...only one soul in the river Styx...
January 6, 2014 4:24 PM   Subscribe

Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss posted some quotes on her blog to answer the question: "How Hard is Teaching?" She then received another response, from a veteran seventh-grade language arts teacher in Frederick, Maryland: "I would love to teach but..."
posted by zarq (27 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
What sort of asshole reporter starts off with "they asked not to be identified, but here is their gender, where they are, what they do, and what grade they teach..." From what I've heard (from my brother who is a high school teacher somewhere in the US,) school districts are full of incompetent, vindictive bureaucrats.
posted by Catblack at 4:33 PM on January 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

Not to mention parents who believe their kids are all precious little snowflakes. My daughter is precious to me, but I have no expectations that everyone else in the world has to fall down at her feet. She'll have to work for what she wants the same as everyone else. I can't imagine calling the teacher to yell at her about my daughter's own failure. Isn't it my daughter I should be yelling at?
posted by 1adam12 at 5:00 PM on January 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

1adam12, no. I'm a teacher, and if I write home to let you know that your child is struggling with something, I'd much rather you call me and say, "Wow, what do we need to do to make a difference in this area of my kid's life?" Your kid is a kid. It's not their fault up to a certain age or so if they don't get something. It's up to the parents and teachers in that kid's life to take the responsibility there.

I don't like the us vs them stuff that seems to permeate parent/teacher/student relationships. We are all partners in the child's academic career. We've got to start acting like it --- and schools need to foster environments that will allow us to be successful stewards of our children in that vein. We are dealing with a systemic issue here in that the factory that is our education system is likening the production of a human being to the assembly of, say, a car, or an iMac, and when we treat our children like products to be marketed and sold, we turn what should be an opportunity for self-realization into self-capitalism and commercialism. The concept of failure in that context is suddenly much more scary for some of my parents than it used to be. I'm still trying to figure out and articulate why, just for myself. I don't know how to explain it yet.

This is why teaching is hard. Others before me have said it better. We've lost sight of what systems will lead to the end goals we really want.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 5:08 PM on January 6, 2014 [24 favorites]

I really thought that sentence was going to end with "but they fired all the teachers and cut the salaries of anyone remaining to a point my student loans couldn't handle plus the supply costs were insane" which is pretty much why most of my friends have fled the public school system for independent schools and other careers.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:11 PM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

From the last link, what does "I continued to wrinkle through the sludge" mean? I guess I fail at language arts.
posted by Nomyte at 5:25 PM on January 6, 2014

On the one hand, I like to believe that the slow sad collapse of the American public education system is by design - that "drown it in a bathtub" style politicians want it to fail so they can cut funding and pass some extra dollars on to their corporate masters. On the other hand, I recognize that is just as possible that the system is so big, unwieldy and fragmented that its just devouring itself - that any destructive trend that insulates administration from having to have any genuine understanding of education will be adopted eventually by every school district no matter how short sighted. Probably both things are true to some degree.

Then I visit a school like The Met in Providence and see that it is possible to ditch most of the bullshit and really teach kids, even in the public system. It takes will, a vision and some money, but it can be done.

Of course, you need will, vision and money and most school administrators (and politicians) are lacking at least one of these things.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:37 PM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

This almost perfectly encapsulates why we ultimately chose to take our children out of public school and put them in private school. I was and am conflicted about our decision but every single time I read an article like this one, or see a school funding levy fail in our district (by all accounts an excellent district with above average Federal scores), or see a friend lament about their child's school's focus on standardized testing (hours long pep rallies about testing days!), my unease dissipates a little more.

My kids' school encourages teachers in the way that that response teacher was looking for. There is true development and the freedom to plan lessons that actually challenge students and expect them to think. If the kids don't do their work as expected and on-time, they don't get credit for it. The teachers actively engage the students (small class sizes truly make the difference) and they expect the kids to come to them outside of class time for additional help (that time is built into the school day as well).

My dream is that every child could receive the quality education my children are privileged to receive. If they hadn't both been awarded merit scholarships, they would not be there today. Still, we have some tuition to pay and I know that that amount is out of the reach of far too many families. This country has a long way to go with regards to quality public education and I wish I knew how to solve all the problems. I do still vote for funding levies in our district and I am active in the public school board meetings, but when the choice came down to it, I had to choose what was best for my children, and that was to get them out of public school.
posted by cooker girl at 5:50 PM on January 6, 2014

cooker girl: "This almost perfectly encapsulates why we ultimately chose to take our children out of public school and put them in private school. "

The article I read featured a teacher who quit instead of giving in to parental pressure to inflate grades and isolate students from consequences of their (in-)actions. You think private schools are less amenable to parent pressure?
posted by pwnguin at 6:20 PM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

These Birds of a Feather, I'm talking about the scenario described in the last link. The kids in the author mentions don't even bother to write the single irrelevant word on a piece of paper that would earn them a 48%, and they're in the seventh grade. They deserve a severe talking-to, but it seems that the parents are blaming the teachers instead. To me this is unthinkable.
posted by 1adam12 at 6:38 PM on January 6, 2014

I saw this article earlier today, but couldn't bear to finish reading it. It hurt too much.
posted by seyirci at 6:57 PM on January 6, 2014

pwnguin, that wasn't the only focus of the teacher's response, but I should have been more clear that I was specifically addressing the focus on standardized testing and the lack of support for teachers.

I can't speak for all private schools, obviously, but kids don't get passing grades at my kids' school because of parental pressure and lack of administrative support. They get passing grades because they do the work they are assigned. I know personally of two children in my daughter's grade who left the school because they couldn't maintain the required minimum GPA. The school wasn't a good fit for them and that's fine. The parents knew that and instead of demanding their kids be given better grades, they found schools where they could succeed. I am sure there is parental pressure of some sort at my kids' school, but grade inflation and avoidance of consequences due to not doing the work aren't even in the equation.
posted by cooker girl at 7:16 PM on January 6, 2014

Where I live the private school is where the kids who can't make the grade in the public school system go. Not even kidding. When kids transfer out of the private school they are typically 2 grades behind the local public schools (which are very good).

This is a rural, mostly quite poor, area, with some pockets of wealth. In Southern Ontario, Canada.
posted by sweet mister at 7:25 PM on January 6, 2014

My kid's school is Montessori (ish) and doesn't even have grades, or tests (though skills are assessed in a variety of ways.) It's new, so I can't speak to whether they're going to churn out high-achieving graduates yet.

I do know that they are turning students away, because a lot of parents are desperate to get their exhausted kids out of the homework/grade/testing grind.

Which is what makes this piece so odd to me. Because I hear a lot more about parents afraid that their kids are overworked and overwhelmed than I hear about kids getting gold stars for showing up. I mean, unless the teachers are cheating on all those tests, how does a "pass 'em all" system even work? My kid had 8 million worksheets in 1st grade, and other parents told me about impossible amounts of homework their kids had to plow through. So who are these kids who are coasting by?

So this essay confuses me. I don't want to be suspicious that it's some kind of fake piece, because hell, I've never taught and I know there are asshole parents out there who would certainly try these shenanigans if they thought they could work, but that's just not the picture I've gotten from the parents and kids I've talked to. Instead I hear about kids crying from stress and needing counseling after endless rounds of testing drills, and parents doing their work for them to give them a break.
posted by emjaybee at 7:26 PM on January 6, 2014

I stopped teaching just over a year ago. At least three times a week I turn to my husband and say "Jesus, I'm SO GLAD I'm not a teacher anymore". I'm currently unemployed but at least I don't feel suicidal all the time!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:30 PM on January 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

1adam12, there is always a reason behind a child's reluctance to perform even the slightest task. They need someone who's going to suss out that reason on their side. Maybe the students that teacher was working with were spoiled brats. Fine. Spoiled brats have needs too, and treating them harshly isn't the way to meet those needs. There are other methods, and those methods produce better students --- and better people on both sides of the equation.

Consider, for example, a child who willfully refuses to complete an assignment. By getting to know a student, a teacher can see past that refusal and identify the possible causes. Maybe that child is experiencing some duress in their social sphere and believes rebelling will give her some of the power she's lost during a fight with friends. Maybe she has learned helplessness that comes from being told that she can't do anything by herself so why try. Maybe she has, at a young age, determined that the energy needed to complete one paper or an assignment is better spent fighting off the relative that is abusing her at home. Or yes, maybe she's been so coddled by her parents over the years that having to put effort into something is a lesson in and of itself. She's still a child who is in the process of learning how to function in society. It's our job to get her what she needs so she can accomplish what we need her to accomplish.

Blaming the child rarely, if ever, works.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:27 PM on January 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

And to be sure, parents who place sole blame on teachers are foolish. In my experience few parents identify that the real source of their children's problems lies at home with the parents themselves. There is shared responsibility to be had between the three parties; not all the blame can rest on one party's shoulders.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:31 PM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Why pass em all? Because the system is under attack from parents who would rather destroy the educational system rather than admit their snowflake is a stupid, lazy piece of crap. I'm cranky about this personally since my sister --who loved teaching and was a great teacher for ages-- just quit last year because she told me what the system in her state needed most was the ability to tell parents to shut the fuck up, go away, and learn your rude-ass children some damn manners. Because no one is just lazy or has bad work habits anymore: it's the teacher that's bad, or they have ADD, or incipient locomotor ataxia, or middle-school PTSD or or some other bullshit excuse for being lazy, rude, and inattentive. Because a student has no consequence of any kind anymore. You're never backed up by the principal: any ridiculous, insane claim by a parent is treated with kid gloves instead of the dismissal that it deserves. My once wonderful sweet sister is now filled with hideous contempt for anyone who has offspring at this point, basically. She's been a teacher for years. Used to have one or two problem parents, she said. Used to have more trouble with parents being uninvolved. Last ten years though, she says, it's nothing but whining, desk-pounding, affliction-claiming, shouty a-holes with a resolute refusal to admit snowflake is anything other than perfect and the knowledge that the principal will order her to change the grade anyway, or whatever. Really depressing stuff. It really has had a nasty effect on her.

It freaking kills me that you can't say much of anything to a child about their horrible behavior or the wrath of the Educational Gods will fall on you, but let a child bite a pop-tart into the shape of a handgun and all the sudden there's all kinds of hell to pay. Wish it were the other way around. I feel bad for public school kids. I got a pretty decent education. These people are coming out of school not knowing dick about anything.
posted by umberto at 8:47 PM on January 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

Blaming the child rarely, if ever, works.

So the teacher has to be a social worker, too? Does she ever get to, between grading papers and teaching and planning the curriculum get to have some respite? Does she get to spend time with her own kids?

Where exactly are you realistically supposed to get the halo required to be the perfect teacher who never, ever gives up on "a child?"

Sometimes I get exhausted just seeing a school bus. Other times I can't help but smile when I see all these nervous kids so worried and self conscious and remembering my own tween/teen hood.

But god it takes so much more caffeine and grit than I have access to to actually consider working with them all day. And the ones with problems who need counseling/psychological help? That's reasonable to believe that it's out of the teacher's depth and expertise.
posted by discopolo at 8:50 PM on January 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

So the teacher has to be a social worker, too? Does she ever get to, between grading papers and teaching and planning the curriculum get to have some respite?

Yeah, to expand on my earlier point, I have been told by multiple administrators in staff meetings that we teachers as people are not important and that if we aren't willing to give everything we have to the kids we shouldn't be there. OH, OKAY! I DID give a ton to my kids, in terms of time, money, stress, effort, and love, but being told repeatedly that my needs didn't matter or shouldn't exist is a big part of the reason I don't teach anymore. Seriously, fuck that. It's not possible and it's not healthy.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:53 PM on January 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

Early in her college career, my daughter intended to become a teacher, and did a semester of teacher shadowing. She'd follow a grade-school teacher around for part of a day and observe the reality of teaching. She enjoyed the actual classroom time with the students. But the administrative/political/parental/bean-counting/paperwork bullshit that seemed to take up 80% of a teacher's day quickly disillusioned her and the made a hasty retreat from her dream of teaching.

I often wonder how often a working teacher sees that...students intending to go into teaching but ultimately giving up when they see the reality of the job. That has to be very disheartening.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:26 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

My problem is that the teacher simply wants to flunk kids, and is angry and frustrated she can't. If a kid is consistently not doing or handing in late assignments, an F is likely to exacerbate what's going wrong, and unlikely to address the issues preventing them from learning. "Tough love" isn't - it's easy spite.

I had chronic depression as a kid. How well do you think those big ol' red "F's" motivated me to work through it? "Not at all" is the answer. How about a kid with neglectful or abusive parents?

Not flunking and holding back kids, unless there is a real and verifiable developmental issue where they could measurably benefit repeating a grade - and no, punishment for non-compliance isn't a benefit - is one of the few positives to emerge in schooling recently.

Also, I take issue with the notion that helicopter parenting is something new - I remember some classmates in middle and high-school being embarrassed after their parents argued with their teachers during a Parent-Teacher conference over grades, or called the principle to complain about a low grade on something or other - usually high-achiever types who typically scored A's. I also know coaches twisted a lot of their co-worker's arms to keep top athletes on teams.

What is new and ugly is the emphasis on standardized testing, I agree with her on that point. I'm currently of the opinion that multiple choice in all forms needs to be removed from testing - kids should have to put together an essay explaining what they know and how they know it, for everything from Shakespeare to the quadratic equation.

Another new trend that's even uglier is the sneering contempt a large segment of the population has for highly educated professionals responsible for the care and education of the community's children, over petty nickle-and-dime reasons. The right wing's War on Teachers has got to stop, soonest.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:31 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

If a kid is consistently not doing or handing in late assignments, an F is likely to exacerbate what's going wrong, and unlikely to address the issues preventing them from learning. "Tough love" isn't - it's easy spite.

Failing a kid who has earned that grade isn't "tough love" or spite. An F doesn't exacerbate a problem, it identifies one.

I had chronic depression as a kid. How well do you think those big ol' red "F's" motivated me to work through it?

This is not the teacher's job, this is the parents' job. If a kid's parents are doing their part, it really doesn't matter what the teacher does. We used to treat teachers, rightfully, as professionals; now we expect them to be baby sitters and social workers. This is just as much "contempt" for the job as the Right.

Not flunking and holding back kids, unless there is a real and verifiable developmental issue where they could measurably benefit repeating a grade

What benefit is there to putting someone in a higher grade that they won't be able to do?
posted by spaltavian at 7:13 AM on January 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was told in my student teaching seminar that 20% of new teachers would leave the profession within 5 years. I don't know how that holds up, but I left after 4. This article, man - it felt like getting punched. It is so spot-on. There are so many of us who wanted to bring our joy to our subject (incidentally, I taught English as well) and who had that squashed out of us by standardized testing and by administrators.

I was scolded for using an F. Scott Fitzgerald story with middle school students, and was told to dumb it down a little. I was scolded for doing most of my planning and grading at home, but when I stayed in my classroom, my administrator came in and sat on my desk and lectured me for 45 minutes at a time then spent another 20 minutes telling me how busy she was and how many unread emails she had. I was scolded for refusing to create an entire separate curriculum for a troubled student who routinely skipped my class anyway (above and beyond the very significant effort I had already put in that had been met with complete refusal). I had a parent try to argue that the poem her daughter had copied and pasted from the internet and turned in wasn't plagiarism and shouldn't be given a failing grade. My students knew there were no consequences for misbehavior: one of them joked with me once that sending him to the principal's office just got him a ten-minute walk with a fake "I'm sorry" in the middle.

I really liked my students. I really liked the few occasions I got to teach interesting, engaging, creative lesson plans (even within the confines of SMART goals and stupid testing). I will always remember the very resistant reader who told me one day, seriously, that he was really annoyed at me because I had found him a book he really liked and he had stayed up late to finish it "and now I think I might like reading and it's your fault."

I really liked the few occasions I was allowed to teach. But I do not miss being a teacher in this climate.
posted by SeedStitch at 7:16 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

We used to treat teachers, rightfully, as professionals; now we expect them to be baby sitters and social workers.

This strikes me as "Golden Age" fallacy. This was what being a teacher was like when I was in school in the '70s and '80s. Understanding why a kid isn't learning and to find a solution is an integral part of the job as an educator, and has been for decades. A failing grade was (and is) an insufficient tool, and wildly overused.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:41 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Classrooms are neat places to pass time. With an income that will not allow a home purchase anywhere within dozens of miles of the 'cool' places ... San Fran, Austin, NYC, LA, SEA, Portland, ...

There are A LOT of young people entering the world of work and reality that are illiterate; and they are forgotten by the standardized testing stats because they have dropped out or have been waived out of testing.

Not much is going to fix this system. Society will used ( not the correct tense, OTOH; hmmm. ) the minimum wage product for zip-jobs, and much of the rest will reproduce to repeat the cycle, or be off to fuel the prison industry. This cycle is in its second or third generation now; and it is getting more profound with each iteration.

Then there is always the 'it ain't happening' concept of a straight male single with no kids teaching kindergarten or elementary ... OMG. What is wrong with that person and why are they at my school!

Ripe topics for rants abound with the public school system; and yes. Speak out and be tossed out is the silent rule in most districts.
posted by buzzman at 8:21 AM on January 7, 2014

This was incredibly depressing. I had no idea this was the state of public education today. I attended public school in Montgomery County, Maryland in the 80's and it was the best education around (private school was for people who failed out of public school or were "troubled").

The unfortunate rise of the Standardized Tests seems to play a major role in the decline of education, too.

I'm also saddened by all the would-be teachers who give it up after shadowing real-life teachers.
posted by Pocahontas at 12:12 PM on January 7, 2014

This mirrors a previous post where the Ivy league teacher 'gave' A's and B's so as to avoid having to listen to a 20 year old whine about the 'C' they graded at; except the K-12 teachers have to listen to berative (yeah, I know) parents or get the principal lecture.
posted by buzzman at 10:13 PM on January 7, 2014

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