About this time of year eight years ago, I was a first-year teacher sitting in the purgatory that is hall duty. Between inspecting hall passes and greeting visitors my mind wandered to some dark questions. Why were my students so despondent? Why am I not reaching them? Is this career right for me?
I was teaching tenth grade students English and diligently following inherited wisdom to responsibly prepare my students for the state high school assessment. Sadly, for too long we centered on the minutia of crafting and organizing the five paragraph essays that were a part of that test at the time. Regrettably, we read and analyzed short, dry passages from stories. My students, as students are apt to do, were returning me the exact engagement deserved by the learning experiences I was offering to them.
Thankfully, as I swam in the dangerous waters of those questions that morning, a school counselor happened to come by the desk -- free counseling. As I shared with him, he told me that he had heard great feedback from students I taught in a freshman seminar course the semester prior. This was a course where I had the freedom to allow students to have voice in choosing engaging texts and to dive into deep discussion, luxuries I didn't feel I had in the tested area.
Of course that limitation was simply a false assumption, but one too many new teachers don't break through quickly enough. The conversation empowered me to return to the roots of inquiry-based discussion and critical thinking stressed in my teacher education program. The learning journey that was launched that day was supported by many colleagues, professional learning opportunities, and professional reading, perhaps none more influential than Nancie Atwell's In the Middle. This seminal text, a luminary to so many dynamic English teachers, emboldened my efforts to offer choice and carve out workshop time for my students. So I was deflated when I heard Ms. Atwell use the platform of her much deserved Global Teacher Prize selection to share her sentiment that "If you're a creative, smart young person, I don't think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you."
The Comment Heard Round the Teaching World
Such a stirring sentiment, from such an acclaimed teacher, on such a prestigious occasion, deservedly caught the attention of many educators. At a time of teacher shortage in some areas and declining teacher preparation enrollment, those focused on the next generation of practitioners, like Dan Brown of the Future Educators Association, were understandably frustrated and taken aback. Others have lauded Atwell for being "bold" or for her willingness to "speak the truth."
The comment was bold, but I would not say it was THE truth. In education there rarely is a singular truth. Teaching is complicated and contextual. I absolutely share concerns over what statistical experts state is the misapplication of achievement data for teacher evaluation. While testing and its use is the subject of much deserved debate, the vast majority of teachers I have spoken to from across the country have found the newly adopted standards themselves, decoupled from feelings on testing, to be empowering.
And I certainly agree that reading a script is not what good teaching is about, but I question how common this reality is in practice. I teach in a forward thinking, large and diverse public school district. Our secondary English/Language Arts curriculum guides are written by teachers. The lessons are not mandated. There is no script. My choices to thoughtfully depart from the guide and innovate to meet the needs of the students in my classroom have not only been accepted, but supported by school leadership. We must be careful with the broad brush.
But perhaps it's time to move the conversation from dissecting what was said, or whether a single opinion is right or wrong, to focus on why it was said. Why do those sentiments resonate among teachers? What can we do about the underlying challenges?
A Profession Worth the Fight
Some of the division in response is likely due to the dichotomy of being a teacher today. The work is as demanding as it is noble, as difficult as it is fulfilling. "Teachers love their job but feel undervalued, unsupported and unrecognized" reads the title of this article from the OECD. "U.S. Teachers Love Their Lives, but Struggle in the Workplace" concluded researchers from Gallup. It turns out, that's a big "but." It's big because being overburdened and lacking influence is at the root of our teacher attrition crisis and leads to fewer of the teachers who stay emotionally engaged in the work.
This has to change. We must address the elements within our schools that we can control, because other challenges are beyond our control.
We will hire more than 2 million new teachers across the country over the next decade. Attracting, retaining and supporting the growth of those teachers is vitally important because we are facing an uphill climb. At a time when outcome expectations are loftier than ever, our student population arrives to school doors carrying incredible burdens:
• The majority of children qualify for free and reduced meals.
• One in three Americans live in or on the brink of poverty -- one illness, accident or layoff away.
• One in nine children lack access to adequate food
• One in thirty children experience homelessness.
• It's predicted that half or more of today's children will likely spend at least part of their childhood in a single parent family.
These are innocent children, who lost the lottery of the circumstances of birth. But these deficits do not have to be destiny. We have a role to play. As sociologist Bernard Lefkowitz concluded in Tough Change, "Again and again I found that the same pattern was repeated: the kid who managed to climb out of the morass of poverty and social pathology was the kid who found somebody, usually in school, sometimes outside, who helped them invent a promising future."
It's one thing to be aware of the statistics, it's another to be in proximity to the suffering they represent, it's yet another to stand in the gaps they create, with a spirit oriented toward hope. This is what great teachers do and what we need more to do.
Whether you're outraged by Atwell's stance because we desperately need more creative, smart young people teaching and inventing promising futures, or you applaud the comments because they highlight the current challenges of the profession, what we need now is the same -- engage in improving the profession. That helps to solve both issues.
If you have a heart for the millions of children born into grave challenges in this country, we need to act. We need to band together to lead efforts to improve teaching and learning. There are burgeoning teacher leadership opportunities and outlets and fellowships to help you craft your voice and find your call in the movement.
And then we must lead. Leading is not complaining with a bigger microphone. We must leverage our voices and experience to be the dynamic, creative, solutions-focused agents that our students need us to be. We must speak the truth of the realities in schools coupled with sensible paths forward that can influence others. We must collaborate with policy makers who may not yet understand all the complexities of our work, while learning how we can support theirs effectively.
At the Teaching and Learning Conference I listened to Martin Luther King III recall the lifelong impression made on him by the inscription on a statue he saw as a child: "Be ashamed to die until you've won a victory for humanity." Many of us have won individual victories by changing lives in our classrooms. Perhaps our collective victory can be earning our profession the influence it deserves, the identity our students need us to have.