Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools
Everybody agrees: a great teacher is the difference between success and failure, for a school, a class, and a student. But right now, great teachers are leaving the profession faster than Dodger fans exiting the stadium during the 7thinning.
The Internet is awash in videos and blogs from outstanding teachers who have had enough. Usually, they are the ones who tried going the distance, bucking the system, sometimes requiring almost superhuman efforts, and they’re the ones who for the most part made a difference in the lives of countless young people. They are the kind of teachers you might remember, and that you want your own child to have.
And yet, often after years of dedicated service, these people are giving up. What pushed them over the edge?
There have always been hurdles placed in front of teachers. All too many of them involve money, sadly. Poverty and all its attendant problems have always been the biggest obstacles preventing young scholars from fulfilling their potential. Parents are working too many jobs to pay attention. Students don’t have a quiet, safe place to study at home. Teachers are low men (and women) on the salary totem poll, and schools seem to be the last places to get funds and first to see them cut, leaving classrooms with too many occupants and not enough equipment, and desperately in need of repair. Yet terrific teachers show up every day, and sometimes are able to inspire their kids to see past the barriers to a better life.
“The System” is now paying attention, but not the way we wanted. Instead of increasing resources, it’s exerting more and more control, and preventing our best teachers from doing their jobs. All good teachers believe students have to be assessed, but the obsession with standardized testing has replaced real learning with the mistaken belief that a regurgitation of facts reflects scholarship and thinking. Teachers with enormous experience and much to offer are being forced to shelve valuable lessons because they interfere with a testing schedule designed by someone who could not teach a class of students on his best day. Drop into a break room and you’ll hear good teachers muttering bitterly, “Those who can, teach, and those who can’t, make rules for teachers.”
Excellent teachers acknowledge that there are bad ones in every school. They know that teacher unions are not always right. No good instructor has a problem with being reasonably assessed, and not all students can be taught in a classroom setting (it’s a sobering lesson for someone like me who’s spent a lifetime in one). But stripping us of the freedom to use our expertise has doused the fire of some of our finest class leaders. The highly touted new Common Core Curriculum is the newest effort to herd students into rigid and uniform learning units; teachers are being pulled from classrooms to be reprogrammed into, to quote “Inherit the Wind,” silent butlers in the service of our school boards. Have a look the CCC website yourself—it’s an Orwellian nightmare of doubletalk passing for the newest bogus strategy to help Johnny read. The trouble is, it means teachers have to stop thinking.
If the system is driving creative teachers to unparalleled levels of frustration, imagine what it’s like for young students getting up in the morning, knowing they face an endless day of rote learning. Many of them now hate school, victims of the tragedy that occurs when real learning is removed from the curriculum.
But there is hope. Amazing teachers quietly rebel against the current trends of standardization and uniformity. The schools are filled with quiet heroes who superficially play by the rules but insert their best lessons under the radar. In my own situation, I will not let the latest Stalinesque five-year plan destroy 30 years of Shakespeare productions with my wonderful fifth graders; you won’t find it in the Core Curriculum, but my students write me letters for decades after they’ve left the school, telling me how important those days in our classroom were in launching them into careers in law, scientific research, education, and the arts. The best teachers will find a way to keep their provocative poetry, challenging research projects, and reading of banned books part of a curriculum that believes such activities irrelevant.
First-rate educators have areas of expertise and a passion to share them. They have spent decades honing their craft to make lessons exciting. Good teachers get energized fighting the very System that seeks to suck the life out of learning, but imagine if the energy spent steeling their resolve was used to inspire their kids?
Even students rarely understand what a terrific instructor can mean to a young life at the crossroads of mediocrity and excellence. But it’s possible that a fine teacher will inspire a student to grow to such heights that he will be in power one day and change the very system that threatens great teaching with extinction. Our best teachers entered the profession to help young people find the best in themselves. These heroes are needed by students now more than ever.
Rafe Esquith is the author of “Real Talk for Real Teachers.”