5 Changes our Schools Need Now
Thousands of Teachers Chime In on What Needs to be Changed in our Schools—and It Has Nothing to Do with Salaries
March 28th of last year I reached a breaking point. Like many teachers in the last few weeks of school, I was exhausted, frustrated and demoralized. A stressful incident with a parent was the last straw, and I had a melt down in the hall outside my classroom and went home early. In my frustration, I did something teachers are never supposed to do—I vented on Facebook.
Two days later, my post had gone viral, with nearly 500 thousand shares, and my private message inbox was receiving messages so fast, I couldn’t keep my phone charged. After a couple less than desirable experiences with media, I decided to start my own public Facebook page and blog to interact with the public. I also began the tedious process of reading the thousands of private messages sent to me from all over the world.
Teachers, time and again, have expressed thanks to me for voicing the same concerns and frustrations they have. Thousands have left or are considering leaving the profession, as I did, and for the same reasons. Yes, we are fed up for ourselves, but more importantly, we see a broken education system that is failing our children.
I repeatedly read comments about what is going wrong and how teachers feel we can fix it. The following are the top five topics that are addressed most often:
Respect Teachers as Educated Professionals
Ask almost any teacher, and they will say that, yes, more pay would be nice, but what they really want is respect. We all got into this profession knowing what the salaries were like. What we didn’t expect was to be micromanaged to the point of frustration by administrators AND parents.
Teachers are some of the most educated professionals out there. In addition to a Bachelor’s degree (and graduate degrees for many!), we spend our summers at workshops and conventions, continually do professional development training throughout the year, and are continual self-learners. And you would be hard-pressed to find a teacher who isn’t currently reading something “just for fun”.
But what many of us have experienced from administration is a complete disregard for our years of expertise with children, with our subject, and/or with education. Rather than trusting us to do what we are prepared to do, within certain guidelines, many of us are told what to teach, when to teach it, and even HOW to teach it, even when our experience and instincts tell us there is a better way. We are told how to manage our classrooms, even when the methods don’t work. We are forced to put on “dog and pony” shows to earn reasonable ratings on our evaluations. All of this detracts from our talents and abilities as teachers, and in the long run, the students suffer.
With many parents, it feels like we are second-guessed at every turn. Rather than working with us to help their children learn (either a school lesson or a life lesson), they would rather fight against our efforts in order to make things easier for their children. I have personally had parents go straight to the principal to “decline” after school detention, have a class incentive program removed because their child didn’t earn anything, and have a major class project assignment waived for their honor student, just to name a few.
Please know that as teachers, we want nothing but the best for our students. We sacrifice our personal time and money to enrich our lessons and classroom. We work to build relationships with our colleagues and our students to make a positive learning environment. We invest our hearts into this work. Let us do what we do best, and you will see amazing things happen.
Let Kids be Accountable
Almost every teacher I’ve talked to mentions lack of student accountability as perhaps the number one factor that is affecting our education system today. In our permissive, helicopter-parent world today, we have taken away nearly every tool teachers have to really motivate students and manage their behavior. Even parents have come to me, frustrated that their child didn’t receive a consequence that would have been a valuable learning opportunity.
Perhaps the biggest example of lack of accountability is with grades. We are, in effect, “dumbing down” our kids by giving everyone a passing grade just for showing up. I know many students who never turn in a single assignment or participate productively in class, yet as teachers we are asked to give them a minimum passing grade. Teachers are forced to play all sorts of number games to fudge the grades so students can pass. Despite not mastering the material or skills, kids are promoted to the next grade, just because they put in their time in the previous one. Grades no longer really mean anything and are no incentive at all, and this is a huge disservice to our kids, who will go out into the world thinking they will just be given something for showing up.
Another example is with behavior. Now, we’re not saying we should bring back the wooden paddle, but behavior has quite literally become out of control in most classrooms due to a lack of meaningful consequences teachers are allowed to give. Between state guidelines and parent interference, we are protecting kids from all things negative, even if it’s a consequence of their own behavior. With nothing to hold over the kids’ heads for misbehavior, anything the teacher tries to do is basically an empty threat, and the kids know it. This is also an unfair thing to teach our students, because life has consequences, and many of them are uncomfortable.
This goes right along with trusting teachers to know what’s best for kids. Let us teach them life lessons along with their school lessons. Respect that we are not being mean to kids. We actually love them, and that’s why we want them to be prepared for life.
Bring Back Recess
When I was in elementary school, I remember having three recesses each day—short ones in the morning and afternoon, and a longer one at lunch time. It was a chance to take a mental break, get some fresh air, and socialize. We could run around and act crazy and make as much noise as we wanted. We learned physical skills and played games. It was a very important part of our school day, and we came back into the classroom afterward refreshed and ready to get back to work.
I was so surprised when I started substitute teaching in younger grades to find out there was no more recess. The few schools that did do it only had a few minutes after lunch. When I taught 6th grade full-time and asked someone why we don’t have recess, I was told we have to maximize learning time and they have PE for getting physical activity.
I wondered about the logic in this, because anyone who knows anything about kids knows they NEED unstructured play time. This type of play is crucial for all types of development—not only physical and social, but also mental. Unstructured play develops imagination, critical thinking skills, and creativity.
When kids are dropped off at school at 7 am and stay till 4 (or sometimes later, if they are in an after school program), and that school doesn’t have recess, then they aren’t getting this critical development time. Not to mention, they have no time to release pent up physical energy. No wonder our kids can’t sit still in class, have terrible behavior and social skills, and are lagging academically!
Life Prep, not Just College Prep
As educators, we are failing kids when we omit essential life skills classes from our offerings. Many districts are doing away with these “old fashioned” subjects, in favor of more of the big four, Language Arts, Science, Math, and Social Studies. While it’s true that many of our students will need these core subjects under their belt for future careers, we seem to have forgotten that ALL our students will need life skills.
For example, virtually every student will someday be in a relationship, have a home or family, be important in the life of a child, and/or have a career that involves one of the above. So why are so many school districts dropping their Family Science programs? Every single one of them will need to manage money, have bank accounts, navigate taxes and credit and invest for retirement. So why are we not requiring Financial Literacy courses for every high school graduate?
Is it too much to ask for our kids to leave high school knowing how to sew on a button, boil a pot of water, check their own oil, or build something with their own hands? I often hear the argument that these things should be taught at home. While I agree, the truth is that for most students it isn’t. Part of the reason is that the school day has gotten longer and longer and parents see less and less of their kids. They are too busy with careers and extra-curricular activities, and time at home just isn’t there for these types of things. We have to teach them!
It seems that school districts are mainly concerned about getting everyone to college. But in 2017, the Bureau of Labor estimated that only about 66 percent of high school graduates go on to college, and less than 40 percent of those will complete a bachelor’s degree in four years. At least half of our graduating seniors will never even finish college. So why are we pushing this as the only option?
I recently had a conversation with a young man about 20 years old. He said he had recently discovered this thing called “trade school” and was preparing to start there. He was upset that no one had ever told him about this option, since he wanted to be a construction general contractor. But he was excited to have found a program that will actually teach what he needs for his career.
Let’s face it. Not everyone can succeed in college. And college isn’t the only place to prepare for a strong career. We need electricians, mechanics, plumbers, and all other kinds of skilled labor just as much as we need doctors and lawyers. By not offering beginning courses for exploring interests in these fields or encouraging all options of post high school education, we are failing to serve over half our student population.
Do Away with Standardized Testing
After teaching a core subject (Language Arts) in my most recent position, I came to understand that standardized testing wastes more valuable school time than it does good. And hundreds, if not thousands of teachers across the globe have said the same thing.
Here in Texas, we have the STAAR test. It is king. We live and die by STAAR scores. We spend huge chunks of valuable prep time studying scores and diving into which questions our students are failing. We lose several school days each year for benchmark, mock, and actual STAAR testing. We have lessons each unit on STAAR test taking strategies. And the kids are terrified by it.
In my experience, these type of exams are not an accurate measure at all of student progress or teacher competence. First of all, a multiple choice exam, as these usually are, doesn’t measure what a student knows. It measures whether a student can choose (or guess) the right answer from a set of four. As teachers, we are always concerned with raising the level of cognitive skills in our students. But choosing a correct answer is very low on the hierarchy of thinking skills, compared to other methods that could be used to evaluate understanding.
Second, some students, who might otherwise be proficient in a subject, are poor test takers. They may have test anxiety or just not be good at performing in this way. We need to give other options for proving mastery of a subject.
Third, some subjects are more subjective than others, and this type of testing leads to frustration. For example, in math, there is always one right answer, but in Language arts, there is often much left to interpretation on the part of the reader. Some things are not so cut-and-dry. For a subject like this, sometimes a written or other type of assignment can make for better understanding of what the student knows.
As teachers, many of us prefer to teach actual content and critical thinking skills rather than teaching our students how to choose the best answer. Going back to respecting us as professionals, we have been taught how to evaluate progress in our subject area. We build relationships with our students and get to know their needs. We can tailor our teaching to meet those needs, but only if we aren’t confined to the biased view of mastery that these tests dictate.
Many of our policies on education are made by administrators and politicians who are far removed from day-to-day life in a classroom. We have taken away many valuable aspects of education, and the decline in quality is evidence of that. This isn’t because teachers aren’t as good as they used to be or because students are less able. It’s because our students have lost many of the critical learning opportunities they need to succeed, have too much pressure to get into college, and are being forced to conform to a one-size-fits-all system.
Our teachers are in the trenches. They are the true eyes of education. They know what our students need and what works. And what we have currently doesn’t work. We can do better. We must do better. It’s time we listen to what they have to say and make the changes our students deserve!