September means apples, bulletin boards, foliage, name tags, a new class and everything else about going back-to-school! After over thirty years of starting the fall in a classroom, as a student or teacher, I decided to take a break this year. I taught for thirteen years all over Oregon, and it was not an easy decision to take a year off from teaching. We moved from Oregon to Texas and I knew that now was the time to step back. It’s now been two months since school started for the rest of my world, and I have had time reflect upon the decision to change careers. I can now articulate the many things I miss about teaching and the one thing that I do not.
Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher. There were moments when I saw myself as a lawyer, a rodeo cowgirl, a photojournalist, a ballerina, a public speaker, and of course, a queen. I loved helping others, loved teaching others! I read books to younger kids, made my own neighborhood newspaper, created worksheets for my brother to complete and just knew I wanted to be a teacher!
Reading books with kids; discussing the literature, really listening to children’s connections to the story, are some of the best times one can have as a teacher. I learned so much about the power of great books, the right books and the deep connections to literature by what my students have said over the years.
A fifth grade student in my class was reading “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen as part of a book club in my classroom. We were sitting as a small group discussing the book one day in class. This child told the group that he really connected with the main character, Brian, and his anger. Brian had a lot of anger at his parents for divorcing. My student went on to tell the group that he was relieved at Brian’s anger, it made him feel like he wasn’t the only one who felt this way at his parents’ divorce. He said that he had felt like he was the only one with parents who were no longer together, until he read about Brian and his intense feelings. This was an incredibly important turning point for this student, he was able to talk to his parents about his feelings after reading just a few chapters of this book.
In another book club, one of the small groups was reading a collection of short stories about children who survived the Holocaust. At the end of the book, I gave the kids a choice of final projects. One sixth-grade student chose to write a letter to Hitler, and then read it aloud to the class. He read this letter, equating Hitler and several other infamous war criminals (Bin Laden, Hussein) as playground bullies. He informed these ‘bullies’ that the only reason they were allowed to rise in power was because there were too many bystanders. He reassured these terrible men in history that he never be a bystander, he would stand up. This sixth grade student delivered an amazing speech that not only took the power away from these historical figures, but made a call to action of his classmates. He told a class of twenty-six children that we would have another Holocaust, another war, another 9/11,unless we all stood up and stopped letting bullies get away with treating people poorly. He then looked right at me and thanked for introducing him to his favorite book. The room was silent, the children knew the gravity in which he had spoke. They didn’t clap. They thanked him.
Those are just two stories of the hundreds, thousands of life-changing moments that my students gave me. I have tears in my eyes just writing about these kids. Every child teaches you something, about the world, about yourself, about the future. Good teachers learn from this and continue to make positive changes in their little world, which then has ripple effects into the community and world at large.
So why did I leave? Clearly, it means a lot to me to be a teacher. People assume that maybe the kids were too much, or the parents were a lot, or the pay was too low, or any number of reasons that have been trivialized on memes and complained about on Facebook. Taking a hiatus from teaching didn’t have anything to do with any of those reasons.
Children are the best part of teaching; they are hilarious, spirited, adventuresome, silly, loving and grateful! Teaching a child something and when you see them put it all together to take ownership of the learning, is incredible. It’s more than just seeing they understand how to add fractions, it’s witnessing the confidence they gain from knowing they CAN do it. They learn something about themselves, that is what’s important.
The parents in my classes have been very supportive. In my experience, I have seen that all parents love their children. They demonstrate this in different ways, and giving them the room to be able to do that is important as a teacher. Parents need to know that you care about their child as an individual, a learner and the little person that they are becoming. At one of my schools, I would get a lot of new students into class because the population at my school was quite transient. One day, I was told that I was getting a new student about ten minutes before he arrived. His mom and baby brother walked him to my class, which was already in session. He was very shy and clearly didn’t want his mom to leave. I made a spot for her and the baby at one of my tables in the back of the room. She seemed as unwilling to leave as her son was to have her leave. When it was snack time, I was chatting with my new student and his mother. I reassured her what our schedule was and what time she could pick up her son. At the end of the school day, she told me that two weeks ago, her newborn baby had died and that they had had to move to over 500 miles away for her husband’s job. I was blown away. I thought she was a helicopter parent who just needed to be around her child too much. I told her that she could stay as long as she wanted, and for two weeks, she did stay at school all day every day. But after two months, her son was coming to school by himself and happily running around with new friends at recess. Working with caring parents like her make teaching wonderful.
The solitary reason that I chose to leave teaching has to do with the politicized environment of education. People may wonder what politics have to do with teaching, and the answer is everything. When policies are made, the impacts come into our lives and change them drastically. Over the past few years, there has been widespread “educational reform.” These reforms have increased the importance of spreadsheets, columns of data, evaluations by inexperienced observers, and the accounting of data in every teacher’s life. The focus has gone away from people; students, parents, teachers, staff, volunteers, and onto data. The most important elements of teaching cannot be quantified onto a spreadsheet and put into a power point. When data is given importance above all else, time and resources are directed as such.
It has been years, YEARS, since I was in a building inservice that was about connecting with kids, communicating with parents, designing meaningful anti-bullying lessons, incorporating literature into math lessons or any topic other than data collection, data presentation, data comparison, state testing and teacher evaluations.
About five years ago I gave a presentation at a staff meeting dealing with recognizing childhood hunger in the classroom. Oregon leads the nation in childhood hunger, with about 30% of children living with food instability; they don’t know when, if or what they will eat. I was teaching in a county with 25% of our children living with childhood hunger. I worked with our principal at the time and specialists to design and present this information so teachers and staff could recognize the symptoms and help our students. I have offered to give this presentation every year since then (with different principals and different schools), and I haveconsistently been told no, there is not enough time. Not enough time. For one-third of our children. There is not a place in my heart in which this is acceptable.
We are in a people business, not a numbers business. It is not that teachers do not value data and information systems. We absolutely do, so that we can know where each child is in their mastery of the concepts that we have taught. Record keeping, evaluation of scores, and calibration of lessons based on the data are important parts of being a teacher. Data is just not the entirety of what it means to be a teacher. Teaching and learning are about more than test scores. There are so many more verbs that describe good teachers other than data collection. However, this piece of our profession is now emphasized above all other traits and qualities. It is more important to value the child, work with the family and teach at a pace that makes sense for the learners than it is for teachers to know yet another way to compare data on spreadsheets. Current teachers are doing all of this and it is too much, and too unnecessary. The only educational reform that should be considered should be designed by experts; our experienced teachers, parents, community leaders and students.
Now, as I wind down here, I just want to share another story. I had a student who came new to my classroom. He was quite shy, hardly made eye contact, had a heavy speech issue, and wore ill-fitting clothes. He was new to our district as well, and his records had not yet arrived from his previous school so I didn’t know anything about his background.
We were just beginning a writing unit when this child arrived. He put his head down on his desk and refused to even pick up his pencil. He was pretty withdrawn in general and wasn’t making any social or educational progress. Writing was the hardest time for him. I had hardly seen his handwriting because he refused to participate. One day I saw he was playing with something in his pocket. I walked over and sat on the floor near him. After a few minutes, he asked me what I was doing, so I said that his desk looked like a creative spot so I wanted to work there, if it was alright with him. He didn’t say anything, so I stayed there and corrected papers while the rest of the class was free writing for about ten minutes. I did this each day for about a week. He kept playing with something in his pocket. One day, he asked if I wanted to see it. It was a small Lego structure. We had a sweet little conversation about it and he told me how he built it. I told him that sounded like a neat story, and asked if I could write it down in his journal. Later that day, we were at the library and he was looking at a Lego book. I was so excited that I found an “in” with this student! After school, I procured a couple boxes of Legos and brought them to school the next day. At writing time, I asked him if he could build me something. He built a duck pond with a school and children playing. I wrote down his whole story as he dictated it to me. As we progressed, he opened up to me and then to the other kids. Legos became a very cool thing in our classroom. It became something that the kids could play with during lunch and I put the new student in charge of the Legos. He started writing in his journal every day during writing time, he would build his story first and then write it down. He began writing all the time, he carried his journal with him so he could jot down his building ideas. Other kids started asking him about his stories, he became being known as a writer and kids from other classes would go up to him at recess and ask to hear his creative stories. It was incredible, so amazing to see the change in the child over the time of a few weeks. He was happy, smiling, the opposite of the child who had arrived in my room just a short time ago.
I eventually received his records, this child had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after witnessing extreme violence committed against a family member. Drugs, jail, domestic violence; this child had seen it all by the age of ten.
Our school helped this child; we worked together, we bought him Legos, we brought more Lego books into our library, said good morning, got him a warm coat and cared about him. Every single adult at that school knew who he was and the growth he made. Our school secretary brought in another box of Legos that her sons had outgrown. A male teachers’ aid at the school dropped by and would show this student ways to build with Legos. The school resource officer arranged additional resources for his family. The school community came together and advocated for this little guy and it worked.
And not one spreadsheet was made. This was not included on one formal evaluation. No one got paid more. It wasn’t reflected on a state test.
Helping a child, all children, should be the overriding goal of education. Sadly, that is not what is happening right now. Teachers like me and many others are leaving the profession. I’m not a unique teacher or a special teacher. Every school I have taught in has been filled with teachers taking extra efforts to advocate and support their students. We cannot endorse something we don’t agree with by participating in it. Teachers shouldn’t be leaving the profession because they care too much about children.
What can be done? Speak up. Find an audience that will listen. Have a conversation with a friend. Talk to the principal of your school. Volunteer. Write a letter to your local legislator. Post your opinion as your next status update. Speak up at a staff meeting. Email someone. Tweet it. Stand up, keep standing up.