I had decided that last year was going to be my final one in education. After two significant changes that I hoped would make a difference, I committed to giving it one more try. Here I am less than a month in and it’s already clear that the changes I hoped for, the changes so many teachers hope for, aren’t coming. We just aren’t in a position of enough power to create them, at least not here in Texas. That’s the real crisis in education. It’s not “bad teachers,” it’s powerless teachers held hostage by bad practice and policy.
As I start to look in earnest at the steps to make a career change, I am so sad I find it hard to put into words for those who don’t know what it’s like to love a class of students who aren’t your children, except for the stretch of time when they are. I have an especially great group this year full of big personalities that challenge me and make me laugh even on the most stressful of days. I love them already and spending almost nine hours a day with them makes keeping up the will to move on incredibly difficult. That’s something I think a lot of non-teachers don’t always understand. We don’t want to leave. We love what this job is supposed to be. Even when we reach our personal max for what we can tolerate, we still believe in all the things that brought us to this field in the first place.
I think that powerless teacher problem is why so many posts like this exist. There’s no one listening at central office, or in the state legislature, or in the federal government. We’ve tried to get them to hear us, to value us, to see us as what we are – the ones in the classrooms, doing the work, connecting with the students despite all the ways they step on us and hinder us on a daily basis. Eventually, after a decade in my case, we reluctantly accept that they aren’t listening. So we take it to you, whoever you are. We put it out into the void in a last, heartbroken attempt to get someone to notice the way the job we love is being taken from us, the way our students and our colleagues are being ground up by a system that’s less and less about them and more and more about the career goals of administrators and politicians, the profits of curriculum and assessment companies, and the next buzz word band-aid rolled out in a haphazard, underfunded mandate that only teachers and students are ever held accountable for.
How do you ‘fix’ our education system? How do you retain the teachers you insist you want to retain? My answers echo many of the others who’ve written on this topic. Given the amount of consensus we seem to reach as we struggle within the system and reflect on our departures, you’d think perhaps those who do hold the power might consider there’s something here worth acting on. But that would mean their goals are the same as ours, and at this point in my career I’m not sure they are, at all.
1. Let Teachers Teach
It’s a common refrain and I’ve seen it as the headline on myriad articles written in national and international publications by both teachers and those reporting on us alike. What does it mean to me? One of the reasons I used to love this field, probably lesser only than my belief in early intervention as an early childhood educator and the magic and energizing hilarity of working with small humans, is creativity. I love figuring out how to teach a concept, how to engage my students, how to respond and adapt to individual and class needs. I want to write my own lesson plans, my own curriculum, to plan my own activities and to truly be accountable to the needs of my students. But that’s not how it works anymore. It used to be that we were accountable to a set of skills for our grade level and perhaps given a document called a YAG (Year at a Glance) or a Scope & Sequence that provided a pacing guide for teaching academic skills. How we taught those skills was up to us.
What we have now are boxed curriculums, scripted lessons, mandates on exactly what theme we teach when, each academic area scheduled out to the minute of the day, and the new host of ever changing annual next big things that teachers are never truly trained on and know by their second year in are just going to be replaced next year and will only be followed up on in this year’s walkthroughs (“Hey, where is your buzzwordjargondevelopmentallyinappropriatethingwewastedmoneyon?”). If you really want to know who your weak teachers are, give the curriculum back to us. If you want us to be accountable for student learning, let us also be responsible for it. If you want us to stay in this profession, don’t suck every ounce of creativity, autonomy, and flexibility for student needs from our daily practice and then pretend to want to see those things in our classrooms.
2. Stop Making SPED a Bad Word
Earlier this year, an administrator stood in front of a room of early childhood and early elementary teachers and said that he didn’t know if we’d read the research but… He also left out Pre-K teachers in his speech which made it feel particularly insulting and makes me question whether he really did read the research or was just tasked with pretending to suddenly care about the grades before state testing starts. Not that we aren’t all tested to death too. I’ve read the research. My coworkers have read the research. We’re here in no small part because of it and because our anecdotal experience backs it up and adds a level of meaning I can feel in my core as I type this. Early intervention works. And yet, we do everything in our power not to provide it.
Pre-K and Kindergarten are often the first time a child has been in school. We routinely have students with mild to significant unidentified special needs enroll in our classrooms. We then face the near impossible task of trying to get them services. The process in the best of cases will take half the school year. We squander precious early intervention time for children and allow teachers and parents to be talked down to and brushed off for daring to advocate for students in need of additional support. It’s infuriating and it’s compounded by the fact that if and when we are finally able to get a child services, they are never enough. Specialists and therapists are stretched just as thin as we are and while the impact that has on us and our work is no small thing, it is the children we’re supposed to be serving that ultimately pay the biggest price. And while we’re on price, legislators and administrators are kidding themselves if they think we aren’t well aware of the fact that convoluted referral processes and systematic brush offs are anything other than code for, “We don’t want to pay for additional services.”
3. Staff Your Schools
I dare you to find a classroom teacher who will say class size doesn’t matter. I don’t care if a study once found upper grade teachers could get their class of 40 students to pass a standardized test. Class size is profoundly important. The best practice ratios for Pre-K and Kindergarten aged children range from 1:8 to 1:10. Despite that, there is no class size cap on Pre-K in Texas. If it were up to me, I’d cap Pre-K and Kindergarten at 16 students and the rest of the elementary grades at 18. I find those caps generous on the part of teachers. In states like ours without universal Pre-K, it is worth noting that almost all of our students qualify by being classified at-risk in some way. At my school, this typically means poverty, homelessness, being part of the foster care system, receiving special education services, or speaking a primary home language other than English.
There is a tipping point in any classroom where the level of need grows too high for an individual teacher to do a high quality job of meeting it. We might be able to manage our students and get them through their assessments if we’re good at our jobs but we know what’s happening underneath the surface. Our students aren’t getting the individual attention they need to truly be successful and rise to their potential in our classrooms. It’s a demoralizing feeling and it’s compounded by the fact that when the level of need and number of students in our rooms reach that tipping point, we are exhausted. We have to be at 110% every moment of the day so our rooms don’t fall apart. We are working our asses off and we know damn well we need to be offering lessons that are super mega engaging to keep our kids learning and not acting out…and then we’re told we have to do that scripted lesson on clothes and that it’s not our place to ask when our non-verbal student might be evaluated for services.
There’s a lot of talk about teachers leaving the profession due to pay. The reality is, some of the jobs I’m looking at would actually be a pay cut. That’s not to say teachers in most districts aren’t underpaid. We are. But so are social workers, non-profit workers, service industry employees, near everyone in a care taking profession…the list could go on. We have a serious societal problem with wealth inequality and how we value work and there’s no doubt that it impacts teaching. But if you asked me whether doubling my salary would make me stay without changing a single other thing, the answer would be an unequivocal no. What many of the issues teachers face come back to, including those listed above, is a pervasive culture of disrespect.
Society as a whole swears they want to see great teachers in classrooms. They throw all the adjectives at us; be innovative, dynamic, passionate, creative, flexible, adaptive, nurturing, compassionate. It’s an endless well of expectations placed on people who are then treated like incompetent idiots rather than respected professionals. We have power over almost nothing, are evaluated using gotcha tactics, are demeaned on a regular basis through practice, policy, and language, and are given a set of expectations we don’t have the autonomy to meet. Most of us are just looking for the freedom to do our jobs to the best of our ability, the support and resources necessary to meet our students’ needs, and to be treated as professional adults as we engage in work we care deeply about. I truly don’t think that’s a lot to ask, and yet in our current culture, it feels hopelessly far out of reach.