It’s been a week, and such a relief to be able to worry about children instead of politics. I am never so focused as I am in the first weeks of a new school year. I put everything else in my life aside, because I know I will be working 12 or 13 hour days and forget to do anything that is unrelated to my classroom. This year, my first week was lovely. For the first time I felt calm and confident in what needed to happen. Its only been a few years, but I feel I am at least at the point where I know what I need to work on, whereas in previous years I was trying to survive. I was able to actually enjoy the kids, to delight in getting to know the strange and wonderful little people I am going to spend my year with. It already feels like we have a little community and we’re in a groove. Of course, I can already anticipate a multitude of challenges; in my second grade class we have students who don’t even know the alphabet, and students reading at a third grade level. We have students with supportive parents and a student whose mother seems to forget to bring her to school every few days. But so far, its been nice.
Lucky for me, the school I work at endorses the responsive classroom approach to the beginning of the school year; heavy on community building and teaching routines and social skills, rather than diving into academics. Instead of addressing behaviors as they arise due to frustration, stress, or attention seeking throughout the year, we work proactively to at once create a learning community in collaboration with the students, while also explicitly teaching all the non-cognitive skills that our students will need to handle the challenges that academics will bring.( For example: how to be a good partner, what to do when you feel upset, what kind of voice to use to help a friend) We’re learning what they’re good at and what they are excited about- whether it is sharks, sunflowers, animals, field trips, the forest, jet planes, trains, singing or dancing. We’re making them feel important and heard, so they know they belong and can loosen up and take risks. I am all about it. Of course, their are many policy makers who would rather I stand in the front of the classroom on day 1, give a variety of commands and have my students copy something off the board. And in fact amidst this first week honeymoon, impacts of the inanity of New York education politics have managed to rudely tarnish my excitement about a new class and a new year. We found out yet another absurd manifestation of the new teacher evaluation system, and I voted in a mayoral primary election with a dearth of meaningful education platforms. But before I eventually tackle the absurdity of the new teacher evaluation system, I need to lay a little groundwork.
This week as I was thinking about how to create a productive community in my classroom, while meeting my students and already seeing their strengths and where they need support, I thought about what students and teachers share. Teaching is a learning profession. Freire again- “Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.” No matter how experienced you are, you can always get better, no matter how much you know, you can always know more, no matter how many students you’ve worked with, they should all feel brand new and revelatory. Kids’ and teachers’ needs are not all that different. And sadly, the new teacher evaluation system in New York is a mirror image of what ED reform is imposing on our kids- top down, narrow, inappropriate and arbitrary assessments to as a way to improve “performance.” When really, teaching and learning is not a performance, but a process. Nor is it something that improves merely by virtue of being assessed, ( particularly when the assessments are developmentally inappropriate and only serve to breed frustration, dissatisfaction, and disengagement on the part of both teachers and students.) We are all learners. We are all in process. We learn through each other, we learn by being supported and empowered, by having colleagues or friends we respect notice what we do well and offer suggestions for what we find hard.
Teachers don’t need to be evaluated, they need to be cultivated. Any good teacher knows that when a student is struggling, you don’t put them on probation, and you certainly don’t do so when they’re actually doing great, but had a hard time with one test. Good teachers, good learners and good colleagues are reflective, they consider the whole person in context, they problem solve, they offer encouragement and support. The new teacher evaluation system does the opposite. And of course, the people it will hurt the most will be children, especially, as with this whole movement, low-income and minority children. Who’s going to want to teach them? Either you spend years adhering to mind numbing and developmentally inappropriate test prep curriculum, or you strive to inspire and cultivate and you get booted and diminished when your students struggle with the dense 10 hours of testing they are forced to endure each year.
In the new system, every teacher gets a rating that is based on a score out of 100. PE, Art, Music and Science teachers get their rating in part based on 3rd-5th graders scores on the ELA test. So, even though they don’t teach ELA, a part of their rating derives from those scores. There’s more. Early childhood teachers, ( pre-K to 2) also are rated in part based on performance on the 3rd grade test. I know. Fortunately for the advocates for this system, the monster they’ve created is so weighted with jargon and provision within provision, that no one understands the process enough to oppose it. I’m going to do some research and then present a fuller picture soon. How does this thoughtless means of evaluation serve teachers and learners? How does it help teachers to be reflective and critical, to grow professionally?
I hate to end with negativity so here is a counter snapshot: A guided discovery in my classroom of plants and natural objects like shells, feathers, pine cones etc. One special needs student with memory and aggression issues, sitting quietly by herself and petting a blue rabbits foot fern while quietly singing to it to help it grow. At another table, a student who didn’t realize until the boy sitting next to him mentioned it, that pine cones originated in trees. The huge smiles on my kids’ faces as they jumped up and down when we sang the popcorn song for the first time during morning meeting. POP!
That’s all for now.