Monday, November 2, 2015

Becoming a Teacher in the Age of Reformation

Susan M. Tran is a young, second generation Vietnamese-American woman who completed a Bachelors degree in Spanish at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2010. She will soon complete a masters program and be certified as an elementary school teacher at the University of Northern Colorado. Susan is mature and intelligent; she recognized early in her career that becoming a teacher in the Age of Reformation is forcing idealistic young teachers to resolve contradictions — contradictions between 1) messages from reformers who believe that teaching is a low level trade that has no right to organize on its own behalf and for which six weeks of indoctrination are adequate training, and 2) messages from university-based teacher trainers who believe that good teaching is rooted in children's unique interests and capabilities and treats them as individuals, not as replicates of a governmentally defined template.

Here, Susan speaks for herself:

Throughout my education to be a teacher, one of the biggest questions that has arisen for me is “How do I meet the expectations and standards of the state and district, while also meeting the true needs of my students?” One of my biggest fears coming into the teaching profession is that we have started to confuse the acquisition of knowledge with the process of learning. In an effort to meet numeric goals and score high on standardized tests, we have become obsessed with how to get our students to perform in a way that satisfies a checklist, or a numerical score, or a national standard. I'm fearful that we have forgotten about instilling passion, excitement, and curiosity in our students. It is becoming less important to us to create better people, who care about each other and the world around them and think of ways to deal with the problems that they see in front of them. We discuss world problems only in so far as they fit into our standardized curriculum, but we don’t address the difficult yet inevitable issues that our students will eventually find themselves confronted with in the very near future.

I do understand the need for progression in a student’s knowledge. I see why it's important that our students are exposed to and encouraged to master a large variety of topics. However, I do not understand why we have begun to think that the best way to do this is to have them fill in a bubble sheet, or sit in front of a computer for an hour and take the exact same test. We’ve become immersed in this notion that there is a "standard," which then implies that there is a norm. There's a 'normal' level that a student must attain at a certain time, and that the best way to get them there is to maintain the same timeline across the board.

In spite of the fact that our methods classes certainly cover the topics of differentiation, and "meeting the needs of each student," we see classrooms all around us that teach to the same set-in-stone standards, which translates into more information and less context, relevance, and appeal to students' interests. This may all sound like a long rant criticizing the methods of current teaching, and that is absolutely not the point that I am trying to make. I think that teaching and teachers should be one of the most highly valued professions. I think that many schools do their very best to create well-rounded students who will enter the world as functional citizens who can contribute to society. I am simply trying to express the fact that we are in danger of getting lost along the way. We have focused too much on the numerical scores that we are producing rather than the wonderful, creative, and inspired individuals who we are helping to shape.

I know that I am entering this profession at a time of great change. There are shifts occurring within the standards, the expectations, and the focus of what we are teaching. I constantly wonder how I am going to be the teacher I imagine myself to be during this time of reform. I wonder how I am possibly going to adhere to these state and national standards with each class that I have, since I know that every single student, and thus every classroom, is unique. The state declares that a class must be at a specific point in the curriculum at a specific time, but what if we need more time? What if we need less? How can I possibly fit in all of the projects and support and guidance that my students will need to fully understand why what they’re learning is important and applicable to the real world? How will I foster minds that love learning, instead of ones that dread testing and begin to believe that they are "too stupid" to learn because they're not categorized in the "correct" numerical column? These are all things I've seen already, and it would be a lie to say that I'm not overwhelmed and terrified.

At the end of the day, what I put my hope and belief in is my students. As adults, we tend to follow the rules and the expectations that society has laid out for us. But from what I’ve seen, kids are resilient, and strong, and independent; and they don’t see the obstacles that we've so forcefully erected around them. I hope that although I may have to teach an ordained curriculum to a dictated set of standards,that I can somehow foster growth and creativity in my students that will help them grow into a new generation of learners. I believe it's possible that many of the teachers being trained in this day and age have similar feelings; and maybe if we can genuinely put our hearts and souls into this craft, our students, with their vibrant tenacity, will carry with them a passion for learning long after they’ve left our classroom. I hope that we won’t forever be caught up in a world that "normalizes" and standardizes, but instead in one that celebrates differences and fosters better people, rather than better scores.

~Susan M. Tran

Confronted with these contradictory pressures and expectations, some teachers grow cynical, some conform, and some exit the profession. And a few find safe places to give children what they know is right.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of the National Education Policy Center, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

1 comment:

  1. "The state declares that a class must be at a specific point in the curriculum at a specific time, but what if we need more time? What if we need less?" Is the curriculum of Colorado really so prescribed as to have date-stamped the standards? Or, is this a negative reaction to the expectation that students reach any minimum level of mastery, literacy, or numeracy at any time?

    My worry, especially for new teachers, is such negative reactions to standards and benchmarks. It's almost as if the message to them is, "If 100% of students don't reach this benchmark, then what's the point in having it?" Is there any discussion with new teachers about how to effectively monitor their own instruction with such data?

    A corresponding message always seems to be, "Students who don't reach this benchmark weren't ready to learn this yet." That's an especially worrisome attitude in early literacy. Defining a student who hasn't learned as one who wasn't ready to learn, rather than one who simply wasn't taught enough, allows us to pass off years of inadequate learning with a blanket statement of, "Well, everyone's different."

    Your students can learn, You can teach them. You can do a good job. I hope your fears prove to be unfounded. My experience has taught me that no matter what, the teacher still makes the weather in the classroom.