Saturday, September 29, 2007

Colleague Care


...but until then, we'll do what we can to support each other through this interesting time.

I was raised in a family of teachers. I have rather vivid memories of not only events in my own kindergarten classroom thirty-three years ago, but of years and years and years of bulliten boards, schools, towns, school board meetings, parent teacher conferences, school carnivals, open houses and all of the other events that I accompanied my mother to or helped her with in Texas and Alaska. I did some more growing up while in college, choosing teaching as my field of study and profession. I wasn't too terribly observant of all of the educational history I was surrounded by, but a few tidbits here and there got my attention and had me thinking as I began teaching my own students. With my family, my master teacher's input and guidance during my professional year, and terrific mentor teachers as colleagues, those tidbits were sewn together, and after five years of teaching, I felt that I could reach out and invite practicum students and student teachers into my classroom.

I've made new friends and worked with new colleagues after relocating to the Lower-48, and have found these collegial relationships reflecting the fact that I have continued to grow older. No longer the newbie on the staff, nor the youngest, but not so old as to be thought of as "disenchanted" or merely "hanging out until retirement," teachers new to the profession come and ask me for input, advice, or ears to listen and shoulders to cry on when the going gets tough. Shrapnel from the CRT fiasco is still raining down on some of their shoulders and though I now live several states away, how they feel, what they think, and how they problem-solve to manage this situation and their own self-care matters to me greatly.

"Newer" teachers ask new and fresh questions and think of innovative and paradigm-shifting solutions to educational problems, but they also ask those basic questions that more experienced teachers have already moved past. More experienced teachers have been there, done that, and have moved on with their professional knowledge and development, and perhaps don't feel the need (or have the time) to share stories from their own educational histories with the colleagues that have recently graduated from college. When a former colleague expressed both hurt feelings and disappointment over teaching and posed a question on her blog about test scores, " they mean that a teacher isn't teaching or that a student isn't learning?" I was inspired to tell a few stories.

Ah, you're in mental-overload-mode now aren't you? That tends to happen to conscientious people such as yourself. As per our OTHER discussions, I'm not sure if the following comments will help stem the tide of professional disappointment for you or if they'll just take your mind zooming in another direction:

* Do low test scores mean that a teacher isn't teaching or that a student isn't learning? Good question. Can you answer it by putting a spin on it though: do HIGH test scores mean that a teacher IS teaching and that a student IS learning? Everyone would have you think so- teachers, administrators, board members, politicians, "experts," etc. but many of us have seen firsthand how reported test scores aren't accurate for whatever reason- a teacher's inexperience administering the assessment, a child's home life or start to that particular day, learning strengths and needs, behavioral issues, disturbances during testing, cultural or socio-economic biases... and don't forget "dumbing down" the test by making it easier so more kiddos will pass, timing the tests with the idea that smarter kids fill in bubbles faster (I still don't understand that one!) and that dreaded "no-no," fudging the scores.

I remember my friends in Barrow (an Eskimo village) years ago not understanding why they got a question "wrong" on the ITBS test. They were asked: what would be good to eat? a) a flower b) a chicken c) a whale d) a car. Now the Eskimo kids who had never SEEN a chicken but who annually helped haul bowhead whales onto the shore when the whaling captains landed "a strike" chose "C, whale." And they got it WRONG. Children who had butchered, cut up, cooked, and eaten bowhead whale had test scores that put them in whatever "needs help" category existed for the test. School experiences happened in isolation, ONLY AT SCHOOL, and "life" for the kids happened outside of school. Students were tested on subjects that were only applicable to them during the school day, not during the annual whale hunt that put food in their bellies and refrigerators.

So NCLB comes along with perhaps a Pollyanna view of reforms aimed to help those considered less fortunate... by ignoring the kids who don't "need" help because they score too high (have you seen any big push for gifted/talented kiddos lately?), making sure the average kids don't slip below their baseline, and by throwing a lot of school experiences at kids that are often only applicable to poor children when they're AT SCHOOL. And school funding is based on the kiddos who are least likely to apply school-knowledge in all aspects of their lives (usually because parents don't), so panic sets in when teachers, administrators, board members, and local politicians figure out that they are being judged on the performance of their lowest students, and they know they are NOT to fail. NCLB doesn't take care of the socio-economic issue or culture of poverty no matter what its proponents claim. The poor stay poor, but now parents, colleagues, and politicians can zing you for not doing their job.

* A lot of people are sucked into the drill that this "school reform" has created. I certainly did not get into teaching to become a revolutionary, a politician, a yeller and a screamer. Nor did I want to be a thoughtless drone, blindly following the commands of all of the "experts." I wanted to help students safely expand their knowledge and appetite for compassion and lifelong learning, and I wanted to work with colleagues who had the same goals. I hoped to be paid for doing something I LOVED, which I suppose is rather indulgent. I certainly do not love all of it now, and I've found that it is usually only with my students that I feel the most fulfilled and effective, the most "aligned" with my own personal goals for my job. What has gotten me through has been reaching out to other like-minded teachers. I was very lucky to have been raised in a family of teachers, a family of GOOD teachers. I was even more fortunate to have worked with the same group of colleagues for a decade before leaving Alaska. We were FAMILY, and while we didn't all agree, most of us felt safe in working together because of our professional mutual respect. When I moved to a new state, I was alone because of the grade I taught and the mood of my grade-level colleague. I had to do my own "professional development" because no one else talked my language. I stayed in touch with colleagues in Alaska, asked them to send me links or copies of materials they were finding useful, and bless them, they did it! I looked online, started finding websites that I could visit regularly so I could maintain some balance and not feel so isolated. When I moved to the next state and was hired, it took a lot of time to find balance between the DRAMA and the real educational issues that needed to be addressed. I had so much I felt I could share, and knew I needed and wanted others to share what they knew with me, but workplace psychology took up more time than should be allowed. So blogging, MySpace, and searching out other resources became a part-time hobby that helped my full-time teaching brain.

I encourage you to continue to reach out. Read some blogs, purposely seek out the thoughts and expressions of teachers from around the world. You won't feel so alone, you won't feel so judged, and you'll know there are a lot of other people out there on your side and on the side of your students.

I'm concerned that many first-year and newbie teachers are leaving college ready to work, ready to teach, and ready to blindly trust educational reforms, mandates, and practices that are not beneficial to students. Some of the newbies are so busy with the duck-and-dodge of their first classrooms and students that they're barely able to come up for air. Others are noticing a huge discrepancy between theory and practice now that they're out in the real world. Many, like my friends, are facing moral and ethical dilemmas as they decide whether or not to risk future tenure, letters of recommendation, and the ability to put food on their tables and clothes on their own childrens' backs by calling other more experienced teachers and administrators "out" for horrible educational practices.

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