The Monster You’ve Created. . .

May 25, 2010

Dear Mr. Policymaking Man,

As a sixth grade language arts teacher for the better part of the past 16 years, I've tried to serve you well.  I'm proud to have been a role model for my students—men who love reading, writing AND 12-year olds aren't exactly easy to come by—and proud to have passed along skills that will help my students to be influential communicators in whatever profession that they choose.

That work has carried pretty significant costs, though. 

Have YOU ever tried to grade 130 essays seven or eight times every year?  Have YOU ever had to make choices between providing meaningful feedback to your students and spending time with your newborn daughter? 

Have YOU ever worked to find ways to use digital tools to extend conversations beyond your classroom or to create new audiences for novice writers?  Have YOU ever tried to pull writing out of students born to message or focused, concentrated reading out of a generation of infosnackers?

None of that is easy…And YOU'VE done all that you can to make it harder! 

YOU'VE decided that my effectiveness will be based on nothing more than the half-baked end of grade exams that we give every spring.  YOU'VE decided that the best way to prepare young readers is to bury them in practice exams given every few weeks. 

YOU'VE panicked and provided heavily scripted curriculum guides that I'm supposed to adhere to.  And YOU'RE working to institute merit pay plans that will link MY pay to YOUR silly tests.

Don't you think that has an impact on ME? 

Don't you think that I'm jealous of my colleagues who work in untested subjects?  Don't you think that I'd like to be judged by observations instead of exams? 

Don't you think that I'm tired of having "effectiveness indicies" generated on me and being told that the "value" that I "add" to the lives of the students in my classroom can be summed up neatly by a number?

To be honest, I've spent the better part of the past five years wondering why anyone would want to teach language arts.  Buried under stacks of papers and realizing that I've been sentenced to a high-pressure position with no additional time, professional development or compensation, I've started to crumble.

And I've decided to walk away.  Next year, I'm teaching science.

It'll be a beautiful gig.  It's not tested, so there's no unfair external pressure—on me or on my students.  To judge us, you'll have to come and observe us, which means that you're more likely to see that WE ARE more than the number you want us to be. 

You can't take your "multiple-choice cop out" approach to evaluation any more, can you?

And I can experiment and play with my students again.  Sure, we'll get through the curriculum—-but we'll do it without the weight of the world sitting on our shoulders and a never-ending pile of multiple choice tests to take. 

Maybe I'll enjoy teaching again—-and maybe my students will enjoy learning again. 

Is this the monster you were trying to create when you decided that standardized testing was the best way to judge teachers and schools?

Sincerely,

One seriously burned out dude who you won't listen to anyway.

14 comments

  1. Erica Speaks

    *standing ovation*
    Couldn’t be more with you!
    I just finished my eighth year teaching 7th grade language arts for WCPSS. I would add that we, along with our 4th and 10th grade LA counterparts, get doubly “blessed” in NC with the standardized state WRITING test. Honestly, I would take two reading EOGs a year if I could skip out on this little gem. I watch a child slave away at their writing all year and have a portfolio that demonstrates their growth, if THEY would bother to come and look. Instead, in the end, what I’ve taught and what they have learned in writing – which is in my opinion, an even more gray area than reading skills – is, too, boiled down to a few numbers. An on-demand test to assess writing where students cannot use a dictionary, a thesaurus, or a proofreading colleague – a way in which we hardly ever actually write in our life.
    *sigh*

  2. Damian

    Hate to break off on a tangent, Bill, but your “in it for the money” comment touched a nerve. That tired old argument also sets up a false dichotomy, because it implies that either a) you love kids, or b) you love money. Too often it’s used to argue against pay raises or, as you mentioned, differentiated pay.
    No teacher goes into teaching expecting to become rich, BUT I like to be able to pay my modest mortgage, car payments, and day care tuition, while having a bit left over each month for entertainment and/or to sock away. I don’t want to live extravagantly, but I don’t think comfortably is too much to ask for the jobs we do. I like working with kids AND I like being fairly compensated for my education, expertise, time, and skill.
    The martyr model of teaching makes for good movies (so I’m told; I don’t care much for them), but an unsustainable teaching force.

  3. Dianne Aldridge

    Bill, good luck to you. I taught 4th grade and this year moved to technology applications. I have no stress, no grades, no testing- and my kids have a blast learning in my lab. It’s a freedom in teaching that I have never experienced before and I love it. I use my free time (from grading) to form technology clubs, robotics teams, and help fellow teachers learn to integrate technology into their curriculum. You’re going to really enjoy your new-found freedom, bless your heart.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks for the support, y’all.
    I’ve wrestled with this decision only because it feels dirty to willingly walk away from a tested subject—and a subject that has far more grading demands—in order to make my life easier.
    But I’m hoping my honesty will help policymakers realize that not all jobs are created equally and if they aren’t willing to customize teaching conditions and/or salaries by subject area, that good teachers will walk away from demanding subjects.
    The whole, “If you’re in it for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reasons” argument is great when you’re working in the easy gigs.
    It doesn’t ring true for those of us in the harder subjects, though.
    Bill

  5. Ariel Sacks

    Slam dunk, Bill. I know I may sound petty in my tone there, but I feel you completely. Both the time factor (grading/feedback) of writing and the pressure of testing are very real for all public school ELA teachers across the country and it is taking a toll. I’m glad you’ve cast some light on that point. I hope you enjoy your new position. I’m sure your students will be thrilled to have you!

  6. Damian

    Best of luck in your new role, Bill. I experienced a lot of the same feelings as you (to be honest, more of the family stuff and less of the std. test stuff) before I left my HS English position to become a school psychologist.
    I’d be lying if I said I felt my current position has the same impact or emotional rewards as my former, but on the other hand, my evenings and weekends are now mine to spend with my kids, unfettered by either the homework or the guilt and anxiety about not doing enough homework.
    Looking forward to hearing about your new adventures in science!

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Phil,
    After poking through your website, it seems that you teach keyboarding and technology.
    At least in our state, the keyboarding and technology tests are relatively straight forward—rote application of skills—and they don’t count in any school or teacher accountability models.
    Do you think that might have an impact on your attitudes towards testing?
    I’m not trying to downplay the importance of your subject, but I am trying to point out that when talking about testing pressures and accountability, I think we need to turn to the experiences of reading and math teachers.
    So many people tell me that “they understand” what testing has done to teachers and students.
    I don’t think that’s possible if you’re not working in language arts and math classrooms.
    Does this make sense?
    Bill

  8. Bill Ivey

    I’m so sorry to hear you’re leaving ELA teaching because I’ve seen you in action, and you’re amazing. And I’m so happy to hear you’re moving to science teaching and looking forward to the flexibility and ability to focus on learning that will bring you and your students (and more family time). And finally, I’m so angry it had to be a choice. There’s a lesson to be learned here. Will it get through?

  9. Pat

    Might have to pop over to another subject Bill, Science is tested in California in grades 5 and 8. How about PE?

  10. Joel Zehring

    I taught Science for two years, and the experience tilted me toward the discipline for the rest of my time in the classroom. If you do it right, it practically teaches itself. Now that I have a son, I can see the scientific process play out every day as he experiments with his world.
    I know you’ll have a ton of fun. Watch out, though. Arizona tests science in two grades, with more on the way, possibly. Who knows how long it will take to spread to other states.

  11. Becky Goerend

    I feel your pain, Bill. Best of luck in getting your fire back with teaching a fresh subject!