Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Questions that Teachers as Parents Ask Ourselves

Six years ago, I was accused of being an "alarmist outsider" who wouldn't last (even though I had already taught for over a decade), a teacher who "over-communicated with parents," telling them "our secrets," letting them know things they "didn't need to know."  As the schools I'd worked at previously were all trying to increase parent involvement, communication was key, and was considered best practice.  My students benefitted from my partnership with their families.  With administrative approval, I decided to carry on being a bridge-builder.

Fast-forward to this evening: I'm finishing up my eighteenth year of teaching kindergarten.  I've taught in three states and four different school districts.  Having taught grades 1-6 in summer school, kindergarten August-May, and in both Title I and non-Title I schools, I consider myself "highly qualified."  I enjoy friendships with families of former students, and my students themselves.  Once you're Mrs. Sommerville's Super Star, you stay Mrs. Sommerville's Super Star.

Significant changes in education have happened over the course of my career.  In spite of big mandates, tons of press, and proponents and critics having their say, one thing remains true: diversity is the rule, not the exception.  An Alaskan student's educational needs don't match what a New York youngster likely needs to know.  Knowing this, shouldn't the multitude of ways that children across the nation learn about pulley systems be encouraged and allowed, with assessments addressing only the essential common knowledge that every child will likely apply about pulleys in their lives?  How many children from Alabama will ever help haul whales from the ocean onto the beach?  Because most, if not all of them won't, does that mean students in Barrow, Alaska shouldn't be taught how to use a block and tackle on the beach by their teacher, or have the system explained to them as part of their necessary, real life experience?  Should my Kansas students be denied the experience of planting flower bulbs at the beginning of the school year, observing a spring eruption of daffodils, because students in New Mexico don't or won't?  As more and more of our daily lessons become scripted by curricular requirements, less and less time is available for essential activities, activities that are now being labeled "fluff."

I've borne witness as several components of public education, curriculum, consumables and technology, have become hot commodities, and the producers, be they big name publishing houses or independent school teachers on TPT, sell, sell, sell.  Education is not only a profession now, it's a business.  Big business.  The government supports this, and makes sure that districts purchase from a controlled group of assessment and curriculum manufacturers in order to continue to receive funding for students.  Teacher-created materials initially supplemented or filled the holes that the Biggies didn't address or provide for, but if you've ever visited sites that sell items from teachers, you've likely had to sift through products that frankly, don't meet the standard that they should.

Not surprisingly, standardized assessments reflect not only the bias of the test creators themselves, but the performance of the test-takers that is likely affected by a myriad of factors outside of the evaluation environment.  No matter how many granola bars, water bottles, rolls of Smarties, and daily cheers that are given to each child, they all bear the weight of how they handle the pressure: either blow off the test, or develop an ulcer over it.  How the data obtained in this scenario could ever be considered valid is beyond me.

While parents are incessantly barraged with education reform rah-rahs, critics of the negative effects of NCLB, Race to the Top, and other elements of educational reform are evaluated out of the system (or chased out after having their spirits crushed), newbies are hired, and tenure is made near impossible for any teacher to achieve as states move to widen the chasm that now exists between not only administrators and teachers, but teachers and parents, those former partners in education.  This technique is referred to as "divide and conquer."

I'm not just a teacher.  I'm also a mother, and I'm allowed to have an opinion about public school, considering two of my children have moved up through its system and are now attending college, while my youngest is still in elementary school.  I want his teachers to be informed, educated, curious, articulate and impassioned.  I want them to inspire him, guide him, and encourage him to question, discover, create, imagine and share.  As many skills are built upon earlier foundation levels, I understand they must assess his progress, and I have no problem with them communicating how important it is that he do his best, think through his activities, and participate, accepting help from and offering it to teachers, support staff and classmates.  I'd like them to guide him with patience, not urgency.  

Will any teacher be able to do so, if they themselves are limited to parroting out a scripted set of daily lessons and are forced to use a limited set of intervention and enrichment resources?  If teachers know that one-size-doesn't-fit-all, and they differentiate instruction to meet each student's needs, why are so many districts adopting intervention strategies previously used for a handful of students who truly need it as instructional "best practices" for entire classes?  When two of my students can't hold a pencil correctly, I don't make every child use a modified gripper tool.

What can I as a parent do to help my son's teachers, when as an education professional myself, I know all too well what mandates they're bound and limited by, and the threats they face if they question or challenge them?  What can my students' families do to help advocate for their children as I continue to do everything in my power to strengthen the partnership between us?

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