Trust the Experts
Teachers Talk Teaching Now
Between Coasts asked teachers to tell us about their hopes and fears for the future of public education. These are some of the responses we received. Many thanks to all who contributed.
Laurie Spooner, principal/middle school teacher, New Sweden, Maine
Facing the potential closure of a small, rural school is complicated. Many people point out that we have been here before, but each time feels different. Each time the circumstances change. Each time we receive an RIF (Reduction in Force) notice, it feels worse. The uncertainty looms because we don’t know if this time will be for real.
In a surprise vote last February, the three person school committee decided to close our school with no input from anyone who works in the school building. The school committee tells us that this is not an attack on what we do as a staff, that we have done an excellent job and they are impressed. The school committee says not to take this vote personally, but we do. We know what we have sacrificed emotionally and financially to educate the students of our small town. We believe we should have at least had a voice representing our sacrifice. We believe we should have been trusted.
Our community will vote on June 13th whether or not they believe it will be more financially feasible to close our rural school. We hear many say that the choice has to be about money and not emotion. Townspeople tell us we need to run the school as if it is a business, but they forget that our “product” is students. We are not a business and cannot operate as if we are processing potatoes.
Like the larger schools, we teach content, but we have escaped the factory model of education where students are grouped in homogeneous classrooms and expected to behave the same. All of our classrooms contain two or three grades and students of all ability levels. It is not uncommon for a 6th grader to be working with an 8th grader on a project. Special education students work with gifted students. We create a culture of collaboration that is closer to the real world where your coworkers are not likely to be the same age or share your level of intelligence. Our school is heterogenous like the world our students will live in.
We keep traditions alive from generations before us. We teach our students the value and culture of Maine’s Swedish Colony. We teach our students with a community and family centered approach that cannot be managed in larger schools. My favorite days are those when we can pull the whole school together and watch the students play. The middle-school aged students act as if they are all older brothers and sisters to the younger students—a kindergartener who can’t get the ball in the basketball hoop gets an assist from a seventh-grader and everyone cheers. The students look out for each other and empathy develops. We need more empathy in this world.
So here we are facing school closure. Our students want to know what will happen to them next year and we don’t have any answers for them. My heart breaks a little more each time a student asks about next year. Will we be here next year? Will your classmates still be your classmates next year? Who can you count on? My students are supposed to be able to count on me, but I don’t have the answers they need.
Our students and staff come back to school day after day not sure what will happen in our future. Some days it is very difficult to walk through the door. We cling to each other understanding that no one knows what is to come. In our school, it doesn’t matter if you are a teacher, bus driver, middle school student, or kindergarten student. We are in this boat together.
Heather J. Rhodes, biology professor, Granville, Ohio
I began teaching science at the college level during the No Child Left Behind era. Students came in struggling with logic and inference, problem solving, building an evidence based argument, and quantitative thinking. That is to say, they had trouble with higher order thinking. Some of that is developmentally normal – college students should be challenged with higher order thinking – that’s the point of college. But so many of these students were uncomfortable with even being asked to engage on this level. They wanted to memorize facts; they wanted me to tell them exactly what they needed to know. In other words, they wanted me to teach to the test.
That’s why several years ago when Common Core was being rolled out, I did some reading to learn what it was and I was really excited. The Common Core standards are all about teaching students to engage in higher order thinking and real problem solving. If all you’ve heard about Common Core are politicians arguing or parents complaining about a math assignment they don’t understand, read this page that summarizes goals for math learning.
As a science teacher, this is enough to make me weep with joy. By comparison, previous standards have been shallow and repetitive without the emphasis on strategy, analysis or quantitative thinking.
As an educator, and as a parent to two elementary school children, this is the kind of thinking I want taught. The reason these standards are good is that they were written by passionate educators and education policy experts—not by politicians or lobbyists—building on best practices developed over years of experience educating our children. They have studied this in school, observed classrooms, tried different ways of teaching material and measuring outcomes. They are dedicated experts and they have our children’s best interests in mind.
Increasingly, and tragically, I see a profound distrust of these experts. Politicians routinely undermine teachers and education policy experts. The harsh reaction to Common Core is but one example. The appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, instead of someone with training and expertise in education, is another.
I’m not suggesting that we should have blind faith in our teachers or policy makers. But if we want a robust education for our children, not to mention our future employees, politicians, medical professionals, etc., we as a society need to acknowledge the training, dedication, and expertise of the people in the trenches of education. If you have a concern, ask a question. Why is this being taught this way? Learn about the curriculum and standards before you jump to criticize or try to fix it. We want employees who can solve problems and think on their feet, how do you teach those skills? Spend time at your schools to see what they do, then ask about it. How do you teach reading when you have kids at different levels in the same class? Ask how you can support your schools and educators.
If our goal is effective schools that graduate informed, adaptable, problem-solving citizens, then we need to trust, support, and empower teachers. We need to listen to them and ask them what they need, not assume that we know better.
It is my hope that solid educational standards like Common Core will weather the current political storms. That evidence-based decision making about education policy and budgets will win out. But to ensure that, we all need to step up, advocate for educators, and offer our support and our trust.
John Pierce – High School English teacher, Mason, Texas
Public education strikes me as, by definition, a democratic institution, and democracy is underwritten by certain assumptions about human nature. For instance, democracy invests tremendous worth in individuals, traditionally believing the individual to be sacred and unique. Thus, democracies in their truest forms acknowledge and respect heterogeneous peoples and, because each individual is respected, may tolerate within society a diverse range of opinions. Moreover, democracy places faith in individuals, believing that educated individuals have the capacity to generally make the right decisions. Indeed, democracy is essentially optimistic with regard to human nature and potentiality, and public education is the natural outgrowth of this democratic optimism.
Public education proceeds in the belief that each child is to be revered and that each child is capable of learning, realizing a good life, and contributing to their community. As a result, we teach every child who walks through the front door of a school, no matter their capabilities, no matter their backgrounds.
Both a democratic society and public education are founded on an essential human optimism. And this optimism produces trust that the institutions people create through democratic processes, though they will fail at times to live up to their ideals, are essentially good.
As a high school teacher, it feels as though cynicism and a lack of trust is eroding the foundations of democratic society, in particular public education. I see it in the accountability movement that doesn’t trust teachers to be professionals who can teach. I see cynicism in the school choice movement which not only bespeaks a distrust in public schools but that largely seems intent on promoting a new segregation.
I see cynicism in the diminished budgets for public and higher education, particularly in the fields that attempt to teach students to be more fully human rather than just simply economic actors. I see this in the lack of prestige and decent pay afforded to teachers and other public servants. I see this in our media narratives, especially about schools, which celebrate the scandals that inevitably crop up in human institutions while failing to promote stories that valorize these institutions.
I see cynicism in the artistic depictions of our age, where antiheroes are ubiquitous and characters who strive toward goodness are considered to be inauthentic, kitsch. Could a Walt Whitman—optimistically heralding the sacredness of the self, opposing slavery while also becoming friends with former Confederate soldiers—be heard today?
This cynicism is, of course, most obvious in our increasingly tribal political milieu.
I don’t have an answer to these problems. But as a person tasked with teaching any student who sits in my classroom and as person whose livelihood is dependent on the public will, I’m well aware of how much of what I do can only succeed within a context of human trust.
I fear for public education, and for my students, because that human trust we rely upon is waning.
Laura Mickelson, ESL teacher, Pataskala, Ohio
Lots of things scare me about education today, but I still have many hopes. In 1994, after working as a bank teller for three years, I quit. I wanted to change the world.
I returned to graduate school and earned an MA in Foreign and Second Language Education. In the past twenty years or so year I’ve taught in both K-12 and in higher education. I have taught in an affluent and successful school district and in one with socio-economic diversity that struggles. This is my current district.
Only recently has my district established an income tax, which means schools are largely dependent on the successful passage of levies. These levies are a Catch-22 for school districts. Those who have money are able to support their schools. Folks in our district can’t always afford the few extra dollars, regardless of their belief in the value of a strong public school. This limits the opportunities for economically disadvantaged students.
This Catch-22 is compounded by Ohio Governor John Kasich’s new budget plan which determines state funding based on the number of students in a school district. While my district is the fourth fastest growing district in Ohio, and one would think this would translate into more funding for our school, this isn’t the case. Gov. Kasich has capped the amount of funding a single district can receive. So we’re still losing money.
I fear for my students. Many come to us with gaps: interrupted education, dysfunctional families, lack of food or other necessities, and the list goes on. As an ESL teacher, I have students who have travelled through several different countries to get here. During this process, they may or may not have gone to school. They may know some English or they may know very little. Some of their parents can speak English and have been to school while others speak none and have never received formal schooling.
Some parents have time to support their children’s educational experiences while others work several jobs just to survive. Parent support is a necessity for most children to be successful in school and in life. This is not an ESL issue but a community one. Children need positive role models and if they can’t find them at home, school norms are hard to navigate. I fear our students may not always come to school ready to learn, and it isn’t always their fault.
So why do I continue to roll out of bed at 5:00 every morning to go to a school that’s overcrowded, and to work in a career that isn’t always respected? Well, one reason is I’ve already been in the system for twenty years. But the truth is, like every other passionate teacher, I wake up every morning for the students.
I wasn’t passionate about being a banker. I left all that behind to change the world. And I still have hope that I can.