Ever an optimist
Following is a response by teacher Abby Brodowski to a column in the Rutland Herald by Peter Berger:
I do not operate on the notion of beware. I operate on the notion of aware.
Your article is a testament to the tried and true method of criticizing a situation across the board without offering many helpful solutions and of blaming the very people who give their lives to the notion, however misguided, that all people in the world’s wealthiest nation deserve a potshot at educational success. Let’s rewrite a few of your statements, substituting the doom-and-gloom “beware” for the more appropriate and constructive “aware” and see where that gets us.
Be aware that firing all of the experts is the same thing the experts are trying to do to teachers. If it doesn’t work, get rid of them all and bring in new folks. This was a bad idea for Stalin during the purges and is a bad strategy for administrators and theorists. What you get is a power vacuum, and people who know even less come in and start tearing around. This is a damaging possibility from the bottom to the top – classroom to boardroom – and this is happening all over the country.
Instead, let’s try to create an atmosphere of higher cooperation and a federal standard that does not make sweeping, unnecessary, administrative upheavals as another symptom of the witch hunt of education. You couldn’t pay me a hot million to be a principal or school administrator today because the atmosphere is too hostile. I bet the system would work better if the notion of progress was more reasonable, and the various sides had higher incentives to trust each other and make cooperation a goal instead of corporate mandates without evaluation.
In addition, be aware that school board members do not necessarily know anything about education; they are elected outsiders, albeit important ones. They are part of a checks-and-balances system that includes the superintendent, principal, teachers and community. When a school board has too much control and the balance is disrupted, problems arise that can be devastating to a town and its people in a way that decentralized control cannot even touch.
Be aware of the new Common Core standards. They will not revolutionize your classroom or create a roomful of “exceeds the standard” students, but it will give you a roadmap to navigate by. The standards will ask you to reassess what you are teaching and come together with other teachers to do the same. As teachers, if we do not ever bother doing this (even though it can feel frustratingly redundant), we may run the risk of stagnating in our teaching. Most teachers have a healthy fear of the standards because they value their jobs and understand the limits of bringing students up to snuff who do not have the motivation or ability to meet the standards on their own. I simply remain thankful that the standards tell me the skills to teach, but do not yet tell me how to teach them and with what materials I can use to do so. Sure, this may be coming, but it also might not be. In the meantime, I’ll wait for the next trendy wave of education, bow to it in moderate respect, ride it and keep surfing because I love the sport.
Be aware of technology. Sure, it’s expensive and can be a drain if not used correctly and implemented as part of a well-designed strategy. However, without it, you are a disaster for students. For all its “mesmerizing speed and alluring graphics,” comfort with technology represents the single biggest gift we can offer students that might actually be helpful in the 21st century. The trick is not to blame it for unforetold problems. Technology is here. We have to learn how to teach with it, so our students do not end up being so afraid of it in the future (like many teachers are now) that they are paralyzed in the job force or college lab. And, by the way, we can’t simply transplant our current methods onto the computer and expect it to work. We actually have to innovate to do this, and the English classroom is, in my humble opinion, the best laboratory for this kind of exploration.
Be aware of data, but don’t let it ruin your sense of spontaneity in teaching. Know what you can do to help your students and keep collecting information to that end. But know your limits and know when the tests just are not showing the full picture. For example, our high school NECAP scores are terrible, but when we only have 10 students in an entire class (we are a K-12 school), the sample is too small for statistical relevance. If three students aren’t proficient, that’s about 30 percent. Or if a school uses a reading assessment at a high school level that does not actually use complex sentence structure in the questions, how accurately does that program show students’ abilities? Be aware of the problems, but even more importantly, be aware of the students who are not making the grade and do whatever you can for them. Do not ignore the problem because you don’t like the numbers.
Be aware of using professional development time productively. Try to find the programs that you will be invigorated by and avoid as many as possible that will sap the life energy out of you. I have never met a teacher that purposefully signs up for staff development to get out of class, for the simple reasons that the conferences are boring and sub plans are a nightmare to create. Let us assume that teachers want the right kind of professional development for their interests and style and are just as resentful of unnecessary wastes of time as the students are. The next step is helping to fit the big in-service opportunities and similar conferences to that type of development instead of the endless hours of forced “collaboration” on topics that we all know will be different next year.
Be aware that schools have a huge burden placed upon them when basic student needs are not being met outside the school. When a student is hungry or does not have a winter jacket, the school is now obligated to help and take care of that situation. It should not be that way, but it is. The conversation that needs to be opened is one that no government or institution will touch with a 200-foot pole. What can be done to support the health of families outside the building, including creating the ability to make good decisions, supporting children in adverse times and with broken family dynamics, and relearning societal norms that foster success for all? Instead of blaming schools for picking up where society left off, let us be constructive and open a national dialogue about parenting in times rife with distraction — an action that requires intense courage mixed with incredible patience and open-mindedness.
Be aware that high standards assume that everyone learns the same way and should have their knowledge judged the same way. However, do not sacrifice high expectations because you place a limit on a student’s ability. We are responsible for being the ever-optimist and making magic out of mud. You signed up for that when you decided to teach. Students may not be “equally able to achieve,” but be aware of the message you send if you teach that way. I always assume they can be successful, but I know that success is not gained by passing a test, and I accept that the many life lessons I teach that do not get assessed on the NECAPs might really be the ones that matter.
Be aware that teachers do not get to pick and choose which students will show up in the morning and what challenges they’ll toss out once they are in school. Sure, the school must keep every student safe and as productive as possible. The danger lies in blaming the “bad” kids who have just as many reasons, however hidden, for being disruptive than the kids who are sitting quietly and turning in their homework have for being “good.” I find that mutual respect goes a long way with my high school students, as do limits. I lose battles but keep my eye on the war.
Finally, be aware of what is discouraging and how to be encouraging. We can easily dwell on the negative, so I repeat my mantras, drop the bad thoughts, and set my sights toward the horizon when things get bleak. Adults have been complaining about kids for as long as time and despite our assumptions about students today, we do not know who they will become. I try to make sure that my presence in their lives is not intentionally damaging and that I am as helpful as I can be for the short time I have them. Then, like a wish and a promise, they scatter and I never really know how I’ve done. I hope for the sake of the students that we all begin to transcend our own fears and work together a whole lot more. The alternative is ugly.
Abby Brodowski teaches high school English at West Rutland School.