I’m a teacher; do you want me to LOOK effective or BE effective?


My Facebook status a week or so ago was to the effect of “I’ve been teaching plant science for five years; why do I still feel the need to create new activities every day?”.  My point was that I’m frustrated by my failure to use the work I’ve already done (partly because I forget it’s there), and that I feel the need to reinvent the wheel on a daily basis, so to speak.  The feedback I received, both on the page and off, varied from “that’s what a great teacher does” to “that’s what a great teacher is supposed to do”.  Facebook can certainly be a microcosm of societal opinion.

One of the biggest challenges facing educators today is “improving student achievement”.  We are being tasked with increasing the percentage of students who graduate high school in four years, narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority student groups (among other “cells”), and bringing all students to proficiency on a standardized test, regardless of what goes on in and around the educational environment.  It makes sense to hold educators accountable for the teaching that goes on in the classroom.  Planning a lesson that meets the standards, engages students in the learning process, and addresses multiple learning styles is what teaching is all about.  Communicating with other teachers, support specialists, school leaders, parents, and the students themselves goes hand-in-hand with planning; how can you effectively deliver instruction without knowing who you are instructing and tying it to the world outside your classroom?

It does NOT make sense to hold teachers accountable for the ability of their students to learn.  Just as it does not make sense to hold doctors accountable for the health of a patient who visits only when practically at death’s door and in between visits smokes, drinks, drives without a seatbelt, and chows down on the McDonald’s supersize menu on a regular basis.  Or a mechanic who only sees the car when something catastrophic happens, instead of with an opportunity to perform routine checks and basic maintenance.  Or, to paraphrase a news article I read recently, the actions of the parents in offering certain foods to overweight children.

Is there anyone who would argue with the idiom “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”?  Of course not, because we all know that horse isn’t going to drink if it doesn’t want to, and while we can try to understand why it won’t, we can’t force it to drink.  Well, I suppose we COULD, but only at the risk of frightening (at best) or drowning (at worst) the poor animal, whose only crime was not being interested in drinking water.

Explain to me, then, how we overcome similar resistance in our students to learning.  Explain to me the fairness of a system that evaluates teachers so heavily on student achievement that an excellent teacher could be removed from a classroom because of the disinterest (or inability) of a student taking a standardized test.

Most of all, explain to me the intelligence of a society that cannot see the glaring issues in that proposal.

I would love to see teachers take back our profession just as much as I would love to see students take back their education.  But until a fair, valid, and equal method of evaluating student achievement is found, we need more emphasis on what’s going well than on who’s to blame.

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