I was sorry to miss NCTE this year…it has been one of those years!! But then again, based on some of the feedback perhaps I am not so upset I missed it!! Feel fre to blow up and post anywhere you see fit! The same to you and your blog!!
      Thanks so much for your readership and thoughtful responses! I feel like we know each other so well…even though we have never met in person!!

  3. Tomasen,
    This blog really moved me…I’ve tried several times to respond in a thoughtful manner, but I don’t have the words yet.
    All I know is that the kids did eventually conquer the witch and make their way out of the forest. It can’t have been easy….All must have seemed hopeless for a while….

  4. Tomasen,
    Your story was absolutely superb. It reflected what I think most of the time. Why are competencies more important than the student we are working with? Unfortunately as those of us who are older retire, I worry that the joys that were once a part of teaching will disappear!

    • Maureen,
      I have those scary thoughts when I go to bed each night! What will happen when those of us who taught with a sense of freedom are gone? My thoughts are that the kids will have an uprising…but honestly…I don’t know anymore!!
      Thanks for reading and responding!

  5. And I thought it was just me! As a retired primary teacher, I sub in an “underperforming” school district that is hell bent on raising test scores. I am deeply shocked and saddened to see so many mandated programs, assessments and standardized routines implemented that the joy of teaching and learning is being shoved quietly out the door. One K-5 school even culled its school library collection to a few cases of levelved books aligned to Accelerated Reader. The witch is busy, but this can’t last. Teachers and students will rise against her draconian practices. So glad I found this community of child and literacy advocates.

    • Hello Linda and Welcome!!
      I agree that it is only a matter of time before we all realize that the system itself is not working for so many involved in it. I was even told at a meeting at my son’s high school that what was happening with him was a “systems’ failure”. WHAT kind of excuse is that? And if that is the case then what can we do to fix it? We need action not just an identification of the problems and that is what I am trying to figure out here on this blog and hopefully with the help of others like you!
      Thanks for joining in on the conversation! Hope to “see” you here again soon.

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