Fall of 2016 marked my 17th year of teaching in some way, shape, or form. From college composition, literature, and tech writing, to high school English, and even some adult education, I have dabbled in a wide variety of teaching endeavors. I love teaching. I love interacting with students. I love feeling like I make an impact on the world, even if it is one small pebble in a huge ocean. It’s what has kept me in the profession for so long when staggering numbers of teachers leave after a year, five, or ten.
But the last year or two have been very difficult. It’s not that the reward has decreased. I still love my kids. I still love my content. As with so many teachers, I struggle with the other influencers on my profession. Data, data, data, and the subsequent standardized tests that interrupt quality learning all to pigeon-hole a round student into a square hole, or vice-versa. The unfair pressure school administrators are under to show school success that unfortunately trickles down into classrooms. With the focus on high-stakes standardized tests, comes the pressure for schools to appear successful. Smarter Balance, Dakota STEP, ACT, SAT, graduation rates, and a host of “for profit” standardized test results that are publicly lauded or conversely criticized place insane pressures on school administrators to “show” that their schools are “successful.”
I had an epiphany a while back as to what is, for me, the most difficult outside pressure. Last year I was working on my 1966 Chevy truck with my friend Eric when I made a troubling and unfortunate connection. When something breaks, a watch, an appliance, or a cell phone, we throw it away and get a new one. Society has become one of disposable possessions. Almost everything is manufactured with an obsolescence date, and when that date comes, we toss the “defective” piece and get a new one. Some things we try to prolong their lives. Our computers and our cars we send off to a service technician or mechanic to “fix.” Hoping recklessly to receive the device in “like new” condition. It occurred to me while working with Eric in his shop, surrounded by the vehicles whose owners impatiently waited the return of their freshly functioning vehicles that education has become a “fix-it” shop for kids.
Parents enroll their children in schools hoping that when students have completed all of the “diagnostics,” “software upgrades,” “factory recalls,” and “routine maintenance” they will perform like they expect from a student who has undergone an “overhaul.” Schools are not places of education, inspiration, or exploration. Many parents view schools as repair facilities to fix “defective” children, upgrade “out of date” children, or repair “broken” children. As with automobiles, many parents drop their kids off at school expecting when they pick them up after eight, ten, twelve years the “mechanics” or “technicians” will have worked wonders on whatever needed to be done.
Our children are not “manufactured” with an obsolescence date. We can’t just throw them away when they screw up or don’t “work like they should.” We can’t wait for the new model to come out so we can “upgrade” to the best features available. But we want to apply those same principles to our kids, and it is tragic. This “fix-it” or replace it mentality does a tremendous disservice to our kids. When something breaks on a car, you remove the part and replace it with new. When something “breaks” with a child, it cannot be removed and replaced. The child is not a collection of parts, he/she is a whole, complete, individual who needs to be cared for. You can’t “run a diagnostic program” to make a child smarter or perform better by swapping out a computer, flashing a new tune, or upgrading a part.
Education is not just a process of making a child smarter. It is a complex, holistic experience where a student grows, explores, and becomes a more complete individual not through a twelve-step diagnostic process, but through inquisition, hypotheses, and failure. And failure has been all but banned in today’s assembly line of standardized tests, common core standards, and digitally literate education where students enter through one door as a raw material and are expected to exit at the end as perfect, polished, college-ready, contributors to society.
Teachers as the “mechanics” or “technicians” in the process are ripped apart; torn by the expectation of “manufacturing” perfect products, and the reality that true education isn’t about what the parents and society wants, and more about how to best nurture and prepare an INDIVIDUAL student. Teachers are forced to choose between what the curriculum, standards, and tests call for, and what their individual students really need. It’s that pressure, that dichotomy, those disparate forces that makes teaching so hard for me.
The constant reminders to prepare for the upcoming standardized tests. The insistent e-mails from parents lambasting a failed assignment or asking, “I just don’t know what to do. What would you do?” in the same breath. The students asking why they have to go to college when they don’t want to. The pressure to be perfect in perception in front of the classroom, flawless in behavior in the community, and above reproach in every aspect of life is simply too much to sustain in today’s post “No Child Left Behind”/Smarter Balanced society.
For me it’s the pressure to produce perfect students. It’s the expectation that every student who walks out of the doors of my classroom do something great, be someone big, instantly achieve success. I didn’t spend all this time and money becoming a teacher to be a mechanic. I’m not here to “repair” kids. I’m not a teacher to “fix” children. I’m here to educate them. To ignite their curiosity. To help them find their passion…and have the courage to follow it. I’m a teacher because I care about our kids and their futures. I’m a teacher, not a mechanic.