I love this time of year, when teachers invade downtown and take over for two days. I love the speed walking, the passionate dialogue of colleagues trying to cram a whole conversation in between sessions. I love milling about the trade show, and sitting in on sessions given by passionate, charismatic speakers. I love running into former colleagues and old friends. Mostly, what I love is that once a year I get the opportunity to challenge what I think about my profession, myself as a professional, and to reflect on days gone by.
This year was particularly reflective for me. Mostly what I have been thinking about is the people who have made me the person I am today, even though that may sound a bit cliché. In the time that I have been engaged in this profession, either as a teacher or as a teacher in-training, I have met wonderful people who have shaped my understanding, my practice, and my core values. My mentor teacher, who was always so patient and kind said to me at the beginning of my practicum, “Don’t be afraid to take risks, I won’t remember your mistakes when doing your evaluation.” At the end he said, “If you want to thank me do it by paying it forward. Teaching is a busy profession, and there will be times when you are tired. You will thank me if in those moments instead of saying ‘no’ to a request, you will say ‘yes’.” That idea of paying it forward has always stayed with me. My first principal challenged my ideas of “fairness” and “assessment” in ways that seem to be un-doable. Those issues of what is fair? and how do I know what I know? guide a lot of the choices I make as a teacher. The list of people who supported, guided and shaped who I am is too long to discuss in detail here, but I will say this, I have been very fortunate in my experiences.
However, as I reflect today, in this current economic climate, it feels a little like education, and more specifically teachers, are under attack. As classroom resources dwindle and classroom sizes bloom, it is hard to not start to wonder if it is all worthwhile.
We, in our profession, spent decades perfecting a system of standardization, that would level the playing field for students, where teacher judgement could not be wildly different, and students would be compared on the same information, using uniform methods. This system was the envy of school boards across North America, who went on to adopt a similar system. We were the leaders, the front-runners. Now what we see in education is the systematic dismantling of that system in favor of ‘discovery learning’ and ‘teacher judgement.’ While this may sound like a criticism, it really is more of a cry for centrism. I believe that standardized teaching and testing can be the end of an excellent educational system, if the they are the only tools used, and if they are not properly understood.
New teachers coming into our profession, or teachers who transition to a new grade or subject area are often at a loss as to where to begin teaching. Standardization is a great starting point. From there, teachers need the freedom to move, the room to use their judgement to determine the best way to reach their students. Not every teacher has the same vision, perspective, understanding, talents, or comfort levels as every other teacher. Certainly classroom dynamics change from person to person and place to place. Teachers need to be able to honor and use what they bring to the table, while also honoring and recognizing what their students need and bring to the table as well.
I was once teaching two language arts classes. In both classes we looked at comparison writing. I took them into the computer lab, and because I like to emphasize with my classes that what we do in one class, not only can transfer over to another class, it most definitely does, I had them compare different math websites. We looked at five or six different ones, and I gave them some critieria on which to judge the sites that was subjective, for example “which was the easiest to use?” Then they had to compare two of them and write their paragraph. One class was totally into it. They thought this was the best idea ever. The other class hated it. It was like pulling teeth to get them to do any part of it. Interestingly enough when we did the short story, “On the Sidewalk Bleeding” by Evan Hunter, I was trying to engage some background knowledge by having students brainstorm with me. The class that hated the math website assignment generally had a lot of background knowledge about gangs. The class that loved the math website assignment really struggled with this assignment. Their background knowledge, generally, was lacking. This, and some other experiences, told me that I needed to treat these two groups differently, and that what was engaging to one group would not necessarily be engaging to the other. Therefore, we need to have some room to move. We cannot have a program that prescribes everything we do and say in the classroom. The curriculum should be clear, and structured, with some room for teachers to innovate.
Standardized testing gives a point of comparison, a snapshot in time, that allows us to begin a discussion. A discussion about what? Well about the students certainly. I have taught numerous students over the years, at least one or two each year, who did not perform well on classroom tasks, but would score above 80% and some above 90% on standardized tests. This allowed me to say, “this student gleaned more information than I realized and was able to capture.” When students consistently do well, or not, on standardized tests, it gives us one piece of the puzzle. If I have a student who has done really well all the way along, year after year, gets sick or suffers a traumatic loss, I have something to compare their current assessments or performance to. It is that independent standard of comparison that is important. It is not just that maybe they have a teacher who is a harder “marker” or who gives harder “tests.” The standard is the same, and therefore it allows us to make some across the board comparisons. I have had students in special education, who we were looking at moving to a ‘regular’ classroom. The fact that they could perform just as well on a standardized tests as the majority of ‘other’ students spoke volumes about whether or not the student was appropriate for a regular classroom.
Another conversation that I think is very important is one that takes place at faculty meetings. It is the one where we use the data to drive the practice. We look at our standardized test results and we compare between classes, teachers, schools and we have a provincial standard (average) to compare to. It invites us to evaluate how successful our teaching practices are, and examine whether or not we are moving in the right direction. Without standardized testing I am concerned that these professional conversations will stop or will be largely unproductive. “Well given my assessment results, my teaching practices are stellar.” Where instead of being a reflection of good teaching, results may have more to do with the assessment tasks level of difficulty in another classroom down the street, or even down the hall.
One of my frustrations with teaching up to this point is that the curriculum is so crammed full, that it is difficult to find the time to do ‘discovery learning’ and that we are so busy building basic skills and laying a foundation for knowledge, we are not doing enough to explore, discover, and invent. But I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bath water. We don’t need to overthrow what we have now in favor of something totally new and different. We need basic skills and a foundation of knowledge, and we need to explore, discover and invent. We need the resources, support and class sizes to do both well.
Is it worth it…to stick it out…well there is certainly a lot of work to be done.