Saturday, September 07, 2019

Annual Self-Reflection: My Value

With my twenty-fourth year of teaching underway, it's time for my annual self-reflection, which has become something of a tradition for me out here in Blogland. With each successive year, I continue to find myself in the position of having a perspective gleaned from many years of experience, and appreciate that for the most part, I still love my job.  I consider myself lucky that my time as a teacher has been spent invested in diverse communities, successfully coexisting and/or collaborating with colleagues and administrators, and finding joy, humor, and humility within the kindergarten learning environment.  My advocacy for young children continues to be fueled by caring, my knowledge of and respect for their rights as developing, rather than "deficient" human beings, empathy, and enjoyment of my dual roles in the learning process: I'm a teacher and a lifelong student. Not to mention, kindergarteners are fun!

Mentored by advocates of young children and developmentally appropriate practice, challenged by colleagues who either want to maintain the status quo or throw the baby out with the bathwater, and appreciated by families who often find themselves surprised that they like me, they really, really like me, I've seen my fair share of education trends and reforms.  I've explored naturalistic settings, party-themed classroom decor, minimalist backgrounds, and multiple seating options.  I've been seizure-trained, MANDT trained (years ago), and invited to participate in live shooter drills. I've attended both assigned and self-selected professional development and obtained my master's degree after many, many years of searching for the right program, aided by friends and family who helped me envision my future.  I give back to my profession regularly, happy to share my knowledge and expertise, and I understand the responsibility I have to play devil's advocate when future or new teachers are discovering and developing their best practice.  Having the freedom to share an honest, earned and honed pedagogy with others, lighten their load when possible, or just support them with trays of cookies throughout the year has matched my spirit during much of my career.  Teaching has filled my heart, and for quite a long time, I haven't felt as if I would be more valued if I were anyone but myself.

I've seen the family dynamic change over time, as all things do.  There was never a "better time," in parenting during my career. Families have always been diverse, strong, needful, overinvolved, and absent. Some were abusive, most were supportive, and many tried to be nurturing. I have partnered with parents, administrators, colleagues and agencies. My students, teammates and I have benefitted from our relationships with local and national partners in education.  Community helpers have kept us safe and taught us ways to help ourselves and others.  I have also been threatened, stalked, had a mother show me her handgun during a parent-teacher conference, and have had to watch as a student's hand was taken from mine and placed into that of her abusive father the day before Christmas break, thankfully all years ago.  I have fed and clothed my students, and I have intentionally created a womb, not room, of trust and comfort within what used to be considered one of the safer community venues, the elementary school. 

Education has always been big business, which didn't use to bother me as a student nor as a young teacher just starting out.  Armed with math and language arts kits and teaching manuals, I knew that I could rely upon my colleagues to be additional resources, sounding boards, and my backup.  If I needed help with instruction, I could ask not only my kindergarten team but the reading and math specialists for insight and tips. Speech/language therapists, bi-lingual educators, cultural liaisons, and physical therapists freely shared their advice and the context behind it.  I made mistakes, corrected them, modified and grew my pedagogy, much like my students.  I figured out that the powers that be (administrators, parents, politicians, and even teachers) don't always make the best decisions when it comes to the actual learning that occurs in schools, especially if those decision-makers aren't comfortable with or aware of the organic nature of growth: human beings are muscular bags of developing/evolving emotions and skills, not machines. Though the articulation of standards has helped to identify just how much there is to put into place to help build a firm foundation for learning and support it for a lifetime, the subsequent desire to equally distribute, pace, and assess each slice of Learning Pie further continues to place students in a mechanized, assembly-line setting.  I've watched many teachers respond to this wash, rinse, repeat testing culture with attempts at balance: they've implemented project-based learning, differentiated their instruction, integrated digital tools, supported lots of collaboration and talk time for colleagues and students, and offered flexible seating. Despite constant changes in education, veteran educators continue to know that the end of second grade, all of third grade, and the beginning of fourth grade remains an almost magic span of time for children: it's when every previous life experience (not just the reading or math instruction or intense interventions) congeals and creates in students a big bang that heralds their next developmental step in learning.

Over my years of teaching, I've watched (and sounded an alarm, repeatedly) as big business in education has sold parents, teachers and districts the idea that not only will their products help that big bang occur earlier, but they may also someday solely facilitate that learning in the first place.  Districts invest in "research-based" products equating them with research-based best practice, often due to accreditation (and therefore funding) requirements, and these products tend to ride the wave of education trends during the height of their popularity.  Much of the "research" shared is originally commissioned and paid for by the publishers themselves, which for many consumers might suggest the possibility for bias.  I remember when "NCLB" stickers were stamped on curriculum materials and teacher publications, followed by "CC," and then "Research-Based" labels.  Now there's a brand and sticker for all things education, to include social/emotional/character-building "school culture" programs, which are also standardized with mandated vocabulary, products, and very public and documentable implementation.  While these guarantors of success have attempted to prove and improve their efficacy (and brand) through teacher training, focused professional development, and specific artifacts,  I've found that their rigid scripts illuminate a chasm that can exist between new and veteran teachers.  Just as I did over twenty-five years ago, today's newbies appreciate focused direction while immersing themselves in content as they develop their pedagogy and practice, while veterans like me are more likely to cherrypick through new innovations and materials to integrate them into our already well-stocked toolkits.  These differences can often result in educators being sorted into three groups: those invested in the infomercial (they're characterized as "enthusiastic team players" and try to follow scripts with fidelity), those indifferent to the infomercial (they do their job, and tend to jump through the necessary hoops merely out of obligation), and those who find no inherent value in the infomercial... these folks are often characterized as lazy, burnt out, oppositional, and make those around them wonder if they couldn't somehow be convinced to retire sooner rather than later.  After twenty-four years, I know this: teachers in any of these groups can be highly effective.

I repeat: teachers in ANY of these groups can be good teachers.  Teachers in any of these groups have value and bring much to the culture of a school.

With each successive year that I teach, I become more and more the veteran educator, and that means I recognize repackaged product when I see it. And speaking for myself, I find the repetition of it all redundant and inefficient, while others, exposed to it for the first time, find it essential.  It's increasingly difficult for me to feign enthusiasm for a product, program, or initiative when it doesn't feel authentic or valuable to me.  When colleagues who would usually say "thanks for your help," "oh, awesome," or "have an incredibly great day," (like spontaneously expressive and vocabulary-rich normal human beings do), instead replace their verbal communication with me and one another with the very scripted "Wow, way to be proactive!" or "So Michaele, it's awesome how you began with the end in mind," in the hopes that adult and student listeners will also adopt the script, I find myself fighting against both gag and cringe reflexes.  And those folks who insist on insisting (you know the type, they're the ones funded by the product's producers) that they're not "sight words," "popcorn words" or "star words" but MUST BE "______ words," appear increasingly confused as they face the fixed stare that I wear as I attempt to control an eye-roll.

At forty-nine years of age and after almost a quarter of a century teaching, I find myself feeling as if I'm trying to be polite rather than sincerely being polite during these encounters, which is uncomfortable.  I'm a firm believer that polite is professional and I highly value reciprocity, but, being human myself, I too have my limits... as evidenced by the two times I have blurted out in frustration recently.  I find it nearly impossible to respect or trust one-size-fits-all programs because I remain comfortable with and engaged by diversity and I respect individuality.  And I'm not a testimonial person who pitches a brand nor do I appreciate any kind of salesmanship trying to influence my teaching, despite being able to remember a time when I considered any offer of help or proposed solution worthy of thorough examination and acceptance.  As a veteran educator, being surrounded by consumerism posing as pedagogy now bugs me, deep down into the marrow.  When I'm faced with someone who might assume that my point of view suggests that I'm refusing to teach effectively or that I'm choosing to promote chaos, opposition and resistance, I'm left feeling that my experience, prior growth, and purpose aren't nearly as highly valued as my playing the role of a yes-man would be.  I'm somehow failing the "I'm-as-invested-to-do-right-by-our-students" measurement that has been tossed out there with the newly adopted "common" assessment.

And let me tell you, this feeling is less than pleasant.

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