‘I would love to teach but…’

Re-blogging this from Valerie Strauss’ The Answer Sheet:

I have experienced aspects of what this veteran teacher describes in her email to Valerie Strauss, as re-blogged further below.  Fortunately, mine are rarely as egregious as hers.  However, they are often discomfiting and counter to what a reasonable person would expect in a similar situation.

Many teachers suffer from insinuations made by administrators, parents, students, and the public.  Teachers cannot right the wrongs of our society.  The more I run into situations like what she mentions, the more I consider leaving the profession myself.  I’m not at that point; I hope I never get there.  But these sentiments move me in that direction little by little.

The following excerpts from her email rang true with me.  I came to the same conclusions for some.  Other experiences were all too similar: perhaps lesser in intensity, but the same in spirit.  With similar experiences in my short 2.5 years of full-time teaching, I make it very clear to anyone considering teaching that they must be “on fire” with passion to teach; otherwise, the insanity of it all will drive you to the exits faster than you can say No Child Left Behind.

“Teachers are held to impossible standards, and students are accountable for hardly any part of their own education…” 

I learned quickly that if I graded students accurately on their poor performance, then I have failed, not them. The attention is turned on me, the teacher, who is criticized, evaluated, and penalized for the fleeting wills of adolescents.

“ ‘If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.’

What am I not doing for them? I suppose I was not giving them the answers, I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them, I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time, I was not excusing their lack of discipline, I was not going back in time and raising them from birth, but I could do none of these things.”

However, as the whipping boy for society’s ills, I could do none of these things. I was lambasted by parents as being ineffective because their child had a B or a C. “S/he has always been an A student,” they screamed at me during frequent meetings. “How dare you give them a B?” Give them? Give them?”

I thought back to my own education, incredulous. Had I dropped the ball, my parents would have been wildly disappointed in me and apologized to the teacher, and I would have learned what not to do next time. However, education has abandoned us.

I always believed that part of my job was to help students learn things. We cannot concern ourselves so much with “fair.” As the old adage goes, “life isn’t fair,” and education should prepare students for life. Life may not be fair, but it is predictable in a statistically significant way; success generally follows hard work, doing something is typically more effective than doing nothing, and asking questions leads to answers.

My job is to be debased by an inescapable environment of distrust which insists that teachers cannot be permitted to create and administer their own tests and quizzes, now called “assessments,” or grade their own students’ work appropriately. The development of plans, choice of content, and the texts to be used are increasingly expected to be shared by all teachers in a given subject.


The Answer Sheet

I would love to teach but…

(Astrid Riecken / The Washington Post)

(Astrid Riecken / The Washington Post)

I recently published a post with various answers to the question: How hard is teaching? Here is one response I received by e-mail from a veteran seventh-grade language arts teacher in Frederick, Maryland, who asked not to be identified because she fears retaliation at her school. In this piece she describes students who don’t want to work, parents who want their children to have high grades no matter what, mindless curriculum and school reformers who insist on trying to quantify things that can’t be measured.

Here is her e-mail:

It is with a heavy, frustrated heart that I announce the end of my personal career in education, disappointed and resigned because I believe in learning. I was brought up to believe that education meant exploring new things, experimenting, and broadening horizons. This involved a great deal of messing up. As part of the experimentation that is growing up, I would try something, and I would either succeed or fail. I didn’t always get a chance to fix my mistakes, to go back in time and erase my failures, but instead I learned what not to do the next time. Failing grades stood, lumpy pieces of pottery graced the mantle, broken bones got casts. As a result of my education, I not only learned information, I learned to think through my ideas, to try my best every single time; I learned effort. I’d like to say that in some idealistic moment of nostalgia and pride, I decided to become a teacher, but the truth is that I never thought I would do anything else. I come from a long line of teachers and I loved school from day one.

To pursue this calling, I worked hard to earn the title of “classroom teacher,” but I became quickly disillusioned when my title of teacher did not in any way reflect my actual job. I realized that I am not permitted to really teach students anything. When I was in middle school, I studied Shakespeare, Chaucer, Poe, Twain, O. Henry, the founding fathers, if you will, of modern literary culture. Now, I was called to drag them through shallow activities that measured meaningless but “measurable” objectives.

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About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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6 Responses to ‘I would love to teach but…’

  1. Jim says:

    Dave, do you think the job of teaching is better in private schools? I’m speaking of the work conditions not the compensation.


  2. ~MIAH~ says:

    While I have these moments every semester, as I reflect back on my career, I think I am able to handle this in part by documenting all that I do to help a student. Knowing with bittersweet irony that I cannot give them the answers and the student needs to meet me at some point. I had a year with great kids, but no one student scored higher than a “D” on any assessment. Their failure I took personally and tried to do any and everything I could, to no avail. When I met with parents I would show them what I had tried, explained what I was hoping, and the conversation switched from what I was doing, to why the kid was earning that score…it was hard, took a lot of extra work, but saved me from an early exit as well. Not sure that it made much difference, it was a very, very tough year, but it was a little better and gave me a sense I was doing something when nothing seemed to work.


    • Thanks for sharing. I follow a similar approach guiding everyone to how the student must take ownership for their learning. As a consumer-focused, “me-centric” society, we tend to place blame externally too often.


      • ~MIAH~ says:

        No doubt, it’s a psychological condition to blame others rather than ourselves for one’s failures. Often time, when I find me doing this, I always try to focus on the things that I can have an effect on and try not to worry about the rest. Interesting read, thanks for posting.


  3. Pingback: You think you know what teachers do… | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

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