This light-bulb-moment occurred because of two unrelated incidents, one of them banal to the point of almost being funny, the other considerably more serious.
The first occurred because there is something wrong with the "heater" in my classroom. I use the quotation marks because despite the fact that this is upstate New York and we've been having cooler weather for almost a month now, this machine has been pumping out continuously cold air into my room. Yesterday morning it was quite chilly outside, and my room was almost at the seeing-your-own-breath stage. So I took my digital thermometer, and first wandered around my classroom (getting an average temperature of around 61 F, warmest near the exit into the hallway); the air coming from the "heater" registered 58 F.
So I let the fellow who is the head of buildings, grounds, and maintenance know. In short order I got back a curt note that my room was actually between 70 and 75 F, and the air coming out of the "heater" was at a comfortable 68. "No, you're wrong," was the gist of the email. "You're actually warm."
Or perhaps this is part of the new "Common Core" math, that 61 = 72 and 58 = 68. I dunno.
Much more troubling was an exchange I had last week with an administrator regarding the implementation of "scripted modules," a new-and-improved way of micromanaging classroom teachers by giving them day-by-day lesson plans with pre-prepared problem sets and assignments, and scripts that are to be read to the students verbatim (some of them even tell the teacher what to answer if students ask particular questions). Apparently, this administrator has gotten a good deal of flak over these modules, with complaints that they are rigid, lock teachers into going at a particular speed regardless of whether that speed is appropriate for their classes, and rob teachers of the creative parts of their job. So the administrator sent a broadside email to the entire staff -- not only to the teachers affected, or the ones who had complained -- telling us that the modules were fine, that any frustration we felt was just that we were clinging to old ways of doing things and didn't like change, and that the new modular approach didn't take away any creativity from the act of teaching.
Well, I wasn't going to let that pass, so I answered as follows:
Dear _________,I have yet to receive any response to this email.
I considered not responding to this, as the whole “module” thing has yet to affect me directly, but after some thought I decided that I could not let it go.
The whole idea of handing a professional educator a script is profoundly insulting. The implication, despite your statement that it is not meant to replace the art of creative teaching, is that the policymakers and educational researchers know better how to instruct children than the people who have devoted their lives to the profession, who know the children in their classes personally and their curricula thoroughly. This DOES take the creativity out of teaching, and that fact is not changed by your simply stating that it doesn’t.
More and more, we are being mandated to approach educating children by the factory model – everything done lockstep, everything converted to numbers and trends and statistics. If it can be quantified, it exists; if it can’t, it doesn’t. The mechanization of education robs it of its joy for teachers, and more importantly, for students. All of the pretests and post-tests and standardized exams are simply providing a bunch of specious, meaningless numbers so that the policy wonks in Albany (and elsewhere) can pat themselves on the back and tell themselves that they’ve accomplished something. I have yet to see any of these “value-added models” provide anything but percentage values whose error bars approach 100%.
And, on a personal note: you can consider this my official refusal to teach from a module, should one come down the line for any of the courses that I teach. And the day that I am mandated, by you or by any other administrator, to read from a script in my classes will be my last day on the job.
Well, the whole thing has been weighing considerably on my mind in the last few days, and yesterday -- in between rubbing my hands together to restore blood flow to my fingers -- I realized that the two incidents really came from the same fundamental source.
A lack of trust.
No, we're told; what you're experiencing, what you're thinking, what you're feeling, isn't real. Your perspective is skewed. We know better than you do. Despite the fact that you were hired for your professional expertise, and know how to run a classroom (and, presumably, read a thermometer), your viewpoint is invalid.
Here, let me tell you what reality is.
A study conducted cooperatively by Working Families and Unum Insurance Group of worker satisfaction and productivity found that trust was the single most important factor in both employee well-being and the performance of the organization as a whole. Susanne Jacobs, consultant and lead researcher on the study, said:
Truly understanding how individuals are motivated at work provides not just the gateway to optimal performance, something sought by every organization, but also an environment where every person can flourish.A 2011 study by D. Keith Denton of Missouri State University's Department of Management supports that view. Trust, clarity, and openness are critical, Denton concluded, after evaluating productivity and worker satisfaction at a variety of different businesses. Denton said:
Trust and psychological well-being are the answer; the equation to reach that answer starts with individual and team resilience, plus the eight drivers of trust (belonging, recognition, significance, fairness, challenge, autonomy, security, and purpose), together with a workplace that is built to support every human being within it. We know the solution and we know the tools, so let’s put it into practice.
Companies with high-trust levels give employees unvarnished information about company's performance and explain the rationale behind management decisions. They are also unafraid of sharing bad news and admitting mistakes. Lack of good communication leads to distrust, dissatisfaction, cynicism and turnover.Contrast that with the current atmosphere in public schools, where teachers are trusted so little that we are now being micromanaged on the moment-by-moment level -- told, in effect, what to say and how long a time we have in which to say it. Students are subjected, over and over, to high-stakes examinations to make certain they are reaching some preset, externally-determined bar. We are trusted so little that at the end of the year, we are not allowed to grade our own final exams for fear that we'll alter student papers to boost their scores and make ourselves look more effective.
If there is a high level of engagement, the leader can expect that members of the group will express their feelings, concerns, opinions and thoughts more openly. Conversely, if trust is low, members are more likely to be evasive, competitive, devious, defensive or uncertain in their actions with one another.
The contention by the anti-public-school cadre has been, all along, that teachers aren't professionals, that (in Bill Gates' words) "the educational system is broken." I think that's absolute rubbish. The teachers I know, with very few exceptions, are competent, caring, and intelligent, know their subjects deeply, and understand how to communicate their knowledge to students. In an ironic twist that seems lost on most of the people in charge, we are instituting a model for education that doesn't work and evaluating the old model on its failure -- in effect, breaking the system to show how broken it was.
My own tolerance for this nonsense is, quite frankly, nearing its limit. I am honestly not sure I can do this job much longer. I am still passionate about the subject I teach; I still enjoy my students, and the daily act of teaching them about science. Watching the light bulbs go on, when kids suddenly comprehend an especially difficult concept that they have struggled to master, is still one of the most rewarding things I know of.
But it is honestly hard to go to work, on a daily basis, knowing that in the most fundamental way, I am not trusted to do competently the job I have been tasked with. The optimist in me keeps hoping that the establishment will begin to listen to the people who are speaking out against the current trends -- most notably Diane Ravitch, whose lucid and articulate indictment of such legislation as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top leaves little room for argument.
But the pessimist in me has, at the moment, a far louder voice. I fear that things will get a great deal worse before they get better. And if they do, they will do so without my participation. I always thought that I would be one of those teachers that would have to be pushed out of the door at age 70, still eager to meet the new crowd of kids in September; the last few days, I'm wondering how I can make it to Thanksgiving.