In about a week, my wife will be entering her first year of teaching in public education, while I anticipate entering my last. Throughout the process, I’ve done my best to prepare her mentally for all the challenges and hurdles of being an educator without (hopefully) dispiriting her too much.
Yet, one of her questions still ring loudly in my ear, and it’s the same question that I’ve grappled with continuously as it forces out of the realm of public education: “Why do teachers have to do all this?”
To clarify, she was referring to the checklist of multiple requirements handed to her by her principal, not about teacher’s inherent responsibilities (of which there are many). Her list included the following for her classroom and lesson:
- Have anchor charts posted
- Have a reward system posted
- Have a consequence system posted
- Have a word wall posted
- Have a welcome sign
- Make sure lesson plans use 5E model
To the uninitiated and even some teachers, many of these requirements make sense. because it’s something we all imagine that a teacher’s classroom should possess. These items are so intrinsically tied to our idea of a quintessential classroom that we do not question their inherent efficacy and worth, especially when the efficacy of these items can vary from teacher to teacher and from classroom to classroom. A successful classroom simply does not need all of these items to be successful. In fact, poorly implemented items, such as an explicit consequence and reward system, can be very detrimental to the classroom environment.
However, administrators don’t seem willing to accept this fact and will force both new and veteran to adopt whatever is on the checklist regardless of effectiveness. Ironically, administrators love to tout the fact that all students are different and that different approaches should be applied to reach all learning styles, but ironically fail to acknowledge that educators’ teaching styles also vary. An educator’s approach to their craft is as sacred as the tools a carpenter uses. Yet annually, teachers around the nation face the same condescending level of micro-management no matter if they’ve proven themselves or not. Even the best teachers are forced to adopt the same checklist of materials and “encouraged” to adopt whatever initiative the district is moving towards.
“It’s like they take one thing that works very well for one teacher and force all other teachers to do it” – My wife, Sara
Pick up any decent book on education, and you’ll find 101 different tips on how to run an effective classroom. What people in education administration don’t seem to understand is that a teacher does not need to implement everything to be successful. There is definitely a point of diminishing returns and at some point, the frustration of the teacher and tediousness of the task far outweigh whatever contribution the item could have on the academic environment. Forcing a teacher to use whatever practices the district has spent their money on is the same as forcing a chef to use every single type of knife, pot, and pan to cook a single dish! It is ludicrous to think that as effective, and it demeans the chef.
To further prove a point, there was another requirement on my wife’s list:
- Utilize seating arrangement from Kagan training
This new bullet point arose after all teachers in the school were sent to a full day of professional development for this training session. What particularly is Kagan training? A quick visit to their website shows a colorful, rainbow-vomit page promising higher student engagement via their training and various advertisements on how one can attend these sessions. Here is a snippet:
The list above literally includes some of the most recent buzz words in education and reflects an obsession in education around branding “new” techniques and approaches. However, the essence of teaching has not changed much in the last century. The advent of technology makes many things more efficient, but at the end of the day, the essence of helping students learn and grow is the same as ever. For example, districts around the nation are racing to incorporate more technology with education, but few seem to realize that many top universities and professors still heavily use a white/black board and Powerpoint for most things. Even other nations that trumps the US in academic scores rarely enjoy such educational luxuries like a document camera or smart board.
Public education’s burden (and it’s not all their fault) is that it feels the need to justify its own existence. As I’ve stated in a previous article, the United States spends more per student than most other developed countries, but we do not hold our education system in any high regard. So the issue is not about the availability of economic resources, but rather the allocation of those resources. Every year, schools and districts vie to prove that they’re spending taxpayer dollars effectively, and every year, millions are poured into buying new (overpriced) things and contracting numerous professional development sessions to prove that their educators are supposedly competent (which is completely paradoxical). Many people profit from this grotesque spending, but it is never the students.
This consumerism has plagued the education system for the last few decades as policy makers scramble to find quick-fix solutions as opposed to systemic changes. And even when big top-down policies are created, they are done without legitimate input from real educators and without considering all the socioeconomic implications in which education exists. It’s that exact reason why No Child Left Behind failed and also why the contemporary push for charter schools will fail.
At the root of it all is America’s half-assed stance on the value of its own public education system that leads to a conundrum of diatonically opposed opinions on its educators. Teachers are “valued”, but only for their sacrifice. They are “trusted”, but are constantly questioned by parents and admin. They are “admired”, but never placed in the same league as most other professionals. They have “autonomy”, but only within the confined realms of practices dictated by their school. All of these factors combine to drive the best educators out of the profession because no matter how good one is at their profession, feeling scrutinized and undervalued inherently drives them away from it.
This year, I am again constantly bombarded by reminders to do everything on my own checklist, which hardens my resolve to leave the realm of public education. The summer vacation is nice, but the complete lack of trust in my own autonomy and effectiveness as an educator is boorish and downright insulting. No, I will not post any consequence system because I will deal with students based on their intention and the context behind their actions. No, I will not make students simply use an ipad for the sake of using technology because solving problems on paper with a pencil has been shown to be equally as effective for cognition. No, I will not simply adopt some new approach that the district has spent money on in order to justify its expense. Instead, I will do my own research, collaborate with my own peers, and implement things based on the context of my classroom. I have taught for the past 5 years, and I have been awarded more than once for the efficacy of my methods.
I honestly wish it was more feasible to stay in education for the long term, and I wish I could have more altruistic intentions to bear the burdens of this system to help as many students as I can. But that idealism and sacrifice shouldn’t be a requirement for being a teacher because it pushes away many competent educators. Unless education stops engorging itself with meaningless tactics, more educators like myself will become inevitably fed up with the system, thus sadly perpetuating the already poor image of what it means to be a teacher in the US.