Is It the Teacher or the System?

No doubt you have seen this week’s viral video of high school student Jeff Bliss demanding an end to what he calls “packet teaching.”  I don’t disagree with Mr. Bliss’ sentiment and I sincerely hope he does create change.  I hope people continue to talk about education and what students deserve long after the furor has died down. But I do have a problem with how the media has attacked the teacher seen in the video.

Do we blame the teacher or the system? That’s the question we need to focus on.

The media and most comments on news websites are attacking the teacher for being a paper-pusher, an awful teacher, and much worse.  The vitriol is cruel and beyond the pale. But how do we know this specific teacher made the packets that she handed out?  How do we know she had a choice in the matter? We don’t, and that’s a problem.  I refuse to crucify a singular person for what may be a much larger problem over which she has no control.

Right now we have Jeff Bliss’ side of the story, and a 90-second long clip of his speech during class.  We do not have information from the teacher and if she expects to continue teaching in any capacity I imagine we will never hear from her.  However, a little digging will show that she has a social media presence devoted to her classes. (I won’t link to her here because I don’t want to contribute to her name being brought up any more, as the district is not using it in their statements).

She has a Pinterest page devoted to resources students can use, a Youtube page linking to Crash Course videos and other content for her classes, a Twitter account, and a few other history-based resources where she interacts with students.  Obviously, this does not mean she is a wonderful teacher, but it does seem to me  that she is passionate about her job.  Those social media sites are most likely culled together outside of school hours as most schools block them, so she is devoting time outside of the 9-3 of classes to her profession.  It seems to show dedication to her students and passion about the subject matter she teaches.  And I have a hard time juxtaposing that with the comments I am reading on websites decrying her as the world’s worst teacher, a lazy idiot, and a detriment to society. Again, there’s nothing about a social media presence that guarantees she is a vibrant, engaging teacher. But it does give me pause. If she is a terrible teacher who does nothing but pass out packets, why has the district not addressed that prior to this situation? Does she have positive evaluations? Has she been encouraged and mentored? What is the truth about this situation?

I’ve read too many comments on news websites that say something along the lines of,  “Come on, this is all on the teacher.  It’s not like there are principals out there saying, here, hey you have to devote all of your class time to test prep.  You are required to assemble some packets of prep, pass them out, and have students complete them before the standardized tests.”

I have news for those commenters.  There are many, many districts like that.  Too many.  I have friends who are amazing teachers and are now being handed a packaged curriculum, complete with a script, that they must follow.  They are being forced to skip teaching science and history and instead must hand out test prep packets for math and ELA tests that will decide whether they are “good” or “bad” teachers.  They must administer practice tests in their classes instead of doing PBL or science experiments.  One friend, currently teaching elementary school, just told me that after our state tests next week her school will finally let her teach science and social studies.  Pretty much an entire year’s worth of curriculum in one month.  And this is in a good district, a district that people move into because it is highly-ranked!

They aren’t an anomaly.  Sadly, in our standardized-test obsessed culture they are becoming the norm.  And that is a huge problem.  It’s not the students’ responsibility to fight this and I don’t blame Jeff Bliss for standing up to the person in front of him, the teacher he deals with daily.  But the reaction from the public needs to go way beyond that one teacher.  Where is the investigation into the district as a whole?  Where are the interviews with students talking about the test prep they are forced to do in all classes?  Where are the interviews with parents in other states explaining how their children no longer take music or art classes but instead they take test prep classes in their place?  Where are the interviews with administrators explaining how their schools are  considered failing or no good because the difference between their special ed population and gifted student population scores is too large and now they must force packaged curriculum on their teachers and students in order to satisfy the state or federal government?

“But why don’t they fight back? A good teacher would stand up and refuse to teach like that!” commenters say.  But they do fight back. It’s not just in a way that gets them fired and I can’t begrudge them that.  They fight back by attending meetings, bringing research to their supervisors, talking to parents about getting involved, sharing books and other unpackaged curriculum with students.  They put themselves in the line of fire as much as possible without getting fired.  Are we really asking teachers to get fired in order to prove they are good teachers? Can’t you fight from the inside? Don’t you want those teachers in front of your classroom while they wage a silent war outside the classroom walls? Or would you prefer they get fired? Is that the answer?

That’s the problem. And that’s what I wish we were talking about thanks to Jeff Bliss.  And I’m pretty sure it’s what Jeff Bliss wants us to talk about. Because that’s how we will begin to change things.  Not by focusing on a single situation in a single classroom but instead, focusing on the results of NCLB and the standardized tests being forced on our students and teachers.  By 2015, our students will all be taking the PARCC tests and teachers’ jobs will depend on the results. In NJ, PARCC third-grade assessments will have nine sessions with an estimated eight hours of testing compared to NJ ASK’s five hours and four days. The PARCC assessments in other grades will run approximately nine and half hours compared to about six for NJ ASK. That’s a lot of lost teaching time in just a few grades in one state.  It’s even worse in other places.  The numbers get worse when you add in test prep classes that districts require students to take and the time taken from other content areas in order to prepare students.

So yes, Jeff Bliss has every right to confront his teacher and demand a better education.  But the adults reading the articles, writing editorials, and speaking on 24-hour news channels about the situation have a responsibility to dig even deeper.  One teacher in one school is not the problem.  Administrators and districts who demand “packet teaching” are the problem. And that’s what we need to be talking about.  We need to put the spotlight on the decision-makers who choose the curriculum teachers are told to teach with. We need to demand that politicians stand up for our students instead of making money for Pearson and other testing companies.  I am grateful to Jeff Bliss for showing the world what testing culture has done to many of our schools. I just hope that parents and taxpayers start to see beyond that classroom and look at the bigger picture.  Because I don’t think Jeff Bliss is speaking about one situation in one class.  He wants to change the paradigm and we all have to stand up in order for that to happen.

Why I Stay

A few weeks ago, my friend Beth Shaum asked  if I would share why I stay in the classroom, despite the current teaching climate and  teachers leaving in droves. I kept thinking about it and drafting a response, but eventually the email fell  into the abyss of my inbox and I was swept up in taking care of my husband, who was having surgery at the same time.  I never did get my response to her.  But that’s ok.

Beth didn’t need my response, because she received so many beautiful photos and reasons.  She shared her final video this weekend and it’s something that every American needs see.  Teachers, from all over the country, teaching everything from elementary school to high school, share deep and heartfelt reasons for remaining in a profession that’s slowly becoming one of the most negative careers one can choose.

Over the weekend, I shared why I became a teacher, despite being told I was wasting my potential by doing so.

But today I want to share why I stay.

Despite the vitriol.

Despite the standardized tests.

Despite the unions.

Despite the budget cuts.

Despite the mandates.

Despite the disrespect.

Despite the other options.

I stay because what I do matters and it makes a difference.

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I work hard to ignite a passion for reading in my students.  I introduce them to tools they can use after my class to continue reading and finding books.  Sometimes, years later, they contact me to talk about books. They are engaged.  That’s why I stay.

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I try to make writing fun and authentic.  Blogging, poetry, challenges– anything that provides an audience beyond me.  And now I have a classroom full of bloggers, some of whom are reaching out to other bloggers. They are writers. That’s why I stay.

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I create readers.  I create writers.  And there is no job in the world that can make me happier.  I owe my students a thanks for being so awesome.  They are wonderful people and citizens. That’s why I stay.

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Me and some students in central Mexico

I travel and share information about my students with children in other places.  And I bring back ideas and information for my students, who then make connections between their lives and the lives others are leading across the globe. Those connections will make them better global citizens. That’s why I stay.

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Monarch butterflies at the El Rosario eco-preserve in Michoacan, Mexico

I am a reader, a writer, and a citizen scientist.  I want to share my love of nature and science with my students and show them that anyone can participate in science, even if they don’t choose science as a career.  That’s why I stay.

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Watching the Newbery awards announcement with my 6th graders a few years ago.

I am a life-long learner. I love getting students excited about learning because I am excited about learning.  And when they leap out of their seats or squee in excitement I can’t help but get excited, too. That’s why stay.

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Donations for the children’s hospital– Valentines put together by middle schoolers.

The world is a big place and not everyone is as blessed as my students.  Everyone needs to reach out a hand to help those around them.  As a teacher, I can bring those opportunities to my students and help them become compassionate leaders.  That’s why I stay.

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A book can change a child’s life.  With a classroom library and the wide range of books I am always reading, I can help students find that special book.  That’s why I stay.

Not because of the tests. Or the mandates. Or the races to the top. Or the children not left behind. Not because of the curriculum. Or the meetings.  Or the time spent at home preparing lessons and grading papers.

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” Baba Dioum

That’s why I stay.

Because of the books. Because of the writing. Because of the changes I see my students leading the world towards.

Because I believe in my students.

Teaching isn’t perfect.  It isn’t fun everyday and sometimes you just want to give up.  But in the words of the Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”.  I decided a long time ago to be that someone.

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