By: Pat Austin
SHREVEPORT – The state of education in the United States today is troublesome. One report after another comes across the wires: stressed out teachers are disengaged with their work, teachers are overworked and burned out, and apparently we have ineffective teachers in our low-performing schools. Go figure.
Is any of this news to anyone?
Sometimes we can read all this data and all these reports and draw false conclusions. Let’s consider some alternative conclusions to the ones most commonly drawn.
Consider the report that stressed out teachers are disengaged with their work. This is a conclusion drawn from a new Gallup report, The State of America’s Schools which contends that 7 in 10 teachers are “do not feel engaged” in their work which is having a negative effect on students. Certainly if a teacher is stressed out and under pressure this will have a negative impact on the teacher over time. We all want our kids to have teachers who are exciting and make them feel the hunger for learning, so this report is obviously troublesome.
But why are teachers disengaged? Gallup:
On two points, teachers were the least likely of any profession surveyed on workforce engagement to respond positively: whether they feel their opinions at work count, and whether their supervisor creates an “open and trusting environment.”
“That’s a really big eye-opener,” says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education. “So there’s something about the open, trusting environment that isn’t working in schools and that they don’t believe their opinions count. That is definitely weighing down the potential of making them more engaged in their workplace.”
Well, that’s an interesting conclusion but I don’t think it’s fair to put so much blame on the supervisor or administrator. True, that’s an important role: you need a supportive administrator who will back your decisions in the classroom, but the administrator is also just a gateway in a sense. Walk it all the way back. Principal, supervisor, local superintendent, state level superintendents, and now (thank you Common Core…) the federal government. So, to put all the blame on the immediate supervisor is misguided.
A simplified example: A teacher wants to teach a novel that has relevance to her students; it meets and challenges their reading level. (The teacher knows this reading level because she has done a diagnostic test and has determined the reading level of each student). The teacher knows this novel will engage her students and has a passion for bringing that novel and level of engagement to her students.
But wait! She can’t teach that novel. Common Core says all her students must read an obscure work with a Lexile level much higher than her students are functioning on, a novel for which the teacher has no engagement or passion.
How well is that going to work? The teacher isn’t going to be excited about the lesson, the students are going to be struggling to relate to the work, and the students are going to struggle to even make sense of the words because said novel is so far above their reading level.
Now granted, that’s a simplified example; a really good teacher will figure out a way to bring passion to whatever novel the idgits that made the reading list make her teach. But it wears you down. The teacher has been stripped of her professional ability and decision making. The teacher no longer can decide what’s best for her individual students.
Thus, burnout. Frustration.
Is this all Common Core’s fault? Of course not. Teachers have been fighting bureaucracy and burnout for years. The suits sit around conference tables and figure out what new save-the-state-of-education fad will be imposed this year and then they do endless professional development sessions to implement the plan. Veteran teachers have seen them all before; they come in cycles.
With regard to burnout and frustration, consider that one of the requirements of Common Core is that states must also implement a rigorous teacher evaluation system. Professional evaluation is important and I don’t know of a single profession that doesn’t have an evaluation system, but common sense must prevail. Some of these evaluation tools are profoundly subjective and unfair. When a teacher is marked off on an evaluation because a student put a dab of lotion on her knees during the observation, which obviously means classroom expectations haven’t been taught and the teacher has poor classroom management, frustration will result.
When those observations and evaluations are tied to teacher pay and that annual incentive check comes out, the teacher that has Honors and AP kids will get the big incentive check while the teacher with the low-performing, struggling kids who have not been taught social skills at home gets the very small check. Frustration results.
In reality, teachers aren’t frustrated with their work or with their job. They are frustrated with the system that prevents them from doing their job and that persecutes them for things beyond their control. I don’t know one single teacher who went into the profession to get rich. Every teacher I know does it because of a love for kids and for the opportunity to make a difference in just one kid’s life. When that passion is squelched by a system that ties their hands, strips their decision making, persecutes them, and makes them feel like failures, then there is something wrong with the system, not the teachers.
The truth is that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that is required of me. There is always something, whether it’s a training requirement or writing tests or preparing my lessons or grading papers or counseling struggling students. Some things get finished. Most things do not.
My working life is an uneasy calculation between the most pressing need and the requirements that I hope can remain unfinished. Sometimes I feel like I am always on the verge of failure, one tiny slip or miscalculation away from either being fired or failing my students.
She resigned shortly after her letter was published.
The sad thing is, her situation is all too common.
We need to support our young teachers, trust our veteran teachers, and restore local autonomy to our school systems and classrooms. If we fail to do this, public education will be an antiquated idea from a society that has failed its most vulnerable members: the children.
Pat Austin also blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.
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