I retired two years ago after my 39-year career teaching mostly eighth grade English. In 1978, when I arrived at my first position, a general sixth grade classroom, I was shown a stack of books and given a lesson plan book, a grade book, an attendance book and a key. I was told to talk to the other sixth grade teachers if I needed ideas. Other than that, I was on my own.
And so I did what any new teacher would do: I got to work, made mistakes, learned from them, and improved.
However, because I was given as much space as I needed to figure out who I was as a teacher, at the end of my first year my students hosted a “Welcome to Summer Festival” that included a film we made together, a poetry recital, skits, dancing, and even stand-up comedy. My students did five more festivals over the next five years, and then came the 13 middle school plays I directed, the 25 student films my students and I made together, the literary magazines, the newspapers, the songs my students wrote and performed, the dialogue journals (best in show, PM me for the details), the field trips to the Holocaust Memorial Center and the Detroit Institute of Arts, the pen pals, the intensive studying of musicals like “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Evita,” watching, discussing and writing personal essays about the original “Degrassi Jr. High” TV show, the countless second recesses in which I played on the playground with my students, the 30 years of coaching basketball, etc.
All of the above happened because I was trusted to dream and reach for my dreams. You know, what guest speakers exhort our students to do on graduation day.
I did my best. Mistakes were made, but I was given space to learn from them and grow without fear of reprisal. And so I did.
Ah! But what did I experience at the end of my career?
While I was told that I was a master teacher and that I was appreciated—and I did feel appreciated—I was also handed a curriculum guide designed to improve test scores. The guide included a few tiny spaces for “teacher’s choice.” And like the other eighth grade English teachers in my school, I was given scripts to read for the sake of grade-level uniformity. And I attended meetings to study test score results and afterwards the curriculum guides became stricter. Among other redundancies, the guides included an entire month devoted to our students writing pre on-demand argumentive essays, reteaching argumentative essays, and having our students write post on-demand argumentative essays. Yes, it is good to teach argumentative essays—you will get no argument from me!—but can we do it without crushing our students’ souls?
More important to me, I looked carefully at my curriculum guide but there was no time allotted for “Welcome to Summer Festivals” or anything that resembled it.
That was when I knew it was time to move on, and so I did.
I will say that those imposing this madness on us meant well and that they had good intentions. But as the German-Jewish writer Kurt Tucholsky once wrote during the time of Hitler, “The opposite of good is good intention.” As Michigan’s Republican Party made their now mostly successful attempt to destroy Michigan’s public schools, our public schools needed to be defended. But the administrators did not; and we teachers did not; and so standards and test scores took over.
I do understand that it is a big deal for an administrator or a teacher to put his or her job on the line. I know I did not want to lose my job! But I also did not want to leave behind my chosen profession because I did not buy into teaching to the test—teaching was and is my destiny.
There was no easy answer. In fact, because we were all so insanely busy spinning on our legislated hamster wheels, the only easy decision we had was to pretend that what was happening wasn’t happening, and sneak in the humanity when no one was looking. Sigh. I know that everyone wanted to be humane, they just could not figure out how to squeeze it into the curriculum guide.
And so it goes.
As I look back, the truth in my case—a truth I know beyond a shadow of a doubt—is that TODAY, where I spent my career anyway, my 23-year-old self would never even be given an interview let alone be hired to teach. Ha! My 23-year-old self would have tried to “play the game,” but his innate desire and need for independence would have been impossible to fully conceal. Therefore, his resume would have been glanced at before being tossed onto the “nope” pile.
We can do better.
I hope that our “schools” possess their own innate power to make happen what needs to happen for our students to learn and thrive. After all, evolution cannot be tamed.
But we can do better. And so there’s nothing to do but get smarter so that we can do better. After all, I may be retired, but every school day here in Ann Arbor, I listen to the children joyfully playing on the nearby playground. I listen and I know, they are my children, too.
We have to do better.