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Lori Ungemah

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Stop Hating, Start Teaching

Posted: 04/19/2012 6:18 pm

Your social studies teacher loved you. He loved you so much, he willfully ignored your lapses in grammar. He *knew* what you were trying to say, even when you didn't say it clearly in your papers, so he gave you full credit for half-thought out papers. He overlooked the structural problems in your papers, too. Yup -- your social studies teacher loved you so much, he stopped being your teacher.

Last week a good friend of mine who is an Associate Professor of History at a university in Tennessee posted this as his Facebook status update.

You know, I try to play nice. I do. And, as I have mentioned in prior writings, I work hard to think carefully before I respond to things that make me angry. I am not one of those people who has been gifted with the ability to reply immediately with eloquence. When I react, it's often clipped and stupid sounding, like my response to my friend which read, "Alright teacher hater, tone it down a bit."

But that glib response of mine has not satisfied me. In fact, I have sat stewing about this friend's post, the 19 people who liked it, and the many times I have had to defend high school teachers to those in higher education since I left the high school classroom and transitioned into teaching community college.

Let me explain a few things to those of you, in higher education and in general, who believe high school teachers don't teach:

Many of us who teach high school are currently struggling with students whose literacy skills are far below grade average. In the ten years of my career, our school's entire bookroom became defunct. Classics that were bought when the school opened in 1998 such as Jane Eyre and Heart of Darkness were now at a reading level far too high for the majority of our students. Maybe a small class of AP Literature students could trudge through such books in 12th grade, but most students needed new texts. The school tried to find high interest/low level books for the students that fit into our thematic curriculum. It is a great challenge and even a greater cost in a time of education cutbacks.

And that's just the English Department. Students also struggled to read the American History or Global History textbooks as well as the Biology and Chemistry textbooks. The teachers in the high school where I worked have been struggling, too, to figure out how to deliver content when all of our resources were no longer resourceful.

As secondary educators, we are very much like professors in that we are largely trained in our specific content areas. As I look over my transcript from my Masters in English Education, I do not have a single course in literacy training. My education courses have titles such as History of Education, Schools and Communities, and Curriculum Development. I also have courses on the Canterbury Tales, Postcolonial Literature, Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, and Literary Theory. My degree prepared me to teach English as a literature class, not a literacy class. I have no formal background in literacy, but I taught literacy for most of my high school career. Every teacher in my school had to become a literacy and a writing teacher, regardless of content area or training. The students needed that, and we had to shift to meet a need. It has not been easy.

I taught high school for ten years. Around year four, the students began to enter our school with lower and lower test scores. The last three years the majority of our entering ninth graders had received a 2 on the 8th grade English Language Arts exam; this translates to them reading at a fourth or fifth grade level (depending on if they were a low 2 or a high 2). Again, let me reiterate that high school teachers are not trained in phonics or basic reading comprehension strategies. We were not trained to teach a student who cannot write a grammatically correct simple sentence, who has not mastered elementary punctuation, and who struggles with basic spelling. We were never trained on how to teach a seventeen year old girl who is functionally illiterate, who can sight read words but has no idea what she is reading. And we have been teaching our students, teaching ourselves, and trying to navigate this seismic shift in literacy skills.

Please keep in mind that combined with the lower literacy levels we are suffocated by high stakes tests. The Regents exams must be passed for the students to graduate. The school is graded on its test scores and graduation rates. If the students do not pass and do not graduate, the school goes under one of many types of federally and/or state mandated reform. When I first started teaching in 2000, I resisted test preparation, but as our students came to us with lower and lower skills I became a test prep machine. I am not exaggerating or bragging when I say that I can get a student who reads and writes at a fifth grade level to pass the New York State English Regents Exam. If they read and write at a seventh grade level, I can get them to get a 75, the score necessary to pass into Freshman Composition at a City University of New York. It will take them (and us, their teachers) the entire four years of high school to prep and pass this exam, and they leave our doors and enter the doors of a college reading and writing at a seventh grade level and knowing nothing but how to write a six-paragraph essay for a variety of Regents exams. This is how we are told to measure success. We know it is not successful by our personal standards as educators, and we internally struggle with this.

There are so many levels of wrong to this system that it is overwhelming.

And as educators we know we are providing a disservice, but we are at a loss. Now that they are desperately trying to connect students' test scores to teacher evaluation, you can believe that the time spent teaching to the test will only increase. The problems will continue to trickle up to higher education, and they will get worse.

I'm not even mentioning the large increase of students who live in homeless shelters, who don't have food to eat, who are living below the national poverty level, and whose parents are working multiple jobs to make it in this economy. But that is another issue that greatly affects our teaching and literacy levels, and it has gotten significantly worse in the past few years.

Amid the struggles of those of us who teach high school, there is one thing that we do not do: We do not blame the middle school teachers. In New York, high school is an application process, so we can't directly point our fingers backwards at a specific zoned school. Perhaps that dissolves the blame game a bit, but we also realize that the system is the problem, and that the lower scores that we have seen year after year are not the fault of bad teachers but a broken system and the impact of No Child Left Behind. I am proud of us for that.

I encourage all of you in higher education who like to blame high school teachers for your students' academic problems to think carefully and critically about the words you speak and write. You do not understand the complexity of our problems, just I did not understand many issues in higher ed until I entered into that system. I thought higher education would be a utopia! Ha! The problems of secondary education become the problems of college -- we are very much interconnected. And, sadly for those of us in higher education, I see the beginnings the unsuccessful reforms from K-12 moving in our direction. I expect that in my career as a community college professor I will face, yet again, many of the struggles I experienced as a high school teacher.

And lastly, if you have students who do not read and write to your standards, you -- like those of us in high school -- need to figure out how to teach them to read and write to your standards. My friend's accusations are partially true, we do love our students, and that's why we meet them where they are, regardless of level, and we teach. I suggest everyone do the same.

 
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