The Spirit of School is Losing Momentum. Here’s My Account of It.
It may echo the sound of many.
At one point, I wanted to be a school bus driver. Sometimes I wonder if I’d be healthier doing that. The kids are a gift — it’s not them. I had decided to get certified to teach English and social studies for several reasons, but the main reason was, simply, to teach. I would soon realize that nothing is that simple in the system we’re in.
The Charter School
The first job I took was at a national charter school chain. I made it out with most of my hair.
I started as a building substitute, and remember nervously explaining in my interview that my “classroom management experience” was nonexistent and that I’d only watched several YouTube videos on it. Luckily, this charter had an extremely effective classroom management two-year recurring session that solidified best practices pretty well (we role played…it was intense). All I’ll say is that my wait time for student responses has been on point ever since.
As I moved up to student teaching, the use, discussion and presence of data was a shock. Everything was hyper strategic, and we regularly held meetings to discuss testing mastery data. I quickly learned that this is what “knowing your students” meant. The formula for lessons was steady: Direct teach, group work, independent practice, and a mastery ticket. Every. Single. Day. I still struggle with anything outside that sequence.
Goals, growth and mastery swarmed the halls. We attended an assembly-like gathering once a week, where shout outs, gratitude, and sure enough, data was shared out and cheered for. It was sweet, and the idea of meaningful work meant a lot. Community was strong, and the kids had chants they’d been doing for years about what year they were going to college. Academic readiness was the culture, and data maintained it.
Goals, growth and mastery applied to teachers, too. I recall a time my principal met with me on a growth goal I had picked for classroom management. It was something like “warm and demanding commands”, or “seeing the whole room”, because all I remember is having to stand at the door of my mentor teacher’s classroom, and pretend like I was talking to students as they were entering. She had me do it about three times, the quality declining each time. I’d done theater in high school, but this was just too much.
I ended up moving into a lead teaching role, but didn’t hold up. I was “teaching”, but suffocating. I was given scripted lessons for my homeroom class. I’d have flashbacks of the teachers I had growing up, who made their own decisions for us. That self-sufficiency is what made me want learn as a student, and then teach as a teacher. Data felt weird. I don’t remember it playing a big role in school twenty years ago. Everything was data-driven now, as if our objective on paper was all we were doing. Students felt like numbers, and I felt like a tool.
That “meaning” I had felt began to feel artificial. It felt as though the steps had been laid out for a purpose-driven school, and all we were doing was checking off all the boxes.
I thought maybe I’d lost it. I moved to public school.
The Public School
The most surprising thing about public school was the way teachers were held accountable. Accountability was driven by lesson plan templates and doing the same thing as other teachers. Which, as a result, created hierarchies in departments. How was I supposed to learn? I was ready to plan a whole year and see how it went, but I was just being handed papers to print and use.
We didn’t track data. At least, at first. Suddenly, my enemy from before became my partner in success: I knew how to do this. I knew the buzzwords, how to use them, and what they meant. I wrote my learning objectives on the board without the expectation to do so. I tracked mastery data. I thought I hated this, but now, I was the one who knew how to do things “right”.
After struggling through an observation from my state teacher mentor, I finally created my own materials to teach. I wanted to feel ownership of my work, and I finally did. The next observation was better, and I believe I got certified based on that lesson. New teachers, or teachers who aren’t at the “top” of department hierarchies are taught that they can’t plan their own lessons, and that they need to wait for others to tell them what they’re using, reading, etc. Apparently, teacher accountability looks like teachers all using the same materials to teach standards. This, more than anything, upset me as I learned the ways of campuses.
COVID & Data
When COVID hit, I, like many others, thought change would finally come. We thought it would be the long-awaited precedent for a reevaluation of the work we do. It even seemed possible for standardized testing to at least be modified, or for its role reconsidered.
None of this happened. In fact, aside from some SEL (social-emotional learning) professional development, teachers and students were expected to return to the classroom with the same energy we had before. Most districts skipped the spring 2020 standardized tests, but for spring 2021, states “really needed that data”. I’ve currently got students who just re-took that test for a third time, seven months later. It’s data for the sake of data, and boxes to check off. The truth is that students deserve better from their schools, and have been somewhat exploited for data. Many education stakeholders still, post-2020, avoid acknowledgement of this.
Eventually, the intense data culture I experienced at the charter school infiltrated the public school. I assumed this was the case for many public school districts going through major growth spurts. And with the increasing need of “accurate data” (at least, that’s what we call it), comes the need for teachers to administer common assessments, which then brings the need for common materials, common texts, common everything. Our individual and unique skills, what makes us real teachers, have no place. It feels as though we’re the machine, and the kids are the numbers.
The most relevant issues I’ve noticed in education from my time in the classroom are first, the use of students and the data we get from testing them, and second, the lack of teacher autonomy and its negative effects on both teachers and students. State requirements have turned public schools into compliance-based teaching and learning. Students are kids. They’re in their primary years of development. Childhood and data don’t mix well, and honestly, shouldn’t.
As with society, there seems to be this sense of mimicking in the education world. Buzzwords give you credit, and if someone calls something a “best practice”, it simply is. Assessment is useful, but the need and use of data is questionable. Alignment has merit, but the purpose behind it undermines teachers. We must ask ourselves what exactly school is, and what exactly we’re doing.
It’s an easy dance to learn, but a hard one to watch. In the name of meaningful education for students, a critique of our performance is overdue.