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Get Back (To Where You Once Belonged)

When I was in highschool, I remember one of my favorite social studies teachers, Mrs. Nancy Coates, talking about the art and science of teaching (before Marzano copyrighted the phrase). Mrs. Coates talked about organizing binders of the new state standards for social studies, which were being tied to the state test in Illinois for the first time. She talked about course alignment. I didn’t know what that was, but I knew it had something to do with connecting standards to what the teachers were doing in class. She was in favor of this. It was about 1995, I think. I also remember Mrs. Coates being thrilled that she and another teacher had received a grant to go to Harvard and, in her words, “research, research, research!” Honestly, I had no idea what that would entail; I pictured her and the other teacher in some huge library, copying notes from leather-bound reference books under one of those green lamps. There would be “shushing.” But she was excited, so I was excited for her.

Mrs. Coates was an educator who loved her subject matter, the art of doing social studies, and who was also engaged in the science of teaching in the emerging era of standards. I picked up on all of that as a teenager, because I loved social studies too, and since I was thinking of becoming a teacher, I was attuned to teachers’ work behind-the-scenes. Mrs. Coates thought that rolling out standards was important and beneficial to everyone from department chairs like her who had to develop the course offerings, to teachers who wanted students to matriculate properly, and to students, who would know what the learning expectations were. But remember, this was back in the mid 1990’s, about 10-15 years after 1983’s A Nation at Risk kicked off the modern education reform era, and about 10 years away from the high stakes testing era. It all seemed reasonable.

But you know where this is going…

Now, all children in grades 3-8 are tested at least once a year with a state standardized test in English and Math, as well as science and social studies in alternating years. Students in grades 9-12 also have their own sets of standardized tests and end-of-course assessments they have to pass to graduate. Besides the standardized, summative assessments, there are rounds and rounds of formative formal assessments for all students in reading and math, on top of informal or formal common assessments created locally. Mrs. Coates may have been prescient enough to see where the testing road was headed, but I don’t think she could have imagined the mess we’re in.

I’m tired of hearing that testing keeps schools and teachers accountable for student outcomes, because you know what? That may have been fair in the 1990’s when it started taking off in moderate ways, but in 2018? In 2018, teachers have become accountable to testing systems and the politicians who sponsor them, not to students. Students are weighed and measured over and over throughout the school year to an exhausting degree for everyone. If you can’t count what’s important, you’ll make important what you can count. Teachers and principals are now stuck in this system. And so, obviously, are the students.

What, exactly, do you want to know about your students? Clear your minds, and think for a minute. Take a deep breath. What do you actually want to know about your kids? I bet you want to know that they can read critically. I bet you’re curious about whether or not they’re interested, engaged or find the subject relevant to their own inner and outward lives. Are they happy? Do you even have time or energy anymore to really think about these truly essential questions you have about your students? Or are you mired in the minutiae of data points, projected growth and fluency scores, graduation rates and the testing schedule?

Where are you in all of this? As a teacher, and as a human being?

Principals have been acting as bridge or buffer between the forces of the education system and teachers for years. It’s an important job they have, but one that leaves them feeling like they are constantly on defense in anticipation of the next initiative, legislative action, or federal guidance. Teachers work with a feeling in their gut that they can’t do it all, that they’re under a microscope. Everyone wants to relax just a little bit. Everyone wants to breathe more deeply.

Can you imagine being told that you’ve received a grant to just go do research (your idea of fun, haha) at Harvard with a colleague? All you want is to let your students read for pleasure sometimes or take an extra recess or go on a field trip without having to prove it’s tied to state standards. Twenty odd years ago, Mrs. Coates was given an opportunity to renew her love for the art of teaching social studies. Can we imagine something like that for ourselves today?

We can! I’ve imagined it! We may not be going to Harvard, but we’re going to create space to breathe and revive your spirit for a classroom that nurtures you and your students. When you revive your spirit you will also find the strength to stand in your beliefs, shift your personal and professional priorities and honor your truth.

Join me 1:1, in a group or through an online course. As a teacher or principal, you truly have sacred work to do and it feels so much better when you can do it with a grounded and clear spirit. I’ve been there and I want to help!

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