Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Standards of Living, Definitions of Self

I'm sitting in Starbucks waiting for three other English teachers to show up for a meeting. We are to plan a unit for our classes that follows something called the Common Core Standards (CCS). This is the new list of what we teachers are supposed to teach and what the kids should learn. There's nothing in them that I can get worked up about. The CCS outlines what good teachers already do. They just divide things by grade level and lay them out lock-step. To this I can easily say, whatever, which is better than what I usually say (none of which would be appropriate to state here). It is better to accept them than it is to fight. Acceptance allows me to see how little the CCS will interfere with learning. The unit should be interesting enough because we are four thoughtful people as teachers tend to be.

The thing I'm watching out for is that we teachers are also largely disgruntled. It hasn't been this way throughout my entire career. Sure, there are always some who are angry with kids and administrators, but there is a different, more prevalent feel to it now.

It's easy to believe that the profession is crashing and burning and that we teachers are pariahs. Stories on the news tell us this and politicians state plainly that we are the problem with the world. Governor Scott Walker went so far as to outlaw collective bargaining for teachers and other union workers. The idea was that we have it too cushy: summers off, short work day, great health care, and still we do a crappy job compared to (name your country).

I have been down this road to depression, and occasionally I wander into the darkness again, but I'm trying to stay away from that. I work as a teacher but don't define myself as a teacher any more. I like teaching and find the work with students to be almost as good as anything else I imagine doing. I'm good at the job too. I know how to help kids learn. There are times when I still love the work, but I'm not defining myself as a teacher because it's no longer enough.

Consider this meeting I'm about to have. I'm okay with a unit plan and looking at the Common Core Standards. It's no big deal. But soon my work will be measured almost entirely on how my students test and how closely my lessons follow the CCS. Neither measure has much to do with what we do in class. I can prep kids for the test in two weeks. They learn to game the test and score well. Prior to the test prep we read and write to feel comfortable with language. The test doesn't measure their facility with language and ideas, it measures how well they take the test. It's no great measure of what we do.

This is the direction education has been taking for at least a decade and it has a long way to go before it pulls out of this flight plan. Defining myself as a teacher puts me in the plane, back in coach stuffed between two enormous people and ducking gigantic carry-ons. I'm not much interested in running schools either because the highest I could go is pilot or co-pilot and the air traffic controllers would still steer us into the mountain.

I'm not as angry about this as I used to be (thank goodness, because I was really angry and it cost me). I'm not as angry as many of my colleagues are. I accept that this is education today and I have a chance to carve out a small niche where I work. Today's meeting is one in which I want to keep pushing (gently) toward carving out safe places for learning no matter what standards we follow, no matter who looks over our shoulders, and no matter what mood we are falling toward.

As for me, I define myself as a writer these days if for no other reason than I keep going with the words and day in day out I write on.