While perusing social media, I came across a rather interesting claim: progressive educators (Alfie Kohn, Deborah Meier, Pam Moran, etc.) are making untrue claims about the nature of schools. Critics outcry that “rote-based memorization”, “facts and dates”, and prison-like environments aren’t commonplace, and the average school is a vibrant place of learning. I was puzzled. I thought — surely all this work I’ve done preaching progressive education was for a real problem.
So I went and explored. In a non-scientific fashion, I Googled “teacher websites” and looked at syllabi, course assignments, materials, and outlines. And to my relief (and dismay), progressive education is still definitely needed. *In fact, I’ve been working on this for quite some time. Honestly, I had to stop at many points out of pure frustration at the practices I saw.
Below, I’ve established the “naughty list” of poor educational practice. The majority of classrooms I found (I viewed 129 websites) had some semblance of the following. I believe this is fair and just criticism. I’m tired of teachers hiding behind a veil of respect for our profession. As I’m sure most have stated to their classrooms: respect is earned, not given. If we wish to place teachers in the same dialogue as doctors and lawyers, it only makes sense that we call out outright poor decisions. A standard must be set and we must be held accountable. A profession can’t have it both ways.
That being said, that does not mean that all of these are the fault of the teacher (although, a few definitely are.) Administrative policy, the culture of a building, normative training, and more will result in poor teaching.
The Naughty List
Disrespect, Elitism, and “Expectations”
Frankly, this is the one that caught me off-guard; it was most common theme and the most preventable. Teachers talking to kids with a power-hungry, detrimental tone. It wasn’t hard to find these. Any teacher who placed “expectations” on their website would predictably fall into this line of thought. Such as:
- It would be AWESOME if we could all pretend to be adults…
- This is the place to gather information…[when you] are bored of looking at Facebook, ran out of music on your iPod, already texted everyone you know five times, were wondering what your teacher’s name was, figured you might want to catch up since some of you might think grades are important…
- You are here to learn. Don’t waste your time doing something else.
- If it becomes clear that you are rereading in order to avoid work, I will require that you read a new book.
- There will be homework almost every night (moan, groan). Yes, there is homework on Fridays!
- The expectation is you’ll do what you’re told. Administrative action will be given to those who think otherwise.
- After I greet you, SILENTLY go directly to your seat and immediately copy the homework in your tracker, then do the bell work. AFTER bell work you can turn in absent/late work, ask me other questions, get a drink of water…
Although everything else on this “naughty list” can be attributed to other negative factors facing a teacher’s career — sometimes out of their control — this is just flat-out bad practice. It’s clear that these teachers don’t trust or respect children. I remember this exact behavior from when I was in school: teachers acting like your life isn’t important; the things you do for fun are a waste of time; and only their class will prepare you for the future. Of course, this isn’t true and anyone will seethe at being treated this way. I couldn’t imagine talking to an adult in this fashion without retaliation.
These statements, which reflect the overall mindset of a teacher, gives a window into their classroom. Their assumptions on students will be reflected by disdain. That may sound charged, but it’s the reality: if one is spending their time speaking of children in a deficit, their actions toward them will be deficit-minded. This is enforced by literal prison policies: do as your told or stay longer in punishment. And these will be the same people who decry that kids don’t want to be at school!
Students consistently subjected to this will hate school. That should be obvious — and even some of the most thoughtful teachers I had made me feel disrespected in the classroom. Providing a space for children to learn requires treating them like human beings — with respect and compassion.
Preparing Students for Jobs in an Amazon Warehouse
When we say, “Prepare students for the 21st century.”, I didn’t realize that meant wage-slave working conditions. The majority of educators I found enforce:
- Bathroom policies with a punch card-style strike system. Most offered 4 or less allowances per year. Some offered extra credit solely for not using the restroom. Nothing says future-prepared like holding your bladder.
- Checking in a cell phone at a designated location before the start of each class. Not having access to one’s phone even during breaks or between classes. Of course, I recognize a teacher doesn’t want students on their phone for the entirety of class, but promoting this behavior assumes that students won’t pay attention to the lesson. I would venture in classes like these, most would opt for their phones (see almost any teacher behavior at a PD featuring a PowerPoint.)
- Late homework held to “high expectations” by ensuring more work and little to no grade for the effort. Although deadlines are important, if we assign 30 minutes per class (and nearly all 7 classes a day do this) — we’re assuming that the average teenager should work 210 minutes — 3 1/2 hours — each night. A ~7:30AM — 6PM work day for no pay and often, irrelevant learning. Teachers usually defend this by saying, “I used to do all my homework at school!” Except, teachers tend to have high academically-performing histories. After all, they decided to work in this environment. Just imagine if someone didn’t understand information at school and was subject to this amount of work, then demonized for not finishing. Of course they’d stop doing homework and fall further behind.
Facts, Dates, and “Rigor”
I really don’t understand how anyone could make a claim that this is not the modern function of today’s classrooms. Of the 129 teacher websites I viewed (all from 2016 onward), only two had an assessment based on extensive project work. Every other classroom featured at least one of the following:
- Grammar/math/homework/review packets.
- Guided charts and notes.
- Posted discussion questions to complete.
- Reading logs (multiple classrooms required twenty or more books a year to be read.)
- “Pre-AP” review materials. This was something I was not familiar with, but there are a scary amount of “Pre-AP” 5th-8th grade classes that prepare students for PowerPoints, weekly quizzes, and AP testing. *In my nightmare scenario, “college-preparatory” elementary schools are propping up everywhere.
- 50% or more of a total grade being based on tests or quizzes. Many were well above 50%.
This isn’t to say that a teacher should never use any of these, but when a class is solely based on providing guided notes, PowerPoints, and taking quizzes, it can automatically be deemed useless. Case-in-point, have any teacher take a final exam in any class they took in this fashion and see if they remember anything. I’d venture they don’t — because nothing was applied. There was no purpose or experience to their learning. Of course, it isn’t entirely their fault. Teachers are modeling this way to prepare for state standardized assessment.
Also, a special shout-out to AP classes — which because of the absurd amount of AP standards and judgment of AP testing — were the most traditional and banal. Almost all of these classes featured multiple day examinations with nauseating amount of fact-based multiple choice tests and extensive memorization “critical thinking” essays.
Social Studies Coaches
Perhaps because I’m a social studies teacher, I knew that this subject would be the worst case scenario. Every social studies instructor I had in school was a coach. And this is nothing against coaches — they often provide excellent outlets (although, not always) — however, these classes were always formatted the same way. PowerPoint posted online. Guided notes. Quiz on Fridays. Teachers like this were paid to be athletic trainers, not educators. They performed as a robot would in the classroom. Some of my teachers would even grab all their materials from Facebook or TeachersPayTeachers and simply read them aloud.
Again, it’s not that all of the following are poor choices — it’s when they’re solely the output of a class:
- Crash Course videos on every single lesson plan
- One and done templated “fun activities” for kids (e.g. Enlightenment Facebook accounts, Snapchat stories)
- A curriculum focused on wars with little (and often, no) emphasis on racism, sexism, and other crucial facets of social studies
- Answering the questions on the state standardized test or at the back of an online textbook.
- Current events for 5 minutes of class, followed by lecture and notes. Emphasis on the notes. In fact, most teachers wrote extensively on taking notes in a journal. This was the reason I hated history class in school. Despite teaching the subject, I was reminded of this while shadowing a student while student teaching — no matter how interesting history is to me, a textbook lecture is never engaging.
Destroying a Love of Reading
Only 1 of 43 English classrooms allowed students to choose their own books to read. Almost all required daily reading logs with an expectation of 20 or more minutes per night. We should definitely want our students to be readers, but nothing will kill any joy in literature faster than forcing someone to do something nights-on-end. I would venture that forcing a student to play video games an hour a day, write a report on it, and present it to the class would turn kids to reading Shakespeare.
With statements like:
“Can I read a magazine? No. Read a book. Magazines and newspapers don’t offer the extended chunks of prose you need to develop fluency. More important, they won’t help you discover who you are as a reader of books.”
“If any book is not permitted to be read, at the request of your parents, an alternative text will be provided for you.
It’s not surprising that most adults hate reading, yet most kindergartners love reading. It’s not the level of the text or time commitment, it’s the destruction of purpose-driven reading that happens throughout school. Personally, as well as anecdotally through my pro-reading friends, we all had to “redevelop” a love of reading well after school.
The Nice List
There were teachers doing great work that deserve their practice recognized. Here’s what we all should strive for:
- A class devoted to running the school’s newspaper where, outside of some key terms, students operated and worked together to meet publishing deadlines. The teacher was constantly critiquing and praising their work.
- A teacher designing large-scale science projects that were individualized to every learner, checking in weekly to see if they’re on the right track. One grade was recorded for completion of the project.
- An AP teacher who stated that although the test forced them to memorize a lot of information, their grade on the test is not indicative of their intelligence or where they’ll end up.
- A syllabus that emphasized the importance of questioning authority, respecting everyone, and developing empathy for people different than oneself. Classroom “expectations” were all agreements written by students.
- A classroom that completely removed grades and switched to a portfolio system that was self-graded and conferenced upon with the instructor.
Escaping the Bubble
This may come across as a narcissistic complaint of what teachers do. And to an extent it is, but I want it to be about doing better. Social media users live in a bubble and some have come to believe that the average teacher is doing relevant, amazing work — and it’s just not true. I believe wholeheartedly the average classroom is well, average. It’s about standardized, boring curriculum and it’s taught in a relatively boring way. The teacher may be kind, generous, and make connections with kids — but I know from my experience in school that this was not the norm — and most of my teachers are still around.
When 1 or 2 of 7 periods in a day is doing amazing, experiential-driven work with critical thought, creativity, and collaboration coming into play (which are often the same classrooms celebrated on Twitter and Instagram), that is not enough.
We can’t stop pushing or disillusion ourselves that these problems don’t exist. It requires all those pushing at the edges to double-down on doing what’s best for children according to child development experts, educational researchers, and sheer common sense of one’s school experience. Until the average 18 year old praises school publicly for the awesome experiences they had, when it’s weird that children want to stay home from school, when students recognize the purpose of what they’re doing — we cannot assume that teachers are always doing the right thing.
I hope that these words don’t come across as disrespectful or belligerent. But I’m dissatisfied with the status quo, and you should be too.