By Jim Shimabukuro
(On 21 Feb. 2013, Bonnie Bracey Sutton, ETCJ associate editor, shared Valerie Strauss’s “U.S. Teachers’ Job Satisfaction Craters — Report” [Washington Post, 21 Feb. 2013] in our staff listserv. In response, I posted the following comment, which I’ve revised for this publication. -js)
Thanks, Bonnie, for sharing these stats. With teacher morale so low, the outlook for U.S. schools is bleak. For me, the elephant in the room is the impact of poverty. As a nation, we can’t continue to blame teachers for the consequences of poverty. We can’t expect them to resolve the causes of poverty. This is and always has been a social issue — not a pedagogical one.
What’s the answer?
For me, reading between the numbers, it means we ought to stop pushing highstakes testing and the common core. We need to allow teachers to do their job. They’re trained to determine where their students are and where they could be in terms of their classes, and for each student and each class, the profiles vary widely. This “diagnosis” is not only academic. In many if not most cases, it includes affective factors. Thus for variable portions of their classes, the teacher’s challenge may be motivation, attitude, rather than academics. For example, in writing instruction, the hurdle may be pull rather than push. How to attract students to writing may be the primary question — not how to push them toward earning higher scores on a standardized test that purports to measure writing competence.
To generate pull, teachers may decide to put their red pencils down and work with the language that students bring from their homes and neighborhoods. It may not be pretty in terms of common core standards, but it’s the reality. Preliminary goals may be to simply get students to enjoy writing and sharing their interests and concerns, in their most intimate and affective language. Giving them personally meaningful reasons for learning to write may be the fundamental pull that’s necessary to gradually incorporate the pushing of our beloved standards. We must find ways to recognize and reward teachers who are able to pull, to motivate, to change attitudes rather than simply move the needle in standardized tests.
Bonnie has been saying this for years. STEM must begin with a pull toward science etc. And for some student populations, the key is definitely out in the field, in museums, on day trips, at fairs. Frank Withrow has mentioned in countless articles the pull potential of NASA programs, educational TV programs, websites designed to combine play and learning. Harry Keller, ETCJ science editor, has spent the better part of his professional career creating online lab activities that engage students in personally gathering and manipulating data.
Harry, in one of his listserv messages, says that the buck must stop with teachers. He’s right. But to hold them accountable, we must empower rather than hogtie them, allow them to set goals and learning schedules that fit their populations. And most critically, as Bonnie continues to remind us, we must provide teachers with the resources they need to create the kind of pull that inspires students to want to learn.
But none of this would work without parent, principal, school board, and community buy in. We all have to be on the same page. For many teachers, the primary problem is getting students to want to learn. Teaching them how to learn is secondary. In some cases, especially where poverty reigns, simply getting students to show up in class prepared to learn is the greatest challenge. Health, nutrition, hygiene, personal safety, school supplies may be the primary obstacles.
With so much on their plates, teachers need everyone’s help to do their job. We need to listen to them — not, as Bonnie continues to remind us, politicians and journalists and business leaders and other so-called experts who haven’t spent at least a year in the shoes of a teacher in a classroom full of students who are victims of the poverty syndrome.
In the final analysis, better test scores are a poor reward for teachers who find their calling in the love of learning. Students don’t learn and develop in a lockstep continuum. Like an open marathon, they’re spread out over a wide range of circumstantial abilities. To finish, the amount of time required varies widely in a single race and over many races. The student who walks rather than runs can also succeed, and we need to honor the teacher who is able to inspire the student to stay the course, to inspire the student to enter other marathons and gradually improve her/his performance.