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Teachers, using their collective power, can make inroads to real education for students in today’s classrooms
“Why do I have to do this?” asks the child. “Because I say so,” responds the distressed parent.
“Why do we have to do this?” ask the students. “Because you have to take the test,” says the over-stressed teacher.
“Why do we have to do this?” ask the teachers. “Because I could lose my job if you don’t!” barks the stressed-out principal.
“And so it goes,” to coin a phrase used by Kurt Vonnegut.
Courageous teachers, those with the security in their knowledge and their careers, can make a difference. They can bring about change. Exemplary of this is the teaching Hispanic leader
Cesar Chavez did outside the classroom, with his deep-seeded involvement in
bettering the conditions of the farm workers in the 1960s and 1970s. Though he
was not a classroom teacher, he taught consumers to be aware that the food they
put on their tables was only there because of hard working farm workers who
were treated poorly by their employers. He taught farm workers that they could
make a difference by taking a stand against their employers for a better
working environment. He taught everyone that one person could make a
difference. Si se puede.
Teachers can make a difference as well. One courageous teacher, a long-time veteran of the classroom, wears cowboy boots to school every day. She does so to remind
herself of what she is doing and why she is doing it. Her mantra, “Go get
yourself some boots and start kickin’,” hit home with me immediately. Though
petite in stature, she is powerful, strong and secure in her knowledge and
teaches children the way she knows they will learn. She uses the standards
“because they are good” but inserts her own style and methods while she
delivers the district’s curriculum. Can all teachers do this? Perhaps it is
unreasonable, because some may lack experience, courage or knowledge, time or
resources. Others may lack the energy it takes to create instruction outside
the given box of materials or still others may lack the security in their
careers. But what if they had boots?
Under the Bush administration in 2001, the government fundamentally changed the way educators perform their duties in classrooms by authorizing No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
Was it a good policy? Was it a bad policy? The results are still out. What it
did do was create standards by which teachers instruct students. One
contribution that most teachers will praise is the policy’s ideal of leveling
At the same time as the playing field was being leveled, NCLB also created a sense of panic among educational administrators. They now had to ensure all teachers were teaching
to the standards and report the mandated test results showing teachers were
teaching to the standards. This is where things went off the field. Now we have
a system of automated classrooms led by teachers reading from scripted texts
teaching students the same information on the same day throughout schools in the entire country. Teachers no
longer have the professional freedom to teach as they know best in order to
reach desired results. They now go into their classrooms, open their manuals,
and read the script in order to prepare students for the test on Friday.
This is especially true in “program improvement schools”, where test scores fall below the standard. Teachers feel they have lost their voice for curricular freedom. Regaining
their collective voice, thereby developing their strength as educators as a
whole, is what is needed to make a difference in teaching today.
Teachers have long known that they make a difference in the lives of students. They provide access to many doors that will lead to success for students should they choose to open
those doors. As a premise, teachers also know how to teach. They know what
works with students and why they themselves do certain things in specific ways.
This “knowing” also leads to what will get results from students. The results
they achieve inform their instruction and alerts them when they have to
re-teach and when they can move on to the next topic. According to Leblanc,
(1988) “…teaching is about caring, nurturing, and developing minds and talents.
It’s about devoting time, often invisible, to every student.” Time is what
teachers no longer have to in order to accomplish all that is required of them.
NCLB has additional consequences. Students are rarely exposed to any form of creative teaching that would enable them and their teachers to get pleasure from their school day as
they learn and teach. Teachers no longer get to plan their day as they see fit
based on what students learned the previous day. Principals push their teachers
daily to meet the standards in order to reach artificially set goals and
advance their schools in the district. This creates a cycle of misguided
instruction and unimaginative classrooms. It also prevents the school from
going into receivership–being taken over by the state due to underachievement,
which could result in the reassignment of teachers as well as the loss of the
principal’s job. These consequences are evident in schools across the country
Because of NCLB, the educational process in America is broken. It begs to be fixed. Teachers have to take ownership of their classrooms, but in doing so, they risk losing their
jobs if they do not have tenure, and/or being reassigned to other schools if
they have tenure.
Those without security in the district are easily released at the end of their first or second year, without cause. Tenure is what teachers work toward so that they have job
security and can safely teach until their retirement. Therefore, educators are prepared
to tow the line during the first two years so they are not dismissed–they
listen, they follow directions, and they do as they are told without question.
Those with tenure who are safely teaching until retirement may choose not to
use their voice. They follow along with directives and do as they are told
because they have been trained not to challenge authority, just as we train our
children not to challenge us as parents. And so it goes.
The Obama administration’s “blueprint for education,” (2010) a revision of NCLB, does little to address the concerns of educators. While it does not relinquish the testing cycle, it
does emphasize academic growth rather than judging schools based on their test
scores. Time will tell how this new reauthorization will impact education in
the coming years.
Another problem stemming from the standardization of teaching is the lack of money. The resources are not there for teachers, schools, and districts to provide an adequate,
equitable education for all learners. The government is attaching incentives
for districts in order to receive funds, which in turn puts the pressure on
principals and teachers to reach potentially unrealistic goals without
consideration of the demographics of the school or district.
Not all teachers have what it takes to make a classroom magical or interesting or creative. At least they have the basic scripted curriculum provided and a set of standards by which to
instruct. And that is okay. It takes time to grow as a professional and learn
to improvise or insert new learning connected to the curriculum or to push the
envelope and modify the curriculum in order to best meet the needs of your
students. It takes time to realize that there are other ways to teach that
might be more effective for students.
But there are enough teachers, in every school and in every district, who know better. They know what works. They have the will, the skills, and the knowledge to make a difference. They
have experience. They have the wherewithal to teach anything to anyone. But they
don’t have boots.
If they had boots, they would say, no yell, “NO, WE’RE NOT TAKING IT ANYMORE!” when the administration brings in a new curriculum or a new
text or a new demand to bring more stress to their students and into their
classrooms. With tenure comes security. While this sometimes may not be a
positive aspect of the process (some may work less enthusiastically), attaining
tenure is one of power. Teachers with tenure have power and influence. They
have the ability to make choices for themselves and for their students. They
have the ability to say no when they feel adding more means teaching less. They
need to put on their boots.
Helping students learn is the basis of all teaching. If this is true, then teachers have to choose what works best for them rather than use something presented to them designed by
someone who has not seen the inside of a classroom or met their students
(Brookfield, 2006). Teachers at any school can make a change for the betterment
and growth for students. They can bring about a stampede of enlightenment for
the school and pass that energy along to another school until all schools in
the district are standing up for what they believe is best for students. The
teachers need to stand up for what is pedagogically sound and what could be occurring
in the classroom instead of what is taking place today.
Teachers need boots. They need to remind themselves just how much power they have. They need to be able to tell students exactly why they are doing what they are doing without having
to do it for a test. They need to put on their boots and start kickin’ for our
ReferencesBrookfield, S. (2006). The skillful teacher. (2nd). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Leblanc, R. (1998). “Good Teaching: The Top Ten Requirements.” RetrievedMarch 22, 2010 from www.appleseeds.org/good-teach.htm.
U.S. Department of Education. (2010). Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, ESEA Blueprint for Reform, Washington, D.C. Retrieved: March
22, 2010 from www.washingtonpost.com.
U.S. Department of Education. (2004). A guide to education and No Child Left Behind.
Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary, Office of Public Affairs. In
Chiarelott, L., Davidman, L., & Ryan, K. (2007). Lenses on teaching: Developing
perspectives on classroom life. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Vonnegut, K. (1969). Slaughterhouse five. New York: Delacorte Press