What Do You Want From Me?

Blogger’s Note: I read a John T. Spencer bit a few weeks back that touched a bunch of emotions.  That’s led to a bit of unvarnished truth that I wanted to process here in a post that is decidedly light on the smiles and candycorn.  Hope that doesn’t shake you. 

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One of the most painful moments in my teaching career happened several years back when I was working in a language arts classroom.

The results of our state’s standardized tests had just come back and I was called into my assistant principal’s office to review my scores.  “What are we going to do about this, Bill?” he said, passing a paper covered with red ink across the desk.  “You’ve got the lowest scores on the hallway again.”

I wasn’t mad at the principal.  In fact, I considered him a friend and he was only doing his job.  But in that moment, I was definitely defeated by a system that defined the value that I add in such a narrow way.

I lost it.  Literally started to cry in front of him.  I was embarrassed and brokenhearted all at the same time.  I felt like a failure and a fool all wrapped into one.

I was ashamed — both of my results and my emotions:

Slide_TheProblemwithShame

Download: Slide_TheProblemwithShame

In that moment, I couldn’t think rationally.  I couldn’t remind myself that the end of grade exams given in our state only measured 2 out of 6 objectives in the curriculum.  I couldn’t remind myself that my students excelled at untestable skills like engaging in collaborative dialogue or building new knowledge together.

I wasn’t thinking about the kids who left my room inspired each year — motivated to study new topics or to tackle new tasks or to try new things that they’d never considered trying before.  The power of those connections were forgotten; blurred by the stream of red ink that my state’s legislators intended to use as an indicator of the sum total of the contributions that I make in the lives of my kids and my community.

I stormed out of the principal’s office, grabbed my things and headed home.

On the way out the door, a parent chased me down in the parking lot.  “Mr. Ferriter.  MR. FERRITER.  Can I talk to you for a minute?” she said.

“I just wanted you to know how thankful I am for you.  My son loves you.  He comes home every day so excited about school — and your lessons about life are sinking in.  He’s proud of himself and he’s determined and he told me that you talk about those things in class all the time.

“He means everything to me — and sending him away for 8 hours a day is hard.  But knowing he’s with you makes it easier.  I just thought you needed to know how grateful I am for you.”

Her words mattered.  They were a reminder that I wasn’t completely useless — that some people really DO care about something other than end of grade test scores.

The entire experience has left me bitter and angry, though. I haven’t let it go — and I definitely haven’t recovered.  Years later, I catch myself thinking back on that day.  

Most of the time, I wonder just what people want from me.  Am I supposed to inspire and encourage — or am I supposed to grind a collection of random facts into twelve-year old minds in a march to the end of grade test?

Am I accomplished when my kids can spit back facts on low level multiple choice exams, or am I accomplished when my kids care about themselves and each other and their communities?  Can I make a difference even if I have the lowest test scores on the hallway?

And to be honest, my bitterness and anger only grows stronger in a Race to the Top world where even progressive politicians seem determined to use test scores to reward and punish teachers while simultaneously stripping away our resources and publicly celebrating their quest to destroy our profession.

Some days, fighting such a dysfunctional, confused system seems incredibly pointless, y’all.  Things aren’t getting better.  They’re far worse than they’ve ever been — and I don’t see any light at the end of the professional tunnel.

#whybother

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Related Radical Reads:

The Monster You’ve Created

My Work Has Been Gutted

Breaking Public Education to Pieces

9 comments

  1. Curt Rees (@CurtRees)

    Best thing I’ve read this month, maybe longer. I’m an admin and feel subservient, with guilt, to those high stakes test scores because that is what ends up in the newspaper and at Board meetings. Grrrr.

    • Bill Ferriter

      Curt wrote:

      I’m an admin and feel subservient, with guilt, to those high stakes test scores because that is what ends up in the newspaper and at Board meetings.

      ——–

      That’s what we need to change, Curt. We need to get parents to the point where they ask for something more than the end of grade test scores when evaluating the quality of the education that their kids are receiving. We also need to get them to the point where they realize that the quality of the tests make them irrelevant. I’m pretty sure that if parents realized just how ridiculous the tests were, they’d demand something better.

      It’s building that awareness that takes effort.

      Thanks for stopping by,
      Bill

  2. Jay Posickj

    Bill,
    I, too, feel your pain in the use of test scores to evaluate teachers and students. As a principal, I find test scores to be only one minor measure of evaluation. The most important measure to me is the relationships built with students by all of the dedicated educators in our profession. I get stuck on the negative from time to time, but stories like the parent comments you mentioned always keep me coming back each and every day. I’m sure that you have many more parent and student stories like you mentioned than the number of tests given. Keep those positive stories in your thoughts every day as you prepare your lessons and teach your students. The parents and students will thank you for it, and so will I.
    Jay

    • Bill Ferriter

      Jay wrote:

      As a principal, I find test scores to be only one minor measure of evaluation. The most important measure to me is the relationships built with students by all of the dedicated educators in our profession.

      – – – – – – –

      Thanks for the kind words and encouragement, Jay. I really do think you’re right that people value test scores a whole lot less than policymakers.

      The hitch, though, is our state has tied those scores to teacher evaluations, contract decisions, and compensation. So while my principal knows I’m more than a test score, that doesn’t really matter. The test score has a level of importance that’s hard to ignore.

      And it’s so blatantly unfair to me that it’s hard to get past. I know that the majority of policymakers couldn’t pass the test my 12 year olds take — and yet their ready to use that same test as an indicator of my ability.

      That just plain sucks.

      Anyway….thanks for stopping by,
      Bill

  3. michellek107 (Michelle Baldwin)

    Thanks for sharing this, my friend.

    The hashtag at the end? You know why you bother. You know exactly why you bother– it’s for those kids. Years from now when those stupid tests matter not at all, they will remember the teacher who inspired them to learn in spite of all the “awful.” You are the teacher inspiring them to be good people. THAT is what you do every single day.

    We know it’s not getting better in education. I see it and cringe whenever this time of year rolls around. My friends post in blogs, Twitter, and Facebook about their frustrations.

    BUT… because of teachers like you who are with those kids day in and day out, those kids have hope. And we’re all better for that.

  4. Kris Shaffer (@krisshaffer)

    I’m a college professor. Let me encourage you *not* to cram facts into 12-year-old minds for exams. Most of those facts won’t make it with them to college, let alone life after school. Please send me your students who can “engag[e] in collaborative dialogue,” “build new knowledge together,” and are “motivated to study new topics or to tackle new tasks or to try new things that they’d never considered trying before.”

    And I’m not alone. Here are thoughts from several professors in a chat the other night about what we wish new college students knew before college, and how to help them get acclimated: http://storify.com/krisshaffer/how-to-prepare-students-for-college?utm_source=t.co&awesm=sfy.co_r4sU&utm_content=storify-pingback&utm_medium=sfy.co-twitter&utm_campaign=

    Hang in there! Keep up the good fight!

    • Paul Cancellieri (@mrscienceteach)

      Kris,
      It’s great to hear that “higher educators” value the same skills that we public school teachers know are important.

      Unfortunately, across the nation states and districts are incorporating standardized testing data into an increasingly large percentage of teacher evaluations. The results of one gigantic multiple-choice test on one day are being used to determine who gets a raise and who gets the axe.

      Given the choice between the unemployment line (but a clear conscience) and toeing the line, which skills do you think will be taught in American schools?

      We have to decide, as a nation, that we value collaboration and critical thinking MORE than rote memorization and simple recall.

      • Bill Ferriter

        And the funny part, Paul, is that “getting a raise” means $500 bucks here in NC!

        For a guy who hasn’t gotten a raise in 6 years and who works in a state that ranks 49th in teacher salaries, that made me laugh out loud. To assume that teachers need a financial incentive to work hard on behalf of kids is an insult. To assume that $500 — the equivalent of 50 bucks a month before taxes — will be enough of an incentive to change the performance of teachers is a joke.

        Hope you’re well,
        Bill

  5. Michael Schneider

    Wow. Just WOW. I’m angered you are even made to question yourself like that. Nothing wrong with reflection, but this is not it.

    Thank you for sharing TRUTH. Reminds us all that we are not alone.