I was born to teach. When I am in the classroom with students, I feel fully alive. If teaching itself it a high calling, which I believe it is, teaching teachers is even more so. In my four classes, I have about 60 teachers, some traditional pre-service, a couple of veterans, but mostly teachers completing alternative routes to certification, including Teach for America.
I’m grateful this last group is part of my experience as a new professor. Having gone through a traditional program myself, I have learned from them just how stressful an alternative route can be. These teachers are generally placed in high needs schools with just a few weeks of training. They teach based on their experiences as students, and often miss the theory and research behind WHY certain strategies work. This semester I have tried to give them the back story of English Language Arts education as well as encourage them to start teaching their students rather than focus on the standards. It’s a tricky balance. They are often constrained by a requirement to elucidate a number of specific Common Core State Standards they intend to cover even before they begin to compose their unit and lesson plans.
The Standards themselves are flexible and allow for a degree of teacher autonomy and individuality, but too often administrators require teachers to identify the number of the standard they plan to teach. In my opinion, this is backward. As L’Engle (1974) wrote, “You are basically not teaching a subject, you are teaching children.” L’Engle went on to say that machines could probably teach subjects better than humans, but the result would be the creation of little machine. Nearly 50 years later, we know that machines (computers) are useful tools to instruction in subject matter, but children still learn better from and with humans. Indeed, learning is a social action (Dewey 1916/2001).
The teachers who participate in my classes are so focused on the standards that it’s hard for them to think about anything else. I have constructed class activities to purposefully avoid the official standards, knowing that good teaching will ultimately connect to them. It has been a challenge convincing some of the teachers that they can address the standards LAST instead of first. Some are beginning to see that they don’t have to be rigid, and that they can deviate from a scripted curriculum to better meet the needs of their students. Some are relieved, feeling validated by knowing that they’re on a positive, if unorthodox, track. Still, habits die hard. These teachers learned to write five-paragraph essays, so that’s what they think they have to teach. Never mind that no one ever writes in five-paragraph essay form after high school or early college. Even most of the standardized assessments have dropped that requirement.
I understand the purpose of Teach for America and other Alternative Routes to certification, especially for people choosing to teach as a second career. These non-traditional teachers often bring a wealth of real world experience to the classroom that makes it a rich environment for learning. I do wish the alternative routes included a crash course in theory and research before placing new teachers into classrooms. The focus on assessment, rubric, and classroom management that most students experience dulls them to the human part of teaching. And it’s in humanity that the most effective teachers find their passion. The content of a course is the vehicle for helping teens find their identities, learn how to be in community, and consider the importance of others. Do students need to know how to speak and write in conventional English? Of course. But their thoughts and ideas are where the real learning comes in. CCSS, standardized tests, packaged curricula– these may be easily managed and measured, but they only tell a fragment of the stories in student learning.
My goal for this year is to assuage the apprehension new teachers feel when they try to do creative and innovative projects in their classrooms. I want teachers to feel confident that speaking to student lives in conjunction with literature makes for a meaningful experience that ultimately still leads to the test scores so many school administrators are after. But the students, as humans with individual stories, histories, knowledge, and experiences, have to come first. If the goal of education is to prepare people for global competitiveness (Department of Education), then it seems to me that the most important element is to focus on the people. People cannot be measured solely by a checklist of standards. And teachers must be afforded the agency to direct their classrooms in accordance with their students’ needs, interests, and stories first.
Dewey, J. (2001). Democracy and education. Hazelton, PA: Penn State Electronic Classics. Original published in 1916.
L’Engle, M. (1974). A circle of quiet. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com