Earlier this week Jon (my co-teacher) and I published a guest post on Scientific American’s Budding Scientists blog. As a citizen scientist, this pretty much made my year. Then it got picked up by Yahoo. Then Scientific American tweeted this:
I’m thrilled because storytelling has fascinated me for years and I think we can do so much more with it, especially in schools. The effect stories have on the human brain has been well-documented and it can help all students learn more, dig deeper, and retain more. It’s not about dumbing down the curriculum or attracting people to jobs they aren’t meant to do. It’s about making learning interesting and meaningful and it’s about keeping students engaged.
I’m a science geek. Always have been. In middle school I went to science camp during the summer. Yes, I am a big geek. In 8th grade, I made the decision to apply for entrance to the local STEM magnet school. I was lucky enough to get in and was thrilled. In high school I was blessed to have an amazing biology teacher, and today I am lucky enough to call him my colleague. He taught me freshman biology and I was hooked. Then I had an amazing AP Bio teacher my senior year and my love affair continued. Both of my biology teachers presented the narrative of science, sharing more than “just the facts”. I designed research experiments, analyzed data, created my own content. I loved biology and envi sci and scored high on both AP exams. I headed off to college with 8 science credits.
But after high school, I hit a wall. See, I did really, really well on my SATs. My verbal score was perfect. My math score was not perfect, but still pretty darn good. I went off to college and was part of the women’s science initiative there. I spent the summer before my freshman year as part Project SUPER at Douglass College, visiting pharmaceutical companies and touring labs all over campus. I took a science class or two my first year, but I couldn’t decide on a major. I love English. I love literature, writing, speaking, and everything involved in the humanities. And I love biology. I love observing, making connections, studying genetics. Like many of the girls cited in the study, I ended up choosing a non-STEM career.
But I’m still a scientist. Maybe I didn’t major in science and I don’t have a PhD, but I participate in science on an almost-daily basis. Why? Because of the narrative that was given to me in high school and through college.
And the narrative that has kept me in science is that of the monarch butterfly.
In 2003, I was paired with my mentor teacher for my first student teaching practicum. We worked together for a year and she made me the teacher I am today. One of the first activities I did with her? Cleaning frass (otherwise known as caterpillar poop) from the cages housing her monarch butterfly caterpillars. Over the course of the first month of school I helped find eggs, clean frass, spray chrysalids, and release monarch butterflies. I fell in love with them as our third grade class oohed and ahhed, watching the pupa dance or the emergence of a butterfly. Sue told me that she was a member of the Monarch Teacher Network, which “network of teachers and other people who use monarch butterflies to teach a variety of concepts and skills, including our growing connection with other nations and the need to be responsible stewards of the environment.”. I promised her I would take the workshop before starting my first teaching job.
In 2005, I finally signed up for a (semi)local workshop. I drove 1.5 hours each way for 3 days in August and it’s the best professional development I have ever participated in. Over those three days I realized the power that storytelling has on the human imagination and humanity as a whole. I had watched my third graders study the monarchs and as a result learn more about math, language arts, and geography. But the workshop showed me how to do the same with middle schoolers and high schoolers. It even showed me how adults could get wrapped up in the story of the monarch butterfly.
The monarch butterfly migrates thousands of miles each autumn, from the eastern US and Canada to a small mountain range in central Mexico. These small insects then survive the winter on these mountaintops, which their great-great-great-great-grandparents left the year before, before heading north again in the spring. They lay eggs on milkweed plants in the southern US and then die before the eggs hatch and their offspring continue the journey north.
This story, which unites the people of Canada, the US, and Mexico, has had me hooked since the first time I watched a monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. And it hooks students just as much. Using the monarch, I have taught students about biology, migration, populations, genetics, symmetry, the Fibonacci sequence, citizen science, measurement, weather, Mesoamerican cultures and traditions, physics, chemistry, poetry, critical reading, grammar, writing, and so much more. The story is the anchor. Using it, we can cast a wide net and bring students to a variety of subjects and topics in an authentic way. I have former students who still raise monarch butterflies with their families! A student who left me 6 years ago emailed me last year and mentioned they plant milkweed every year and tell their family about the importance of pollinators. Six years later! That’s a whole lot better than memorizing a list of facts and figures just to forget them when it’s time to study for the next test.
Today I am an English teacher who participates in citizen science projects. I track the monarch butterfly migration and milkweed growth each season. I teach a science enrichment class at a local university, geared towards getting middle schoolers interested in science. Without amazing teachers who used stories to hook me, or a workshop that continued using stories, I don’t know if I would be the citizen scientist I am today.
Story matters. It matters in language arts, in history, in math, and in science. It matters in life. Humans communicate through stories and we have since the dawn of civilization. Stories activate our brains and help us make deeper connections. And I’ve watched those stories keep students interested in every subject. The world is cut out into little sections, this part for science and this part for math, this part for history and this part for art. The world is real, it’s messy, and it requires us to be engaged. Story can help us get our students ready for that.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m sure this post will make some people mad, but I had strong feelings about assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Jal Mehta’s op-ed published by The New York Times today. I don’t agree with most of what he said, but this part struck a chord with me:
In the nations that lead the international rankings — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States. Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America. There are also many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards. (Finland, a perennial leader in the P.I.S.A. rankings, has eight universities that train teachers; the United States has more than 1,200.)
There are brilliant people out there teaching right now. I know because many of them are my friends. I teach with amazing and smart colleagues. My Twitter PLN teaches me something new everyday and forces me to reflect on my own teaching. There are also some people who have no business being in the front of a classroom. I know some of them, too.
But too many of our brightest minds don’t even consider going into teaching.
I’m not saying this because I read statistics or talked to someone who did research. I’m saying it because I lived it. And I see it everyday with my students. Teaching isn’t seen as a viable, worthwhile option for our brightest minds and that’s a terrible reflection of the value placed on teaching in this country.
I graduated in 2001 from High Technology High School. My classmates were all brilliant, the top students in our county, and I count among my friends numerous engineers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and CEOs. One friend wrote a best-selling science book. Another founded a rival to PayPal. Many friends have worked for Google, Apple, and other top companies. They write best-selling apps and are involved in world-changing research. They work in labs at Princeton, MIT, Harvard, and Yale. They write code for Google and Mozilla. They are the minds behind start-ups and tech giants.
But you know what my friends and classmates aren’t doing? Teaching. I can count on one hand those of us who went into teaching K-12 after college. And that’s looking at multiple graduating classes. When I decided to go into teaching, people looked at me and said, “But why? You’re so smart!”. As if you can’t be intelligent and want to go into teaching. Even today, when old friends learn that I am a teacher, they tilt their head and look at me as if I made a mistake. They can’t understand why someone “so smart and with so many options” would decide to teach. Then they ask when I will go into administration. When I explain I love the classroom and have no desire to enter administration, they shake their heads. Obviously, I am not as intelligent as they thought I was.
It’s no different today. Looking at my current students, I have two or three who have mentioned even a passing interest in teaching as a career. And they’ve all told me that their parents are shocked to hear they would consider going into teaching when they “could do anything they want”!
In other countries, teaching is a competitive field. Only the top third of college students are able to enter teaching programs in many of the countries exalted by the US for providing a top-tier education, such as Finland. Teacher training courses are rigorous and well-respected. A small number of colleges and universities are able to grant teaching licenses and teachers continue their training after entering the field, supported by their schools, districts, and the nation as a whole. While many of these countries are smaller and more homogenous than the US, making the classroom much different from ours, that doesn’t change the respect given to teachers by those nations. And that respect starts when someone enters the teaching field as a university student. It’s difficult to get into teaching, so you must be great if you make into the major, graduate, and get a job. The United States is, unfortunately, very different.
Why aren’t our top students becoming teachers? Obviously not every brilliant person is cut out to be a teacher. All you have to do is sit in on a few college classes to see that. But there are many intelligent people out there who would make fabulous teachers and are not entering the profession. And I think the reason our top students discount teaching is because our teachers are seen as disposable. The public and politicians spit vitriol blaming teachers for everything from student behavior to the downfall of our country. Teachers aren’t trusted to make decisions about their own classes and instead administrators and corporations hand down scripted curriculums. Reformers like Michelle Rhee, who have barely any training or teaching experience, spend their days telling us how to teach.
Stop. Just stop. Start treating teachers like professionals– like engineers, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, actuaries, scientists–and we will attract more people to teaching. When more people are attracted to teaching as a career, universities can develop more rigorous teacher education programs. And teaching can stop being a back-up career for the lowest 60% of college students. Far too many people in the US think that teaching is an easy career, one to go into if you can’t decide what else to do. I have too many acquaintances who went into teaching because they thought it would be easy or they wanted a job they could do for a few years before getting married. The requirements for becoming an education major or doing alternate route are much lower in teaching than in many other professions. Do you know what I had to do to enter the highly-respected teacher education program at my university? Fill out a sheet of paper, have a 2.75 GPA, show proof of a Mantoux test, and pass the Praxis I. My friends in engineering and science majors had higher GPA requirements and more pre-requisites.
Who on earth would go into teaching today, with the vitriol and hatred spewed at teachers? Certainly not many college-bound students with other options. And those at the top of their class have lots of other options. Hmmm….study business and be respected or study education and spend the next twenty years being cursed and blamed for everything wrong with this country? Sounds like an easy decision to me.
We need to change how teachers are viewed. Obviously there are many amazing teachers out there. I know lots of them. But we need even more. And we need to make sure education isn’t a last-choice major for anyone. If it is, they should be weeded out instead of thrown in front of kids. (*ahem* Teach For America, etc *ahem*). Teaching is a profession, it’s what teachers are. It’s not just something we do. So it’s time to raise the bar.
We need to move away from the Praxis and other one-time tests. In order to earn certification, teachers should be reflecting and improving constantly. One way to do this is through a portfolio-based requirement. That’s why I love National Board Certification. Unlike the Praxis exam (pretty much the only requirement in some states), National Board is reflective, difficult, and empowering. Something like National Board certification should be required of all teachers within the first few years of teaching. And the process should start in college, just like it does for other well-respected professions. Take engineering, for example. Engineers are expected to attain their PE, or Professional Engineers Certificate. Many employers in industry and government require licensure in order to advance to senior engineering positions. It’s a years-long process:
The Licensure Process:
1. Earn an engineering degree.
2. Pass the F.E. Examination. (8-hour exam)
3. Gain engineering employment experience. (All states require that candidates complete four years of qualifying engineering experience, under the supervision of a professional engineer.)
4. Pass the P.E. Examination. (8-hour exam)
Engineers are expected to pass two exams and complete four years of work under a mentor before becoming certified. They are made aware of this in college and begin with internships before graduation. Why aren’t teachers required to do something similar? Instituting a process like this would require districts, states, and the federal government to provide teachers with more support, more time to collaborate, and more professional development. You may not agree with it, but the lack of requirements for teaching and the abundance of teacher education programs make the general public see teaching as a career anyone can do. There’s no challenge in getting certified, as long as you don’t have a criminal record, and it’s a career that anyone can enter. That needs to change.
Great teachers are passionate. They love their teaching material or content area. They are life-long learners and model that for their students. They read. They write. They collaborate. They are patient. They are kind. They are the utmost professionals. But they are treated as inferior and worthless. “I can be a teacher! It seems like such a nice gig,” is a refrain I’ve heard all to often from those not in education. They think because they showed someone in their office how to print from the computer or how to use the new Keurig that they can teach a room full of high schoolers. Or even worse, “I went to school. I had teachers from kindergarten til twelfth grade. I learned how to teach.” Who needs to study education, right? Teachers are little more than babysitters in the eyes of too many.
Raise the bar. Make the education major more like pre-med, engineering, or most hard science degrees. Require a higher GPA to enter the program. Institute pre-requisites. Require education majors to double-major or minor in a subject-area or child-development. Send students into the field more often and for longer periods of time. When they enter the field, new teachers should be mentored by great teachers for more than just their first year. Districts should provide more opportunities for authentic professional development. Teachers should be given more autonomy and celebrated when they and their students succeed (and success should not equal scores on a standardized test). High-achieving schools and teachers should serve as models. Pay teachers like the professionals they are. Not just a living wage, but a respectable wage. This will take money. But it’s about time we made education a priority, rather than just a soundbite.
Raise the bar, raise the profession, and raise each other up in the eyes of the public.
When teachers are seen as professionals, it will be a more attractive career choice for the brightest minds. And a larger pool of applicants, especially talented applicants, can only help students in the classroom. Choosing to teach shouldn’t be seen as a waste of potential. It should be the most respected decision one can make.
Our children deserve the best, so we need to attract the best to the classroom and keep them there. Stop telling me I made a mistake and instead ask me about a day in my classroom. Stop telling your son or daughter that choosing to teach will be a waste of their talent and instead encourage them to make a difference. Stop encouraging great teachers to leave the classroom and enter administration, as if teaching is beneath them.
There’s no such thing as being too smart to teach. Start respecting me and my colleagues. Start treating us like the professionals we are. Start making a difference.