Check Your Frustration at the Door. . .

Regular Radical Reader Nate Barton over at A Drop of Reason pointed me to this YouTube video created by a North Carolina special education teacher who is protesting the inhumanity of standardized testing for children with serious learning disabilities today:

Even as teachers like these are lauded as heroes by equally passionate peers, I’m just not sure how to feel about these kinds of "statements" by teachers.  (Nate would argue that I’m a bit too tempered for my own good!)

Beyond the conversation we could have about the increasingly participatory nature of media or the importance of modeling conflict resolution for our students, my biggest worry is that messages like these cheapen teachers in the eyes of the general public even though they have great resonance.  Heck, ask any special educator that you know and they’ll tell you that requiring children with disabilities to meet standards they can’t reach destroys their humanity.

Ask any legislator or business leader in North Carolina if they’ll hear that message through the thick layers of sarcasm in this video and the answer is likely to be a resounding no. 

And that’s a lost opportunity.       

I think that teachers often miss the PR value in addressing legitimate concerns in a professional manner.  Instead of becoming articulate advocates for positive change, we uncork with screeds, respond in anger, or talk down to our listeners.

That tendency turns decision makers against us.  I’ll never forget sitting in a teacher leadership seminar with a group of influential policy wonks once and being shocked as they described their complete disdain for having conversations with practitioners. 

"Are you kidding?" I asked.  "After all, everyone loves teachers, right?  Besides, isn’t first hand classroom experience essential to making good decisions?"

"Wrong," argued one participant.  "As soon as I see a teacher coming, I groan because I know I’m going to get the BMW."  To her, teachers were defined in degrees of moaning and whining.  The longer they went on, the less likely she was to ever want to invite them back—-and rarely did she ever want to invite anyone back! 

I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve worked incredibly hard to break down these kinds of negative stereotypes about teachers.  When a challenge is facing those who set policy and drive the decisions in our buildings, I want them to believe that educators can play a meaningful role in developing solutions—and I think that gets less likely every time a teacher forgets to check his frustration at the door. 


8 thoughts on “Check Your Frustration at the Door. . .

  1. Matt Johnston

    You have posed many questions here, and comments on my own blog regarding teachers being left out of the policy making process and this post give a good example why.
    A policy maker has a limited amount of time (don’t we all) and limited other resources at their disposal and a good policy maker wants no resource wasted.
    My suggestion to teachers wanting to make an impact on the policy making process it really very simple and boils down to three principles.
    1. In every meeting with a policy maker, have a two minute pitch, make the pitch, leaving supporting data and then answer questions for the policy maker will surely have them. In short, respect their time and they will respect you.
    2. Have a real life, implementable solution. If the test for severly learning disabled children or any other test or policy is unfair or undesireable, have an alterantive that does not waste time or resources. From my personal experience, it is often lacking when most people approach policy makers. In short have a suggestion.
    3. Don’t complain about the current state of affairs. Your very presence with the policymaker indicates a dissatisfaction with the status quo, there is no need to relive it. Personal stories are helpful in the pitch (see principle 1), but keep it limited and keep it positive.
    If the policy maker you cite is like any other legislator or executive decision maker, their experience is not unique. To all the teacher out there, if you are constructive in your approach, you get a hearing. If waste time whining or complaining, you will not get a second listen very easily.
    That is the lesson that Bill’s policy maker story should impart. If you want a place at the table, be productive in that place.

  2. Nate Barton

    I think you do make sense in reference to the sarcasm. In fact I kicked myself for not sending the letter, which I received later, to you. His point there is much stronger.
    My father, also a teacher, is currently working with him in an effort to keep him from being terminated. I think that if he is able to throw the protesting over to his parents (perhaps have them boycott the test) then he may be able to do what his administration asks of him while still conscientously objecting.
    I’ll keep you posted.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Nate,
    Thanks a ton for posting Doug’s letter to his school here! It’s going to make an interesting follow up post for me simply because it’s a great example of what I think responsible action should have been.
    Look at the articulation in his position and the reasoned words he chooses to use. Wouldn’t he have had a much better chance to be “heard” had he started from a point of reason rather than a point of sarcasm?
    I work with my students all the time on how to approach difficult circumstances or situations where they believe strongly about a topic. Heck, we just finished writing problem solution essays on alternative energy to the Governor of North Carolina designed to point out that NC has become one of America’s most polluted states.
    Which of Doug’s responses would be a more resonsible model for my kids?
    I guess my criticism (in an objective, not personal sense) of Doug’s decisions is that his YouTube video cheapens the articulate thought in his letter—-which makes him less influential, rather than more.
    I’m not anti-Doug. I’m just sad that he won’t be heard….and worried that the actions of all teachers will be judged because of his very public and very transparent sarcastic reply.
    Does this make sense?
    This is a great strand of conversation….Glad y’all are involved!

  4. Dan Callahan

    At least in Pennsylvania we have a test for the students with the most severe disabilities. The way the scoring works is goofy, though.
    Up to 2% of our students are allowed to take the test. However, only 1% of passing scores toward AYP can come from the Alternate test. Therefore, any more than half of our students taking the alternate assessment pass don’t count towards helping our school meet AYP. Alternately, it’s a guarantee that 1% of our school’s scores cannot count toward AYP. If they take the regular test, they will fail. If they take the alternate test, they will pass, but it will not help the school. Uuurgh.

  5. Nate Barton

    While I do agree to an extent with what Bill has said here I would like to post the letter that this teacher has written to his administration in his defense. It is hard to stay composed when you come to the end on a long rope. The letter follows:
    JCPS Administration,
    I have been very concerned about the way the NCEXTEND1 has been designed for this year. It has been designed so that in order to pass you must be in the very highest developmental level (symbolic) in order to have a chance to receive a passing grade. Those students at the lowest developmental level (pre-symbolic) are tested at a level often years beyond their development or a level that they may never achieve due to the extent of their disabilities.
    One of my co-teaching settings is a 5th grade class of ‘low’ level readers. We have challenged them with some more difficult texts which required a higher level of comprehension. We have focused on issues of prejudice and discrimination through several of the texts and news articles we have used for teaching concepts. Due to having a student with a severe disability included in their class, they tied the issues of race discrimination that we read about to the disability discrimination which is unfortunately still a huge societal problem.
    Different aspects of full inclusion were the focus of all my research in my federal grant graduate program for Special Education for students with severe disabilities (from which I just graduated). I also participate in inclusion panels for classes over at WCU several times a year. For my latest one, I had the 5th grade students make up a list on a poster board of what we have done that worked and what we could do better concerning inclusion for ALL students to share with the WCU class. I was amazed and extremely proud to see the high level of their critical thinking skills as they made the list, particularly in what we could do better. Many of their ideas, though expressed in their own words, matched up with the latest research into best practice for facilitating inclusion for students with severe disabilities. These included: the needs for more pre- and in-service training on full inclusion for all teachers; disability awareness training for students and faculty; and cross-age and class-wide peer tutoring as a tool for facilitating full inclusion.
    I taught a follow-up lesson the next week sharing how blown away the WCU students, the professor, and the other members of the panel were by their ideas on the poster board. We then had small and large group discussion along with a writing assignment on why and how inclusion should continue. We also discussed their full inclusion experiences over the past year and what they had learned from them.
    I was moved greatly by a student who talked about working with the student with a severe disability at the beginning of the year in music and in Reading, and how other students made fun of her for doing it. She said that no one makes fun of him or her anymore and now many others want to help and talk to him now. This was incredibly moving and caused me to get quite choked up! We then were able to talk about how one person can take a stand and help make a difference in our world! Several students said we need to change the whole world to a place where people with disabilities are treated equally and given equal opportunities both in school and the community. They brought up Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King as parallels to what was needed for people with disabilities.
    There was also a student who suggested that what we really needed was an EOG that tested how well you treated people who were different than you, because that was as important or more important than learning Reading, Math, and Science. So, it is with the inspiration and courage shown from these students that I have decided that I will not participate in the NCEXTEND1 testing of any students here at Cullowhee Valley School. I know this risks my current and future opportunities in the field of education, but I feel that it is important that I ‘practice what I teach’ and what I learn from all the students I have worked with.
    1. It is dishonest for me as a teacher to give my students a test which they cannot pass. This test is not a valid test as it does not provide an opportunity for students to show whether they have made progress during the school year or not. Therefore, I must be a conscientious objector.
    2. There is a need to have media attention on this issue to provide ‘cover’ for teachers around the state. Many teachers will have similar classes with students with profound disabilities whose students are all guaranteed to fail. The reality is that many of these teachers will be teachers without tenure who may receive negative repercussions including not having their contracts renewed for having all low test scores.
    If a school is barely over their AYP goal before NCEXTEND1 scores come in, and then the failing scores shift the school below AYP; this could lead to the Special Education teacher and students becoming the scapegoats. (This is an unfortunate reality due to school politics, special education sub group scores, and the incredible pressure on administrators for good test scores.) I feel it is important for these teachers to have a resource available for them to show their administrators that “the test was so fixed, that this other teacher refused to give it”. I would hate to see good, young teachers be run out of or run away from teaching because of having to give a test their students were guaranteed to fail!
    Thank you,
    Doug Ward
    Cullowhee Valley School

  6. Joe

    You’re right on this one, but I do empathize with Doug in the video, as dopey as he comes across. I think I commented earlier about the sense of numbness that seems to pervade our profession, and that really concerns me. We just roll over and submit and then complain about all the crap that’s piled on top of us that we really had no say in. And this really gets us nowhere. Couple this frustration with the fact that our profession has been massively deprofessionalized in recent decades. I’m not sure how to overcome that apathy on either an individual or structural level at this point. So when people like Doug stand up, I recognize the frustration and the deep sense of powerlessness. Where to go from there? I have no idea…

  7. Mark Clemente

    I think you bring up an excellent point about using positive vs. negative language. No one likes to be attacked and putting people on the defensive does not promote productive conversation. Check out Ewan McIntosh’s blog (and the links he has with the post) on a similar subject.

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