On June 5, 2012 PBS Newshour aired a segment titled Are Teachers Too Easily Caught in the Crossfire Over Student Achievement? One of my Facebook friends posted the transcript and it got me thinking about the changing face of education and the implications for teachers.Education and politics seem to be forever linked together, however, I am going to attempt to discuss my feelings regarding education without the involvement of politics. Lofty goal? Perhaps.
I guess that leads me to wonder about the involvement of politicians in education. I know that I wouldn’t want to be a politician and I am guessing that most politicians would rather not be teachers. But I’ll leave that for another post.
Teachers are increasingly expected to do more with less. We are expected to teach with less planning time, more students, few (or no) teacher aids and increasing standards. We work with students in crisis who, understandably take time and energy away from other students, because there is less mental health staff. We have always had to teach students who didn’t get enough to eat (although with the economy those numbers are increasing), didn’t have the proper clothing for the weather and parents who, for whatever reason, don’t parent effectively.
Expectations of student achievement are increasing at a scary rate and for many students there is no motivation to learn. This is important, so I’ll repeat – for many students there is no motivation to learn. I’m not sure why that is the case, but it is what I see.
I work with students with Mild to Moderate Special Needs. These are the kids that typically have learning disabilities (generally in reading – but not always). Many of them appear to be typical teenagers except when you have them read or write. A large portion of them have NEVER picked up a book to read for enjoyment. Or a magazine. The enjoyment portion of learning has been sucked out of them. Many of them are good kids and come to school because it is required of them. But they aren’t really engaged.
Why aren’t they engaged? I have no research on this topic, but I suspect it is because we have reduced their education to drills to help them improve their test taking skills and reading abilities. We are not able to individualize their education by focusing on their strengths, weaknesses and interests. So, they do not have any motivation to learn.
For example, let’s say we have a student who is interested in cooking. This student has difficulties understanding what they read and with writing. This student cares about cooking and wants to learn. Why can’t we connect his learning to cooking? We can’t because cooking isn’t on standardized tests. We can’t because we don’t have the resources to individualize this student’s education.
However, let’s say that we have a creative English teacher who is willing (and able) to put in the extra time it requires to help the student focus on their personal goal of becoming a Chef. She starts by having the student bring in copies of his favorite recipes or cookbooks and has the student work on defining cooking terms. This teacher then has the student work on creating a cookbook for teens. This would involve having him research the favorite foods of teens, why they like those foods and coming up with recipes that are appropriate. Can you feel the excitement? Can you see the engagement of the student? The teacher could follow-up with the student by having him watch TV cooking shows or visiting a Chef in a local restaurant.
But – of course there are always buts. There is no way to measure this student’s learning on a standardized test. There is no way to measure how much he has learned and measurement of his learning is how we tell if a teacher is doing a good job. It doesn’t matter if he can create exceptional culinary dish and explain complex cooking terms. It doesn’t matter if you see his face light up when he is talking about trying out a new recipe. What matters to the stakeholders is that he does well on the required standardized tests.
As adults we are able to study our passions to extreme in the way that we want. But our students are not able to even explore what their passions might be because teachers are so focused on meeting state requirements. Teachers don’t have time for the “teachable moments” because there are so many things we have to accomplish. It doesn’t matter if the pace is too fast for our students we have achievement to be proved.
By the time students reach high school they are totally disenchanted with the educational process. For the smart kids this means that they stop thinking for themselves and answer the questions the way that they are expected to. They have learned the right formula to pass the tests to move to the next thing. There is no high-level thinking involved. The best and the brightest of our youth are being turned into Zombies because they aren’t allowed to think for themselves – that is, if they want to get into the right college and become what they want to become. They need to wait to think. Wait until college to use their brain power. However, brain power is use-it-or-lose-it. If they haven’t been encouraged to think or to do things differently before they get to college they may never find that ability.
For our students who struggle with learning it is a different picture. They drop out of school as soon as they are able. They get in trouble with the law. They can see no light at the end of the tunnel and no hope for a middle-class life. This is because we (teachers) have spent so much time focusing on improving their measurable skills. They know they can’t read well or spell. And rather than attempting to find their strengths, we work on their weaknesses day after day, year after year because that is what is expected of us. These students know what they can’t do; they have had it in their faces forever. They need to be taught what they can do and how they can compensate for their difficulties. It is more important that these students find their passions than those who are smart. Why? Because a “smart” student does not have any difficulties finding out what they are good at; a student who is struggling has fewer opportunities to explore because so much time is spent trying to “catch up.”
No matter what the government says, not all students can read and write at an “average” level. Not everyone is wired that way. Does it mean that the person is stupid? That their teachers lack in their ability to teach? Absolutely not! It means that all of us can’t be average at everything. Just like all of us can’t be rocket scientists. Some of us need to be hair dressers, massage therapists, auto mechanics, cashiers, waitresses and teachers because without these people our lives would be sadly lacking.
Postscript – As I was re-reading this I began to think that those reading this post might wonder what my qualifications in education are…I hold a Master’s Degree in Special Education, have numerous credit-hours in early childhood education, have 4 years of preschool teaching experience, 4 years working as an educational assistant (with significant special needs children in 6 different schools), 6 months of substitute teaching and 6 months as a High School Special Education English Teacher. I have attended countless professional development seminars offered through my school district on various subjects in education. Additionally, I have two children who are Gifted/Talented and have spent much time exploring the world of Gifted and Talented Education, as well as, education for those who are Twice Exceptional. Wow! I am even surprised at the extent of my experience in education!