Taking the time to talk with a student who has dropped by unexpectedly after school to talk to me is something I just consider to be a part of the job.
So when those occasions arise, even if I have a stack of papers to grade, or some kind of satisfy-the-bureaucracy type of documentation to complete, I put the task aside and I talk with these 13 and 14-year-olds.
Sometimes they want to talk about assignments, how they are doing in class, or they want to help with their writing. Other times, they stop by simply because they need someone who is willing to listen to them.
Five years ago, one of my most gifted students, whom I shall refer to Betty Smith, wandered into my classroom after school and she was clearly upset. For nearly an hour I talked with Betty and the subjects we touched on were completely mundane; still I could sense that she had something she wanted to tell me.
Finally, I said, “You haven’t seemed like yourself lately. Are you all right?”
Betty looked at me for a moment, smiled, and nodded. A few moments later, she left.
A few weeks ago, I had another conversation with this young woman, who is now attending college. Betty reminded me of that conversation and thanked me.
“I was thinking about killing myself.”
That information shocked me. This was a young woman who seemingly had everything to live for.
“You took the time to talk to me,” she said. “I thought if someone like you cared about what happened to me, maybe things weren’t as bad as I thought.”
It was just a simple thing, something thousands of classroom teachers across the United States have done day after day, year after year.
But education is not the same as it was even five years ago. I am no longer sure I will be there for students like Betty Smith, who need someone who cares.
This is the age of testing and documenting and data. We can never have too much data I am told. We have to have a reason for every single step we take as educators, so we can satisfy public education’s critics, who demand standardized testing be the basis for all decisions involving schooling.
Schools across the United States are not only taking high stakes annual standardized tests, but we are taking multiple practice tests, often designed by the same company that makes the year-end test. In our school, we take seven practice tests, called ACUITY, and we have redesigned our curriculum to match up with ACUITY.
Rather than spend professional development meetings learning teaching skills that can translate into learning, we learn how to decipher these tests and how to use the mountain of statistics that come from them, more statistics than most teachers can use in a lifetime.
We end up being encouraged to take practice tests to get ready for the practice tests, which prepare us for the one, which determines whether we will be ridiculed as failures in the local media for the next year, or whether we will simply be ignored, which is what usually happens when something positive occurs.
And many schools, including ours, are adding even another layer of testing for students who are falling short of the mark.
When all is said and done, we have not prepared our students to succeed in life, but to succeed on standardized tests.
Teachers, primarily those in the tested areas of math and reading, are coming into school two hours before it starts, leaving two or more hours after it ends and taking work home for long hours on weeknights and weekends. The beast that demands data is never satisfied.
Many teachers have been steered toward dropping the kind of lessons that make learning engaging for students in favor of test preparation.
And those times after school, when teachers’ doors have always been open to students who needed help?
Those are rapidly becoming a dim memory, as the appetite of the beast that demands data and documentation can never be satiated.
You won’t find many teachers who feel differently. The most popular sport going these days is teacher bashing. Politicians and people with scores to settle have made teachers a symbol of everything that is wrong with today’s schools.
I cringe every time I hear an administrator say we are compiling this deluge of data so that we will know how to best to serve “our children.”
Those words are easy to say, “our children,” but at times I wonder if the phrase is just one that comes easily to the tongue.
I am not here to crunch numbers on abstract children. I come to school every day to teach 150 children, all of whom have names, not just numbers.
I am here for Betty Smith and all of the others who are or who have been in my classroom.
When our doors are not open for the children who need us, that is when we truly have a crisis in education.
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