Sunday, February 12, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about how shitty the field of education is recently, ever since I heard that a friend received a bad job performance review and is likely losing her job. I think about how shitty the field of education is on a regular basis anyway, but still, this kind of news fills me with rage.

When I first started doing my student teaching, I was enamored of it. I was working in a second grade class with a darling group of kids from all over the world, and I adored my cooperating teacher. She was so patient and kind with them. After three years in front of a computer at a boring, dysfunctional office where my boss dictated emails to his lover over the phone to me and spent most of his time in the office snoozing, I thought nothing could be better than being a teacher. After all, people who want to get into this field love kids, right? They want to set a good example for the children, so they believe in treating each other with respect.

I first realized that not everyone believes in treating kids with respect shortly before school started at my first real teaching job. I was instructed to treat the kids as though I were a drill sergeant: make them practice the routines over and over until they got it right. If necessary, make them practice during recess. Do not smile at them.

Shortly thereafter, it dawned on me that, just as we were expected to treat the kids without respect, the administration did not believe in treating us with respect. My principal announced a new rule during the first staff meeting: "No one but the office assistant should touch the photocopy machine," she instructed. "I love you guys, but I don't want the photocopy machine to get broken." Wait, what?? A bunch of teachers with an average of 1.4 master's degrees per person is not intelligent enough to use a photocopy machine without breaking it?? Clearly, the 19-year-old assistant was the only person who could be trusted.

My principal believed in humiliating kids in front of everyone. She punished children by taking their school lunches from them (I heard, I never witnessed this myself since I didn't do lunch duty) and consuming it in front of them. She made a special-needs child stand in her office until she pooped in her pants, ignoring her requests to go to the bathroom. And she humiliated us, too: Whenever one of her frequent disciplinary letters was delivered, she made sure to deliver it when we were in the middle of teaching a lesson, forcing us to fight back tears in front of our students and try to go on teaching like nothing had happened. It was like something from a Roald Dahl book.

I've never seen anything quite that bad since, but I have continued to notice a parallel between the way personnel are treated and the way kids are treated in schools. Some schools believe in giving kids a lot of autonomy, encouraging creative thinking, and treating everyone with respect. I believe this is the kind of school that creates the most successful children long-term. They are taught to think for themselves and to be good, upstanding people. Unfortunately, this is not the way that schools are judged; they are judged by their test scores, which focus on an entirely different kind of thinking. I've seen the kinds of kids who do great on tests. They've learned all the test-taking strategies, so they can figure out the right answer even if they don't really understand the question. They've memorized the right equations and know how to rephrase the essay question into a topic sentence. The school I taught at last year believed teaching should be rote, and teachers should not think for themselves. Likewise, kids were encouraged to fill out worksheet after worksheet, never using the creative parts of their brain. Will these kids be successful in life? Perhaps, but certainly not because of their early education.

Education in this country has become a joke. Teachers are criticized right and left for all the "bad teaching" that is occurring, by everyone from President Obama to teachers themselves. If teachers were respected and given support and autonomy, I believe most would rise to the challenge. Why not focus on helping teachers to learn to be better at their craft instead of focusing on getting rid of all the "bad teachers" that are around?? Frankly, I have witnessed some bad teachers, and they are not the people who get fired when it is time to purge the "bad teachers." Instead, it's people like my friend who get cut, people who are smart and thoughtful.

The Onion published a hilarious article the other day entitled, "Report: Increasing numbers of educators found to be suffering from teaching disabilities." It's funny and silly to imagine teachers getting special teaching accommodations. But it's also not completely off the mark. If we believe kids learn in different ways, and we believe in supporting all kinds of learners and helping them to be as successful as they can be, why don't we believe in supporting teachers and helping them be as successful as possible? Teaching is a learned skill, not something we're born with.

Over lunch on Friday, one of my co-workers made a joke about the news that NCLB has been waived in Massachusetts: "As of today, we can start leaving children behind again!" Again, it's a joke with a ring of truth to it. Not that we ever stopped.

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