In the past month I have had the same heartbreaking conversation with school teachers from several different school districts. These teachers describe the following reality: school administrators—under intense pressure to raise test scores to protect their own jobs and to protect the reputations and rankings of their school districts—are exerting intense pressure from the top which sometimes includes threats, curriculum packages imposed from on-high, and consultants in classrooms correcting teachers’ practices in front of students. One teacher described a colleague reduced to tears because she was made to wear earbuds in the classroom and be corrected (by consultants in the back of the classroom) on her teaching technique while she was working with the students.
Today when we think about school teachers, we have been conditioned to believe that the biggest mission of those who would improve schools is to get rid of bad teachers. But weeding out bad teachers is not the biggest problem, which is that morale in many public schools is so low that many teachers—including excellent teachers—are just giving up and changing careers. In lots of states there are teacher shortages because fewer and fewer college students consider teaching to be a desirable career.
Sure there are some weak teachers; we all remember our worst teacher. Nobody thinks employing poor teachers is a good idea. But good administrators have the means to counsel these people out of the profession and the teachers’ unions themselves have developed peer mentoring along with peer assessment programs that are helping teachers in local school districts improve the practice of all teachers and encourage the poorest teachers to find other work.
Public policy is largely to blame for today’s crisis in teacher morale. The federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, driven by accountability but very little in extra resources to support the professionals who staff our schools, was designed to “incentivize” teachers through fear. School ratings were tied to what was supposed to be ever-rising test scores. The law threatened teachers to work harder and smarter and blamed teachers when the test-score needle didn’t move quickly. Then Arne Duncan’s No Child Left Behind waivers—to permit states to stop some of the law’s most punitive requirements—were awarded to states when they complied with additional, Duncan-approved, federal requirements that included tying a large percentage of teachers’ formal evaluations to students’ standardized test scores. Nearly 20 years of punitive federal policies have had precisely the effect that could have been predicted, even if it wasn’t the law’s stated purpose. There has been a collapse in our society’s trust in teachers (even if polls continue to show that parents admire their own child’s teacher). Teachers were supposed to work harder and smarter, but because all test scores didn’t significantly rise, many people seem to have concluded that teachers don’t work hard and aren’t very smart. It is as though we’ve had a national ad campaign to smear school teachers.
Here is Parker Palmer—whose books explore the idea of teaching as vocation—writing 20 years ago and predicting why our test-and-punish policies would be so damaging to teachers: “Teachers make an easy target, for they are such a common species and so powerless to strike back. We blame teachers for being unable to cure social ills that no one knows how to treat; we insist that they instantly adopt whatever ‘solution’ has most recently been concocted by our national panacea machine, and in the process we demoralize, even paralyze, the very teachers who could help us find our way.” (The Courage to Teach, p 3) “(I)n every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning… Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves… The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.” (The Courage to Teach, pp. 10-11) I wish all teachers would read or reread Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, for these days our teachers are disheartened.
I wish the rest of us would sit down and read or reread Mike Rose’s wonderful 1995 book, Possible Lives. Rose, a professor of education at UCLA, spent four years touring America’s public schools. Here is how he describes the book in the preface to a 2005 edition: “This book is a documentary of the possible, recorded from a journey through America’s public schools. The good classroom is the focal point of the journey, and we will spend time in many of them, learning about our children, their teachers, the surrounding communities, and the idea of public education. In doing so, we will learn about America itself. Such a journey seems more needed now than when Possible Lives was published just more than a decade ago. In the midst of the culture wars that swirl around schools, the fractious, intractable school politics, the conservative assault on public institutions, and the testing, testing, testing—in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose and grand vision of the common public school… I’m… struck by how the teachers in this book talk to young people. By turns, their exchanges with students are comical, sober, challenging, inviting, probing, quizzical, supportive—in short they take their students seriously as thinkers, as young people with a mental life and a desire to be competent… The way a teacher talks to students—the way any of us talk to each other—either opens up or closes down thought… Implicit in the activity of the teachers in Possible Lives are theories of teaching and learning…. (N)ew teachers (not to mention parents or any adult who works with children) need an orientation to cognition and learning that encourages a nuanced perspective on the developing mind.” Possible Lives profiles good teachers from across America in cities, small towns, and even a one room country school.
In a 2015 piece published in The American Scholar, Rose once again reflects on the teachers he observed while writing Possible Lives. Rose describes the professional challenges teachers face every day in their classrooms, this time contrasting today’s technocratic emphasis on gimmicks and the sequencing of particular techniques to the real work of a teacher: “If you pare down your concept of teaching far enough you are left with sequences of behaviors and routines—with techniques… What is new is the nearly exclusive focus on techniques, the increased role of digital technology to study them, and the attempt to define ‘effective’ by seeking positive correlations between specific techniques and, you guessed it, students’ standardized test scores… Techniques don’t work in isolation. The sequencing of questions, for example, is a crucial skill, but it depends on the teacher’s knowledge of the material being taught, children’s typical responses to this material, the kinds of misconceptions and errors they make, and the alternative explanations and illustrations that might help them. A teacher can’t ask meaningful questions for long without this kind of knowledge. In equal measure, the effectiveness of techniques, particularly for classroom management, is influenced by students’ sense of a teacher’s concern for them and understanding of them… This pinched notion of teaching (through a sequence of techniques) combined with a ‘no excuses’ stance toward low achievement yields a troubling response to economic inequality: the belief that the right kind of education can overcome poverty.”
Rose summarizes the qualities of the fine teachers and classrooms he observed: “For all of the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers would want them for their own children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration But there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect.. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority… A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”
Several years ago, I was invited by a friend on the staff of the high school in my own community to visit classes for a morning. This is an inner-ring suburban public high school, majority African American with well over fifty percent of students living in poverty. My own children graduated from this high school, which is why I was so touched to be invited back for a visit. I spent an hour in several fine classrooms, but one stands out as an example of the kind of classroom Rose describes. The class is what is called at our high school a social studies elective, a political philosophy class for high school juniors and seniors. It is significant that this class is not required for Ohio’s graduation exam requirement, which allows this teacher some freedom. The students were in the midst of reading Voltaire’s Candide, the topic of the day’s discussion, and the teacher handed out copies of a list of fifteen questions to guide the day’s conversation. He asked the students collectively to decide which questions they thought were so obvious they could cross them off without discussion (usually the more literal questions), and then led the conversation for the rest of the hour by inviting students to name the questions they would like to discuss. One young woman became so engaged she hoisted herself up onto the radiator behind her for a better view of the students across the room. The teacher made a careful effort to engage all the students, often passing over a loquacious young woman to make a space for the quieter students. Finally the teacher wondered about Voltaire’s attitude toward religion, and the students felt safe enough to raise their questions. No one had been able to work this out very well, and all felt comfortable admitting that. What followed was considerable conversation about whether Voltaire is criticizing religion or hypocrisy. At the end of the hour, the teacher challenged the students to think about that question as they finished the book. I came home admiring the intellectual safety of that classroom where earnest teenagers were encountering such a book for the first time.
Really, the national branding of teachers as failures might have caused you to wonder if such classrooms exist any more. Schools today are also relatively guarded places. Because of the school shootings in recent years and all the worry about school security, you likely won’t have an opportunity to make a visit to your community’s high school. Once again, however, Parker Palmer is reassuring. If you can find a way to visit one of your community’s schools, “Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization that they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills. But you will also witness teacher after teacher transcending these conditions and caring for young people in remarkable ways… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.” (Parker Palmer’s “Forward” to Stories of the Courage to Teach by Sam Intrator, p. xviii)