I see on your list many of the reasons that I myself made the decision to become a teacher over twenty years ago. Your list reflects a great deal of idealism, a quality that I have recently (and disdainfully) been told that I still possess, and which my legions of non-admirers cite as further evidence of my naiveté, childishness, or plain stupidity.
Mrs. Bush, if all or any of these reasons for becoming a teacher were still valid, I might now be inclined to encourage others to become teachers; I might not now regret my decision to have chosen education as a career.
Below is my response to most of your reasons to become a teacher, which I trust you wrote in good faith, and believed to be true, as indeed they may have been at the time you wrote them. The American educational scene, unfortunately for all Americans - but especially for our children - is vastly different today:
Teaching no longer has anything at all to do with “igniting the spark of curiosity in children.” On the contrary, curiosity is actively discouraged. Some school administrators on this Teachers.Net chatboard, as well as at my own school site, have stated that a teacher’s job is to teach exclusively what is on the state tests. Addressing a child’s questions, encouraging his curiosity, or even directing him to appropriate resources, dilutes our focus, takes away valuable instructional time, and leads us and our students “off-task.” We are told that we cannot afford to lose a single minute of instructional time.
Teaching no longer has much to do with practicing or modeling kindness, patience, or understanding. There’s no time. As stated above, we can’t lose a single instructional minute. The tests are everything, and that’s the reality we must acknowledge. We mustn't “waste” time modeling social skills or comforting a child who is crying for any reason. They’ll just have to buck up and get on with learning.
The joy of reading is lost in our current approach. Reading for pleasure, a sense of adventure, or even – dare I say it – entertainment, has no place in today’s public school. It’s little wonder so many children now believe that “reading” is simply learning the sounds that letters represent, and then vocalizing them back to the teacher! (Many of them sound really good, too – but they can’t begin to tell you what they just finished reading! They lack comprehension skills because they lack any real life experience to relate to what they’ve just read! The public schools’ response is to saturate the day with even more phonics instruction.
As a public school teacher of fifteen years, I have been told in no uncertain terms that sharing my own love of learning and helping children to discover their own potential is absolutely not in my job description. Last year, for example, I was reprimanded for the egregious crime of expressing the hope of offering guitar lessons to a few of our students – for no pay, and on my own time! This year I was told not to “lose focus” by trying to teach more than the barest language curriculum. “If they’re not going to be tested on it,” I was told, “don’t even bother teaching it.”
In my years as an elementary school teacher, I have often been amused and even astonished when a student has expressed an idea that I never thought of, a clever insight, or a novel way of looking at a question. In the last three years, however, such instances have become further and further apart, mainly because teachers are expected to “stay focused,” looking for “right answers” within an increasingly narrow framework. And while administrators do give lip service to “higher-order reasoning” and “critical thinking,” the ever-tightening rubric for “right” answers means that students speak less, have less opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation with their peers, and are less likely to engage higher-order vocabulary and cognitive skills when opportunities to speak do arise.
I remember every teacher I had from preschool through high school. The ones who really stand out for me are those who went beyond the core curriculum to stimulate my curiosity and encourage my creativity. (I always scored in the 98th percentile on the standardized tests, by the way.) Now, as a teacher, I have been ordered NOT to attempt to teach anything but what’s in the script in the Teachers’ Guide.
Only five years ago, while teaching in California, I was part of a team that put together such school wide celebrations as “Día de los muertos” and a Chinese New Year Festival. Cultural, artistic, theatrical, and musical activities were valued there. Now, I’m told that our second grade basal reader – which includes three stories about Hispanic families and two about Asian-American families – provides “all the diversity the children need.”
Teachers are the least respected of all professionals: On a daily basis, newspaper editorials blame teachers for a host of society’s ills. We are told that our jobs are easy, that we get summers off with pay (not true!), that we are merely getting fat at the public trough, and that we really don’t care about children.
Why else would we choose this profession, then? Most semi-skilled blue-collar work pays better: Forklift operators, ranch hands, plumbers, and auto body workers generally make as much money as public school teachers – and get more respect. Those in the medical, legal, and corporate fields, who have similar levels of education, generally make three to five times as much as teachers.
Of course, I expected the low pay going in – it’s just become a bit more difficult to accept now, when at the age of forty, my principal speaks to me with such condescension when I speak of a need for joy, creativity, imagination, and that wonderful “spark” that cannot be measured by any test or quantified with any data. It’s hard to instill a joy of learning in children when one is ordered to read the script and do nothing else in the classroom. It’s more difficult than ever to teach our students to become critical thinkers when we are given such a vote of “no confidence,” from administrators and politicians. We are told that none of our ideas or innovations have merit – yet, by some mysterious process, we are expected to teach higher order thinking to our students!
Standards-based education should be the base starting point, the barest minimum requirement for student success. Teaching exclusively to the test – any test – is like force-feeding a child vitamin pills when a luscious and nutritious gourmet feast is laid out on a long table right behind him. But we’re forbidden to touch it.
Isn’t it time that the American people noticed that every politician for the last forty years has campaigned on a promise of “reforming” America’s “failing” public schools?
Isn’t it time that someone pointed out that, after four decades and hundreds of thousands of education “reforms,” perhaps it is the politicians who are failing?
Bradley Cook completed his undergraduate education at Metropolitan State College of Denver in 1990, earning BA degrees in Elementary Education and English. He began his career as a third grade bilingual teacher in the Denver Public Schools in 1992. In 1998, Cook moved to Salinas, California, where he served as a bilingual teacher to second graders for four years. In 2002, he returned to Colorado where he completed a one-year contract teaching first grade in Castle Rock Colorado, returning to substituting for two years as a "sort of a post-graduate crash course in new developments in education across all grade levels, as well as part of a vague and likely ill-conceived plan to take my retirement in installments." Since 2005, Bradley Cook has been teaching first and second grade in Lakewood, Colorado.
A past member of the Southwest Writers' Group, and first place winner of the Young Adult Fiction Contest in 2000, Bradley is currently a member of the Tattered Cover Writers' Group. He has completed an adult novel which has yet to find a publisher. Bradley Cook says, "When I'm not busy with essays or poems and stories to share with my class, I'm working on my second novel, a mystery set on the U.S.-Mexico border."
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