"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Friday, November 18, 2011

No Fun Any More...

"As long as it's fun, I'll keep teaching."

That's what I said while I was teaching. I wanted to retire before I was ineffective...before I was too comfortable...to inured to the crises children faced every day. I didn't want to be the punch drunk prize-fighter who kept going back into the ring only to be flattened in the first round. I didn't want to be the old ball player who limped to the plate to pinch hit when there was no one left on the bench. I wanted to make a difference every day of my career...until the last day I walked out of the school building.

Lately I've been thinking about my decision to retire. Many of my former colleagues tell me I retired "just in time" since our school system (and, of course, American public education in general) is going through a very difficult time right now...schools closing, curriculum adjustments, teachers shuffled from one place to another, increased focus on the already insane demand for testing, testing, testing. There's not much security...not much time to really teach...not much reliance on teacher expertise...not much joy in the classroom.

Nevertheless, through my volunteer efforts in two local elementary schools, I realize that I still enjoy being with children in a learning environment. I enjoy trying to fit the explanation to the child to solve the puzzle of how each individual child learns. I enjoy thinking about the learning process and asking the questions which will help each child discover new ways to learn. After all, one size does not fit all.

There are days when I feel like I retired too early. I miss the fun and the excitement of learning with children. I miss reading aloud from Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl and William Stieg. Oh, I know it wasn't all "flowers and sausages." I don't miss the students throwing up on the bus on the way to our field trip destination, or the fights during recess, or the frustrations of bureaucratic blindness to the reality of the classroom. No...absolutely not. But the moments of enjoyment with students made up for it.

Speaking of It's Not All Flowers and Sausages, Mrs. Mimi recently asked about the fun of teaching.
It's November. For most of you, that means report cards and possibly conferences. Which means data, data, data, some progress monitoring, and more data. Which means driving yourself insane to find moments to still do actual teaching in the midst of all this ridiculous assessing. Which means piles of paper everywhere. Which means that I-just-want-to-lie-down feeling hits you in the face every time you walk into your classroom and see those piles and think of that data which reminds you of report cards and for-the-love-of-all-things-holy-and-organized how am I going to get it all done?!?

Wait, where's the fun again?
Exactly...where's the fun? When talking with teachers I can feel their frustration. The opportunities for them to meet the needs of their students beyond a data point and test score are being restricted. I listen to them worry about a child who is not achieving and I hear the not-so-hidden fear that the child won't "pass the test." I see them taking their students to the school library and, instead of sitting and reading with them, enjoying books and instilling a love of literature and learning, they're grabbing one student after another for a "quick assessment." The teacher's body has been extended by the length of an iPad into which they deposit data in a seemingly endless stream of tap-tap-tapping.

This morning, I read Walt Gardner's Reality Check. Today's entry was titled simply Teaching Is No Longer Fun.
For teachers who started their careers before the accountability movement gained traction, the transformation has been traumatic. No longer can they rely on their professional judgment in preparing lessons, nor are they likely to experience the satisfaction of having opened the eyes of their students to knowledge for its own sake. They now have to treat their lessons as part of an assembly line, where instruction is evaluated strictly on the basis of how much value it adds. The rationale is that the real world operates accordingly.

Reformers maintain that teaching and learning can't always be fun. They say that discipline is an indispensable part of the educational process. That is certainly true. But the way things are unfolding in classrooms across the country means that even if students perform adequately on standardized tests, we run the risk of forever turning them off to further learning in the same subjects. As I wrote before, you can teach a subject well but teach students to hate the subject in the process. When that happens, it's a Pyrrhic victory.
So maybe I didn't retire too early. Maybe I did "get out just in time." My volunteer experiences still give me the "fun" of teaching with none of the cognitive dissonance associated with mindless data collecting and the "assembly line" instruction currently being forced on teachers. Mrs. Mimi ended her "Where's the fun" column with...
The fun is with the kids. Remember them?
As a volunteer I get that. I get to have fun being a teacher. That's something that too many teachers are missing. Students aren't becoming lifelong learners, they are just learning to pass the test. Teachers are being pushed and shoved into the "data collector" mold.

I have to believe that some teachers continue to have fun learning with their students. I'm sure some are fighting the data madness either in their classrooms -- hiding behind their closed doors while they explore the ever diminishing "teachable moments" -- or in professional meetings by speaking out against the insanity that threatens to overwhelm public education. Others, sadly, are leaving. Veteran teachers are retiring early and half of all beginning teachers don't last the first five years...because they have found that teaching is not teaching any more...teaching is no longer fun. As one former colleague who is still teaching put it
...the stress and pressure...We are fighting high blood pressure, many sleepless nights, worry beyond belief...it is destroying our personal lives - [at school] every weekend working, home grading papers...no time for exercise...we have no life...
Where are tomorrow's teachers going to come from? When teaching is no longer fun...neither is learning. We're selling our children's education to the corporate so-called "reformers." The "reform" of public education in America is killing learning.

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