Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education in the Trump administration, found herself in a bit of a battle with DC teachers this week after visiting Washington’s Jefferson Middle School. After her visit, she said the teachers seemed to be in “receive mode…They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child.” I can see how teachers could take offense to this. I can also see how Ms. Devos might have a point—though she’s contributed to creating this climate.
I wouldn’t blame current public school teachers for teaching from such a position of defensiveness. Let me juxtapose my experiences as a classroom teacher with the climate many current teachers face. In 1993, when I got my first teaching job, I asked the principal about the curriculum. His response set me on a path of a career of teaching with confidence to be creative and innovative. He showed me what resources I had and then told me he hired me to be the expert and he wouldn’t try and tell me what to teach, and that he had confidence that I could do just that. So, I made sure to study and prepare and make myself the expert so that I could live up to his expectations. A few years later, when the first set of standards and standardized tests were passed, I found them frustrating and sometimes limiting, but because of the confidence I had developed I found that I could work with them, and around them when necessary to still teach the children I had in my classroom.
Fifteen years later, after quite stringent standards and standardized tests had been implemented nation-wide, I was interviewing with an administrator in a private school. He told me he wanted to bring me in to rock the boat a little and try new things. That’s all I needed to hear. I was on board. Parents repeatedly said they sent their children to this private school in part because teachers here had the freedom to be creative with their teaching. I found the teachers at this school no different than the teachers at any other school I’d been in, with one exception. This school wasn’t mandated to meet certain curricular standards, nor prepare for tests in 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 10th grade.
This, unfortunately, is not the experience of most teachers. Imagine being in told both indirectly and directly, that your profession has failed so that now legislators are now going to mandate precisely how you do your job, when you teach what, and how your students will be assessed. Look back at Ms. Devos’ statement. “…bring success to the individual child.” As we learn more and more about how the brain works and human beings learn, our teachers are being told to meet the needs of every individual child in a standardized way—make sure they all learn the same things, at the same time, so that they can all take the exact same test at the end of the learning. This standardization fosters teaching that is contrary to what the research says teachers should be doing and contrary to the expectations rightly voiced by Ms. DeVos. It’s an unwinnable game. It isn’t fair to put teachers in a defensive position, standardize their curriculum, tell them to creatively individualize their teaching, and then criticize them for not being able to achieve contrary expectations.
Amazingly, many teachers are able to do this. They can manage to have the creativity to meet the needs of the individuals in his or her classroom despite the legislated curriculum to do just the opposite. This requires teachers to have the confidence to rise above the mandates. Frankly, what it requires for a teacher to be successful is that they have to be an amazing teacher who can go above and beyond the expectations of the job.
Now, I don’t know if the teachers that Ms. Devos observed were amazing teachers, perfectly competent, or sub-par. I suspect that it was a mixture of all three. Is there a profession were all three don’t exist? The difference with teaching seems to be that it isn’t adequate to be perfectly competent, you have to be amazing to meet the individual needs of 25 – 30 (or more) students at a time, while facing tighter and tighter budgets, more restrictive curriculum, increasing rates of childhood poverty, mental health issues, larger class size, and increasing public scrutiny. We’ve created a system where to be good you have to rise above the system and be great.
Certainly the profession has produced some mediocre, even poor, teachers. And much of the criticism for the profession is warranted. For a generation we’ve been telling public education that it is broken. If you tell a profession consistently that it is broken, don’t be surprised that some of them are “broken” and waiting to be told what to do next. That is a very different climate than when I started my career.
When this is the climate one is in, it’s the rare individual that then can do what Ms. DeVos is rightly looking for, which is “…teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.” I like her sentiment, though, I’d prefer the teachers I’m training to facilitate great “learning” but I’ll give her a pass this time on the semantics. She doesn’t have to be perfect or “amazing” all the time, and I’m sure that she’ll do just fine on the standardized test she has to take at the end of her first year.