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Friday, April 1, 2016

teachers: superheros in disguise

Teachers work hard. I think we can all agree on that. They essentially have a pack of monkeys that they need to supervise and protect, cajole and engage, keep motivated and on task and behaving like civilized human beings. All while trying to impart an education.

And if you are an elementary school teacher you also have to make sure those monkeys don't pick their nose, that they aren't left out at recess and that they have their shoe laces tied. If you are a high school teacher, you have to make sure no one is smoking behind the utility shed or planting a bomb in the locker room.

Teachers work more hours by far than the specific hours kids are at school. They work in the morning, at night, on the weekends or all three, to give the job what it needs. To give our kids what they need. That is if they are the dedicated teachers we all want for our kids.

I know many teachers who don't just give up their personal time, but they also sacrifice their money and their time with their families. Talk to any devoted teachers who have kids at home and they will tell you the conflict caused by their professional obligation and their parental ones. Ask them how much of their own money they spend for the non-budgeted supplies for a really cool project. Ask them how many boxes of granola bars and Clorox wipes they have purchased from their own grocery budget to make sure their students are healthy and well-fed. Ask them how many hours of their Sunday they spend grading term papers, compiling report cards or lesson planning.

We ask so much more of teachers than we used to. A few decades ago, when I was a student, teachers were expected to follow general curriculum guidelines but were allowed to utilize their own talents and creativity to do so. There was room in the school day for spontaneous experiential learning or to tailor instruction based on the students' interests and needs.  In short, there was room for teachers to teach.

The teachers of yesterday had one of the most powerful weapons at their disposal: autonomy.

Learning is like a living, breathing organism.  It demands sunlight and fresh air.  Learning cannot be put in a binder with step-by-step guidelines without withering and dying. It cannot be decided by a panel in Washington and handed down the ranks in any meaningful way. We cannot tell our teachers how to teach and expect them to teach well. Our educators are educated are they not? Why would we tell them what to do and how to think about every aspect of their craft?

The more we standardize teaching in hopes to standardize students, the less the organism of learning can thrive.

Countless teachers I know are still phenomenal, despite the external contraints continually placed on them in today's educational landscape. They find pockets of autonomy wherever they can. They do what is required of them to meet the standards as efficiently as possible in order to preserve time for kids to talk during circle time about the things that are important to them, to ask off-topic questions demanded by their budding curiosity, to have an impromptu discussion of a world event even if it has nothing to do with a learning target.

My children have been lucky enough to have teachers who were able to be an intermediary between the imposed learning benchmarks and the students' actual rate of learning.  These teachers acted as a buffer, absorbing the pressure themselves (at an enormous personal cost I would imagine) so it wouldn't be felt by their students. My children have also had teachers that did not, or could not, do this and those teachers were in a constant state of low-grade stress and strain. Neither scenario is ideal and neither is healthy for students or teachers.

Not only are teachers today disempowered to actually teach, kids today are different than they were a decade or two ago.  I recently heard an education administrator say that it used to be that when they were placing kids in classes and assigning them to teachers, they used to have 2-3 kids per class who needed specialized care or accommodations. Now each class has 10-15 kids that fit that description. Kids' who have emotional and behavioral considerations that impact their educational needs are now the majority.

Sort of like how when I was growing up I had never heard of a peanut allergy and now you can't throw a rock without hitting a kid with a tree nut allergy and an Epi Pen.

Kids who need a level of care for their person, who might have a mood disorder or a learning disability for instance, have deeper needs to be filled from their teachers in order to access the education that is offered. If a child with anxiety spends her day worried, learning is not possible. A child like this might need help settling, strategizing, or skill-building. This child, like any child who is chronically dealing with matters of the heart, might also just need a little extra love and care.

But is it fair to ask our teachers to not just educate our children but to love them?

Teachers are, like the rest of us, human beings. Is it reasonable to expect them to teach our kids according to the intensely rigorous standards while still making it engaging and fun, buffer the stress of standardized test performance, help them navigate the social platforms, make sure they ate their lunch and aren't cheating on their math test, and LOVE them?

Let's get real. It isn't remotely reasonable to have it be part of anyone's job description that they love someone else.  Yet we all want that for our children from their teachers, don't we? We want them to love our children and we want our children to love them and we also want to love the teachers so we can feel good about putting our children in their care. We want this big lovefest. We do.

Perhaps what is more reasonable is that we have teachers that care. And the vast majority of them, I believe, care profoundly. That is why teaching is a calling, an art. I don't think we have to even ask our teachers to care. It would be like asking the sun to shine. They can't help but care.

The more compelling question to ask is: what things can we eliminate from a teachers' plates so they can return to their natural state of emotional investment? If kids need more support now than ever before, how can we support our teachers to give it? How can we ask less of our teachers so that they can actually do more of what matters?

First off we would need to do a major U-turn. We would need to stop asking teachers to chronically do more with less. Right now we expect teachers to produce students who excel (some districts even pay teachers based on student performance) yet we shackle them with mandates that insult their intelligence and abilities. We expect them have the time to attend hours of meetings to adopt individualized plans for kids whose educational needs fall outside the box and then to build these accommodations into the rigid school schedules. We expect them to stimulate young minds, to build character and guide students through a year of their life, yet we are slowly taking away all the tools and creativity they need to do so.  We expect them to care for our children when they are so overworked and burdened that it may be legitimately harder and harder for them to do.

We are asking for more and more and more so surely we are matching all of these requests with fair compensation, right?

In Maine, new teachers enter the pay scale around $30,000 with the state average being around $42,000 (including both new teachers and 20 year veteran teachers). A recent statistic reveals that 2 of every 5 people that go into teaching leave within the first 5 years due to both the pay and the demanding responsibilities of a teacher. 

Our school district is currently under tense negotiations with the teachers over their contracts. The sticking point, naturally, is their pay. Apparently our district's annual teaching salaries are somewhere around $10,000 less per year than nearby districts. Nothing says "thank you for working your ass off" like making people fight for compensation.

In the past few weeks there have been a cluster of brave teachers picketing at the exit of my daughters' schools to rally support from the parents over the contract negotiations.  "Honk if you want equal pay."  Of course, I want equal pay. I beep. I lay on my horn for them.

We don't want our teachers taught by robots. We don't want their learning to be out of can with a two year shelf life. We want the living, breathing organism of learning. Our kids spend more hours a day with their teachers than they do with their parents. We want these teachers to have the autonomy they need to do the job we ask of them, to have enough room to breathe and think for themselves so they are able to give our children the foundation of their education: care.

It is as though we are letting the government slowly strip the meaning away from teaching and the spirit away from teachers themselves. In an attempt to beef up the educational system through standardization, we are actually diluting it, making it weak and anemic. How far down this road will we go before we have no good teachers left because they have taken their beautiful talents to some other corner of the map where they can be utilized?

We don't have to be the timid people in the tale of the "Emperor's New Clothes" who don't have the guts to call bullshit when it is right before us.  The system is broken and it is time we called it for what it is. It is time for change.

Each teacher a child has is a building block in the infrastructure of that child. For good and for bad. Are we in this together, taking thoughtful care and advocating for the teachers that are shaping our most precious commodities?

Dear Teachers-  You are incredible. Your commitment and sacrifices are seen and so many of us appreciate them. I tried to do what you do last year when I homeschooled my daughter and it was beyond challenging and that was just with one kid, not the entire pack of monkeys. You have a gift, a calling that outshines every mandate they put on you. To me, you are superheros, wearing invisible capes that I'm certain are embroidered with grammatically correct and properly spelled logos. Thank you for your hard work, for you guidance, for you teaching, for your caring, and for the clean noses and tied laces of our children.  Thank you. Do we say it enough?



Anonymous said...

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Tricia Richardson said...

Tears :). Thank you!

Jeannine Hamlin said...

From the Mom of a teacher, THANK YOU!!

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