The Face and Faces of Education: Surviving and Changing the Current Climate

I have the best job in the world.  But I fear it is a dying field.  I work in professional development as a field coordinator for Learning Through Teaching.  Learning Through Teaching is just that.  It is embedded professional development where we, the consultants from the University of New Hampshire English Department, go out into the schools and hold graduate course on site for teachers in literacy K-12.   What makes this model unique is that time is also spent in classrooms with teachers practicing the theory we are reading and learning about in class.  I model lessons, mentor, facilitate, coach, guide, consult with and observe teachers.  It is connected.  It makes sense.  I first learned about LTT as a student where I was enamored by the professional discussions and the Socratic method of discourse that allows teachers a safe place to talk about their practice in terms of what works, what doesn’t and what else might be considered.  The basic premise is that we are always learning and as professionals we are learning “through” our teaching, reflection, collaboration and revising that thinking as we go.  See here for more information on LTT:  (http://www.learn.unh.edu/pcw/Custom/LLT.php.html).

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Talented Teachers attending UNH Summer Literacy Institues, many of whom have also participated in Learning Through Teaching.

The teachers who sign up for my graduate courses are the teachers you want teaching your kids.  They are the teachers I want teaching my kids.  They are committed.  They sign up for a course after school because they want more.  They are thoughtful, inquisitive, life-long learners interested in creating that same love of learning in their students.  They are always reflecting on their practices and going to bed at night thinking about this one student who they just can’t seem to reach.  They wake up and shower thinking about what their day will be and who they might connect with that day.  They drive to work with lesson plans dancing in their heads and excitement about how it may or may not go.  They honor the passion, beauty and joy of their students and are always curious to see what they can try next.  Today, they are also often the most beaten down in our profession.

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Teacher professionals gather at my home for the latest model of LTT where teachers read a professional book a month and meet to discuss the book, do some writing and sharing of thoughts ideas and writing. Here teachers participate in a writing exercise on character through dramatic props.

These same teachers leave my classes discouraged because they have become powerless over how to teach.  We read these incredible books and while they are excited about the reading and the pedagogy many are not allowed to practice such good teaching in their schools.  Why?

Schools are investing their money in large scripted programs instead of professional development.  Programs that require teachers to not only cover a certain amount of pages in their handbook on a given day via a new invention called a pacing guide, but also to read directly from the scripts that are provided to them.   Essentially teachers are “trained” in these programs and often the goal is to maintain “fidelity” to these programs.  Think of the implications of the words fidelity and training.   To “not” follow these programs means you are a cheating, disloyal teacher who has not followed your precise training.  Training is for dogs and fidelity is for marriage.  When in the world did the idea of marrying a program become a good one?

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And as a former member of our local cooperative school board I am amazed that we do not “think” about where all of our tax dollars are going.  The number one item on any local budget is that of salaries and yet at the same time we take away the authority of the teachers  to use what they know and replace it with programs that anyone off the street could administer.  On the one hand we trust our teachers to pay them salaries (yes, also another issue I will not get into here in terms of fair and equal pay) while on the other hand we tell them they are not worthy of decision-making, furthering their professional development and empowering and trusting them to do what is right for their students.   Research tells us again and again that the most powerful indicator of student success is the teacher.  Take away the “teacher” in the person in front of the room and all you have is a loyal robot spitting out information.  If this is the wave of the future then why even have teachers?  Why?  Because good teachers change lives.  Robots and scripts never will.

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And now if you can’t even read a script..here is a book to tell you how to do that!! What messages are there here?

“I can’t do this anymore” shouts long time friend and colleague Laura. Laura and I team-taught in a time when teachers were valued as professionals, respected and encouraged to do what was best for students.  Laura is one of the most gifted teachers I know.  She has her Masters in Reading as well as her CAGS (Certificate of Graduate Studies) in literacy.  She has been in education for 24 years.  And yet even in her own district she is not being consulted on what it is that might be best for students in the teaching of literacy.  Instead, those who are not even in classrooms, have never taught and whose only degrees are in administration are making decisions about instruction and are easily wooed by the various and sundry of publishing companies that are selling their wares door to door claiming to be the “magic bullet” sure to create students with higher test scores.  So many decisions are being made hastily out of fear instead of thinking about what is sound instruction.

And Laura is not alone.  I even find myself contemplating another professional life as I see my work and the purpose of my work becoming less and less applicable.  What good is nurturing thoughtful, reflective practitioners if there is no place for them to practice?  The frustration of so many is palpable and I can guarantee you that our kids are also feeling that frustration.

The lateral moves across districts and the adoption of mass programs puts teachers in a position where they must comply or beware.  This in turn trickles down to the students where all we are asking of them is compliance. What is missing in this top down mandated situation is thinking.

John Dewey wrote, ““Anyone who has begun to think, places some part of the world in jeopardy.”

There is a population of reformers out there who know this! Thinking requires questioning, reflection, and perhaps even going against “the man”.  But who is “the man” out there trying to keep us all from thinking and what is the end game?  The more I read the more I believe it is the privatization of education for profit.  A recent article in Salon reads,  “Getting Rich off Schoolchildren, Stop pretending wealthy CEO’s pushing for charter schools are altruistic “reformers”, they are taking in billions.”  See this article for more in depth conversation about what this might mean. http://www.salon.com/2013/03/11/getting_rich_off_of_schoolchildren/

And in turn, the de-professionalization of teachers and lack of funds for their development only creates stressed out, weary, disconnected souls wandering the halls rapidly trying to do everything that is expected of them.  By nature I really believe that a majority of those who go into teaching are rule followers.  They want to do the best job they can.  But with so many changes happening daily they are getting worn down to the point where they are saying, “Just tell me what to do, how to do it, and I will get it done.”

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Vicki Vinton

But how long can one survive knowing there are other ways? And what will happen when the history of good teaching disappears with those who have lived through it and all we have left are teachers “trained” in programs?   When will we pay attention to those we have hired and care for them in a way that will allow them to care for our kids in the classroom?  (For examples of the “kind” of teaching I am referring to see Vicki Vinton’s blog, To Make a Prairie to see how rich teaching can be at http://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com/

Vinton beautifully demonstrates over and over again how to teach within the CCSS in a holistic, non-scripted, responsive workshop setting that fosters great thinking communities.

There is a storm a brewin’ folks, and with so much to keep up on in our world, I worry that education has yet to see it darkest days…

Our conversations need to be about instruction, curriculum, students, and community and away from this obsession with assessment, data and evaluation as it is making cheaters and liars of us all! We need to allow our teachers to teach, make decisions and allow them to do what we hired them to do…TEACH our children!!

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3 thoughts on “The Face and Faces of Education: Surviving and Changing the Current Climate

  1. This piece speaks to me on so many levels. I have spoken to colleagues, friends and relatives several times recently about how the passion and joy have been stripped from teaching and how incredibly difficult it is to stay enthusiastic in a classroom where teachers are not trusted to know their job and do it well. Imagine if we handed doctors, lawyers, and even police officers scripted programs and told them all to forget their training and just do and say what the manual says to do. It is not only absurd that we are been handed scripts after years of training and experience, but this ignorant push will undoubtedly destroy passion, depth of knowledge, risk taking, and creativity in ALL of our schools. Time to look for something else to devote my life to I guess…

  2. I am at the beginning of my teaching career, yet we are so aware of all the various tools we need to become effective teachers. It will take years to develop into the teacher I want to be. I don’t know how it is in American schools, but here in the UK our government is pushing for some serious reforms that are putting a lot of teachers in danger. Teaching is hard as it is; but now it’s becoming almost impossible. I just hope people in our profession find a way of coping against it all.

    • There are many reforms happening here in the US that are putting students, teachers and entire school districts in danger. So much emphasis on testing and so little on professional development of teachers, the arts and anything else that cannot be “measured”. I have the greatest respect for you in your “newness” and hope that you will continue to do what you know is right for your students. This is the one way we can and will survive! Hang in there and thanks for reading!
      Tomasen

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