Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Thoughts on teaching, and poems of spring

Edward Hessler has been reading this blog for so long that we now consider him a friend.  As he more often than not has trouble posting comments on Blogger, he sends his comments to us by email. (Frustratingly, others have said they sometimes can't post comments, too, and we wish we knew how to fix the problem -- if you've got any suggestions, please post in a comment…. if you can.)  

In any case, Edward usually includes a poem or two, and last week's email was no exception.  He is an educator and was responding to Ken's first post about STEM teaching, which included a quote from Aldo Leopold, a favorite writer of Edward's.  Edward sent as well an op/ed written by a teacher, Elizabeth Natale, published in the Hartford (CT) Courant in January.  We post that here as Natale's thoughts echo some of Ken's.  And we end with the poems of spring.  

From The Courant [Hartford, CT], Friday, January 17, 2014. 

Why I Want To Give Up Teaching

By Elizabeth A. Natale

Surrounded by piles of student work to grade, lessons to plan and laundry to do, I have but one hope for the new year: that the Common Core State Standards, their related Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium testing and the new teacher evaluation program will become extinct.

I have been a middle school English teacher for 15 years. I entered teaching after 19 years as a newspaper reporter and college public relations professional. I changed careers to contribute to society; shape young minds; create good and productive citizens; and spend time with youngsters lacking adults at home with time, energy and resources to teach them.

Although the tasks ahead of me are no different from those of the last 14 years, today is different. Today, I am considering ending my teaching career.

When I started teaching, I learned that dealing with demanding college presidents and cantankerous newspaper editors was nothing. While those jobs allowed me time to drink tea and read the newspaper, teaching deprived me of an opportunity to use the restroom. And when I did, I was often the Pied Piper, followed by children intent on speaking with me through the bathroom door.

I loved it!

Unfortunately, government attempts to improve education are stripping the joy out of teaching and doing nothing to help children. The Common Core standards require teachers to march lockstep in arming students with "21st-century skills." In English, emphasis on technology and nonfiction reading makes it more important for students to prepare an electronic presentation on how to make a paper airplane than to learn about moral dilemmas from Natalie Babbitt's beloved novel "Tuck Everlasting."

The Smarter Balance program assumes my students are comfortable taking tests on a computer, even if they do not own one. My value as a teacher is now reduced to how successful I am in getting a student who has eaten no breakfast and is a pawn in her parents' divorce to score well enough to meet my teacher evaluation goals.

I am a professional. My mission is to help students progress academically, but there is much more to my job than ensuring students can answer multiple-choice questions on a computer. Unlike my engineer husband who runs tests to rate the functionality of instruments, I cannot assess students by plugging them into a computer. They are not machines. They are humans who are not fazed by a D but are undone when their goldfish dies, who struggle with composing a coherent paragraph but draw brilliantly, who read on a third-grade level but generously hold the door for others.

My most important contributions to students are not addressed by the Common Core, Smarter Balance and teacher evaluations. I come in early, work through lunch and stay late to help children who ask for assistance but clearly crave the attention of a caring adult. At intramurals, I voluntarily coach a ragtag team of volleyball players to ensure good sportsmanship. I "ooh" and "ah" over comments made by a student who finally raises his hand or earns a C on a test she insisted she would fail.

Those moments mean the most to my students and me, but they are not valued by a system that focuses on preparing workers rather than thinkers, collecting data rather than teaching and treating teachers as less than professionals.

Until this year, I was a highly regarded certified teacher. Now, I must prove myself with data that holds little meaning to me. I no longer have the luxury of teaching literature, with all of its life lessons, or teaching writing to students who long to be creative. My success is measured by my ability to bring 85 percent of struggling students to "mastery," without regard for those with advanced skills. Instead of fostering love of reading and writing, I am killing children's passions - committing "readicide," as Kelly Gallagher called it in his book of that title.

Teaching is the most difficult - but most rewarding - work I have ever done. It is, however, art, not science. A student's learning will never be measured by any test, and I do not believe the current trend in education will lead to adults better prepared for the workforce, or to better citizens. For the sake of students, our legislators must reach this same conclusion before good teachers give up the profession - and the children - they love.
Elizabeth A. Natale of Glastonbury teaches English and language arts at Sedgwick Middle School in West Hartford.

A house with daffodils in it
            is a house lit up,
            whether or not
the sun be shining outside.
Daffodils in a green bowl--
            and let it snow if it will

               -A.A. Milne

Forsythia Bush

There is nothing
like the sudden
one morning
without warning

into yellow
and startles the street
into spring.

           -Lilian Moore


Holly Dunsworth said...

Somehow this teacher's thoughts are still inspiring.

Just got exam results back. Only one third of my big into class knows what species they belong to. And after much emphasis, a third still thinks genetic drift is natural selection. This is already difficult enough on my own, with my own priorities, etc, without having to meet a government standard on top of that. I think I'd be pretty frustrated much of the time and I don't know if I could hide it from students and continue on patiently for their sakes if I was in her shoes.

Anne Buchanan said...

In addition, so much of good and lasting about education is not testable -- enthusiasm, curiosity, excitement, spontaneity...

Holly Dunsworth said...

Anyone who's been schooled knows how the details they summoned to ace an exam so often fade away, yet many of us who've been schooled somehow still appreciate the learning experience and know it's a big part of our being, still, and always will be.