Today I turn 44 years old. That means I’ve been teaching for exactly half of my life. There are so many ways in which my beloved profession and I have changed over time. When I started out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after college, here are some items I utilized:
A metal chalk holder was a prized purchase that I used daily.
A multi-chalk holder was a must-have for printing and cursive instruction.
The EZ-Grader grading calculator was a simple way to grade papers and provide number scores.
I had one of these alphabets hanging above the chalkboard where the focus of instruction happened.
We had copy machines when I started teaching, but I made copies of veteran teachers’ mimeograph worksheets for students.
If I had just held off on buying an obscene amount of stickers over the years, I’d have a pretty healthy college fund for my son!
Seriously, though, how do you provide feedback without a grade and a sticker (if it’s warranted)? Ah, the weekly spelling test.
These observations are strictly that – observations I am making based on my own personal experiences in two states and three districts over my professional career. Here are the big ways in which teaching and I have changed over time…
I started teaching when the college classes we took for reading instruction were based on the whole language movement. Needless to say, it did not prepare me for my first teaching position: a multi-age self-contained special education classroom. How could I teach my students to read without any solid reading strategies under my belt? So I went back for a master’s degree in reading within a year of finishing college. A colleague friend was trained in the Wilson reading program (Tina Stewart, I’m talking about you), and I learned everything I could from her in order to help my students master the sounds of our alphabet.
Specific daily reading instruction was built into pulling apart the morning message on chart paper and working with language together.
I’ve been around long enough to experience the whole language movement, reading workshop model with literature circles around themes, professionally- produced reading anthologies, and now the create your own curriculum using the Common Core standards.
There are definitely benefits to the Common Core curriculum. It has brought a focus to reading nonfiction text, research skills, and listening and speaking skills. However, I feel that education has thrown a lot of beautiful babies out with the bath water. Students I work with today don’t have a solid spelling or grammar foundation. They’ve been deprived of cursive instruction, which has a lot of research proving how much it helps brain development. High stakes testing is only allowed to be done on the computer, which makes me wonder if it’s showing what all of our learners truly know and understand. But mostly, it pains me to see that Common Core standards have stifled the joy of reading for pleasure. I work really hard in my corner of the world to change that. In fact, my mission is to bring back reading joy to students and staff.
There used to be more time. Not more hours of the school day, but the days were not as packed with the amount of curriculum we are now required to cover. Everything today is so FAST. We know that children learn through play. Yet full day kindergarten is a lot of sitting and learning. People who have been in this business a long time know that what we are expecting of children today is not developmentally appropriate. Yet we are mandated to teach this way. And the teachers at the upper grades are paying for it. Kids today have a harder time thinking and reasoning for themselves. When a student approached me with a broken tip on his pencil and asked, “What should I do?” I knew our current system could use some restructuring.
And why do sports and activities take place every day of the week? Our society seems to have forgotten about quality family time being important. When I hear of people going to soccer tournaments on Father’s Day, I shake my head and say, “What are we doing wrong as a society? Where does the madness end?” Kids need down time. They don’t seem to get much of that anymore. Unstructured time for imaginative play and playing with friends would help to build those problem solving abilities that are lacking in our classrooms today.
And don’t even get me started on professional development. We love the buzz words, don’t we? Deeper Learning. Design Thinking. We proclaim that these are in full effect. Why? Because you said so? How about providing teachers with the time and resources to fully understand the new initiatives you are telling the school committee we have embraced? Isn’t that what professional development is supposed to be about? I see a couple teachers taking their weekends to learn more on their own time and the rest looking like a deer in headlights. You cannot expect teachers to implement something with fidelity that they have not been trained to do.
Respect and Accountability
I never had an issue with classroom management at age 22. Back when I started teaching it was a given that families and teachers worked together to help form their little humans. I remember a parent conference where a mom said, “I’m not worried about her academics. I know she’ll be fine in that area. My first question is ‘Is she respectful to you? That’s very important in our house.” Students were respectful because their parents placed a value on respect for others.
It was probably at age 33 that I had my first dose of the new reality. A student was really mean to another student so I kept him in for the first five minutes of recess to talk to him about it. I got an email that night from his mother saying how dare I embarrass her son by keeping him in for recess. Let’s recap: he was hurtful to another student, I reflected on it with him so he wouldn’t act like that again, and I was the bad guy.
Since then a law has been put into place that you cannot keep a child in for the first five minutes of recess to reflect on their behavior. You must find another time for that. We establish expectations and rules but we don’t have consequences. Have we lost our common sense? Don’t all children thrive on routine and knowing what to expect?
I think we have no consequences because the schools are afraid of parents. And I’m not talking the parents who believe in rules and consequences. I mean the parents who don’t bother to parent their own children because it takes work and time to do it right. The parents who don’t think anything of disparaging teachers on social media. The parents who honk their horns and try to drive around cars in the drop-off line. The parents teaching their children that “the rules apply to everyone but us.” They are the parents I want to send to a John Rosemond workshop for a weekend. Believe me, for the most part, I interact with kind, respectful students and families. But, boy, there are some tough kids and families out there. And the media has not done a great job of building up our profession over the years. For every bad teacher story you see on the news, I can tell you about at least a hundred good teachers I personally know.
We are not allowed to give homework anymore. I have a hard time with that. Yes, students have sports and activities. Even on Father’s Day. I don’t even think families eat dinner with one another anymore (a rant for another day). Parents are too busy and too tired to deal with homework. But I think homework helps develop ownership and responsibility. Mind you, I’m not talking a heavy load of work. And as a parent, don’t you want to sort of know what your child is learning? My son is just entering kindergarten in the Fall, so maybe I’ll be singing another tune in a few years. But I do think creating a home-school connection is always a good thing. When you take the time to sit with your child to review homework, you are teaching your children that 1. your children are your priority and 2. education is your family’s priority. (You’d be dismayed to meet the amount of children today who have been led to believe through words and actions that they are not their parents’ priority).
This is the area that just gets better and better with time. Wow, we are so lucky to be living with the vast amount of incredible titles out there for kids. The quality and variety of genres are simply amazing. It’s a personal challenge when I come across a student who is not into reading. I know with the nonfiction, fantasy, action/adventure, graphic novels, hybrids, historical fiction, realistic fiction, and mystery genres out there, I can find a way to hook a dormant reader. I also like that publishers and kid lit people are working hard to be sure to produce books that are both windows and mirrors for readers. In other words, students should be able to see how someone else lives and students should be able to validate how they live through literature. The We Need Diverse Books movement is a great catalyst for this.
Becoming a Parent
I’ve conducted countless parent-teacher conferences over the years, but being on the other side of it as a parent was nerve-wracking. I now realize that at the very core of it, you want to know that you are sending your child to be in the care of someone who truly gets him and cares for him, who knows he has things to work on but celebrates the gifts he brings to the table. I want to honor my son’s exuberance but also help him understand time and place. For instance, he often gets excited and yells what he wants to say. We are working on using an inside voice even when he’s excited. I believe God gives teachers sons so we will realize that when they are constantly in motion, they truly cannot help it. It’s just who they are.
Over my 22 years I’ve taught in three districts, two states, worked for six principals, called 6 classrooms home, taught special and regular education, earned two master’s degrees, achieved National Board certification, and switched from the classroom to the library setting. I now teach 550 students a week instead of 25 students. I miss the close relationships you build with your own classroom students, but I love the impact I can make across the whole school. Teaching is a hard profession. Elementary teachers are expected to teach all subjects while also being counselors for the many heartbreaking issues our children are facing today. It’s incredibly exhausting but I cannot think of another place I’d rather be. Kids are honest and funny. They have so much of their lives ahead of them, and I love being around that kind of promise each day. I hope that the students I’ve had over the years know that I cared for them, that I had high expectations for them, and that I’m excited to see what the world has in store for them.
Although so much has changed in my profession, I still believe that we are put on this earth to learn as much as we can and be as kind as we can. It can’t get any simpler than that. Here’s to another 22 years! I hope I’m still as excited and passionate as I prepare for retirement.
It’s my birthday so I’d like to give you a gift. If you leave a comment about how you’ve seen education change, you could win the book I’m excited to read and discuss. Entries are due by July 10, 2017 at midnight EST.