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.
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:
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.
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