“Sometimes I look at teachers and I think, ‘How do you live with yourself, knowing how much you matter?’”—Lucy Calkins
Here lately, I feel like every time I turn around, I see another article that talks about a teacher who has quit his or her job because education has gone down the toilet. (Here's links to two of them: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/04/06/teachers-resignation-letter-my-profession-no-longer-exists/ and http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/10/12/3277055/one-nc-husband-whos-happy-his.html.) At first, I thought it was a rallying cry for everyone in this country to wake up and realize what we are being forced to do to these children in the sake of “progress.” I was excited that teachers were finding their voice, letting others know that we don’t just sit at our desks and eat candy all day while children diligently do problems out of their textbooks. Now, I’m not so sure that it is a good thing. I can’t help but feel like instead of gathering people behind us, these posts, letters, blogs, and interviews with people are perpetuating an idea of public education that I don’t think exists. Furthermore, teachers are being painted as useless puppets with their hands tied behind their backs. I refuse to support that notion.
If we listen to others, it would appear that teachers have no choice in anything that happens in their classroom. Instead, we are being told by administrators and policy makers what we must do. Our classrooms are not avenues for learning, but are instead torture chambers where our students don’t do anything except state-mandated tests. We don’t smile, play, think creatively, problem solve, or dear god hang up anything in the room that won’t help you remember your math facts. To make things a little clearer, think of Miss Honey’s room when The Trunchbull comes to visit. Apparently, our rooms are like that because any sense of teacher autonomy has been taken away. We drag children through assignment after assignment to satisfy the upper echelons of the education system.
It’s a lie. Do I give tests that I wish I didn’t have to give? Yes, I don’t care for them because I feel like they are often developmentally inappropriate and are but a single snapshot of a child who is so much more than they can standardize into a test. Do I have things that I do that I would rather not, all for the sake of satisfying the Department of Education? Yes, because I know that my children’s success will be partially determined by those tests. Do I have people who tell me what to do? Yes, because I am a working person who has bosses and that is just life. Do I complain about the things that I have to do? Yes, because I don’t agree with all of it. Do I give up? No, because I believe that I, along with every other teacher, am so much more.
I teach because I hold the fundamental belief that what I do matters, and that what I do changes the lives of children. It is why almost every teacher enters this profession. I think of my fifth grade teacher, who encouraged me to read as a student and loved me as a child. I think of my 10th grade and 12th grade English teacher, whose passion for teaching and caring heart solidified what I wanted to do in my life. I think of my college reading professor, who to do this day makes me want to be a better teacher every time I am in the same room as her. All of these people have changed who I am, and none of those experiences looked even slightly similar to the kinds of experiences that people use to describe public education today. (And just so you know, I am young enough so that standardized testing was a part of my education.)
I wish everyone in the world could feel the blessing of being an elementary school teacher, even if for only a day. Don’t get me wrong, there are all sorts of things that I wish were different, but there is so much I love. Everyone deserves to have a first day of school where 23 little faces look at you apprehensively, hoping that you are going to love them as much as they already love you. You don’t really know life until you receive incorrectly-spelled, heartfelt notes from a child who says that you are the best teacher they’ve ever had. It’s amazing seeing the light in a child’s eyes as they finally understand something they’ve struggled with for days. And don’t get me started in the joy of helping children learn how to read.
There’s so much wrong in education, but we can’t forget all that is still right. I recently heard Lester Laminack speak, and he talked about how teaching used to be a revered profession. Now we have teachers telling others who want to be teachers not to get into this profession. He says that we have not lost this respect in a day, and we aren’t going to get it back right away either. When we write articles about how teachers have no power today, we are degrading our profession to everyone around us. At the end of the day, it is not the administrators or the policy makers or the freaking President who are in the classroom with the kids, it is me. Lucy Calkins is right—we matter immensely. I am the one who gets in front of the children every day and chooses the words that will come out of my mouth and the way I will help my children learn that day. I have restrictions, but I am not completely restricted. Somebody has to teach these children, and I would much rather it be someone who cares about them than someone who feels helpless. If you have given up faith in the education system in America, then we don't need you to be a teacher. You keep helping people lose faith in teachers, and the rest of us will keep restoring faith to the children whom we help raise.