Phase I: Excitement and Nervousness
“FFTs (effing first times): How hard it is to be new at things – from small things to global pandemics. When we have no relevant experience or expertise, the vulnerability, uncertainty, and fear of these firsts can be overwhelming. Yet, showing up and pushing ourselves past the awkward, learner stage is how we get braver.” – Brené Brown (2020)
I started this school year with the optimism of someone new at something. (Chapter One of this blog series, “Ruminations On Becoming An Unwitting Algebra Teacher,” tells the story of how I got here.) I was confident in my educational values. I wanted the students to be comfortable taking risks and willing to make mistakes while oriented with a goal towards mastery. But it was very overwhelming. I haven’t worked full time in a while and would soon be faced with the future of 100+ learners in my hands. I am taking this responsibility very seriously.
The principal at my new school required us to spend the first seven days of the school year not on instruction, but on creating a bond between the students and the staff, relationship building. In light of the past year and half of predominantly isolated, behind the screen attempts at learning, these children needed to be engaged socially. They needed to know they would finally have the full support of school that they were used to in their educational journey. I was very supportive of this outlook and excited to get to know my students. Then I became aware of the drumbeat of the Year at a Glance….
Phase II: The March of Standards
The model of the middle school where I am teaching divides each grade level into teams, and teachers of the same subject are supposed to mirror their content in an effort to provide consistency for students. Same content, same grades in the grade book, same day. I quickly became used to my near daily conversations with my fellow algebra teacher on the other team. The focus seemed to be on this key question “how will we get to all of the standards?” It felt as if we had more standards than days of instruction time. I’m told combining them isn’t effective because every day we are leaving more students confused, never able to catch up. According to the school handbook, homework should be reserved for unfinished classwork or dire circumstances. We are beholden to the district’s timeline for diagnostics, pre-assessments, unit assessments, and end-of-year assessments, yet we don’t have a cookie-cutter curriculum. We have very little flexibility about when to cover which standards, but have to come up with the content matching the standards in short buckets of time. My guess is that this is exacerbated by our newness. I am completely new and my fellow teacher was new last year. This is my first big, overwhelming frustration – how can I instruct in a way that feels authentic and respectful to the students and confers an enduring understanding within these constraints? Perhaps when I get more adept at managing the day-to-day administrative tasks, grow some classroom management skills, and have extra mental bandwidth, I can craft my dream curriculum. If I last that long, patience is not my forte!
I feel the essence of this quote daily: “The trouble comes with the first step. Do we lead with the right foot or the left? If content decisions come first, then the choices of pedagogy may be limited. A choice of concentrated content precludes too much student centered, discovery learning, because that particular pedagogy requires more time than stiff content requirements would allow. In the same way, the choice of a pedagogy can naturally limit the amount of content that can be presented to students. Therein lies the source of the conflict” (David Klein, 2003).
Phase III: Death by Diagnostic
After our days of getting to know the students and using the district’s review standards for the course, we proctored three district-mandated, multiple-choice, digital pre-assessments. The first one was algebra specific – a multiple-choice test curated by the district out of a question bank from our test vendor. It felt as if the students were set up to fail. There were far too many questions on it for most of them to hit in the allotted amount of time. Furthermore, the directions for this multiple-choice test told them to guess if they didn’t know the answer or ran out of time. The inaccuracy of this data combined with the extra anxiety piled on the students made me very frustrated. How can guessing help me understand what students do not know? I could tell anyone willing to listen how ill-prepared these students were for Algebra I after a week of content review. They were struggling to understand the basics of identifying variables and adding negative numbers. Their year and a half of virtual and hybrid did not provide a solid foundation for Algebra.
The second test was a more generic, grade-level diagnostic. I honestly had no idea what content this test covered, only that it was research-backed and supposed to identify gaps in knowledge that software could use in an adaptive manner to remediate. Not a single one of my students scored within the window of where they were supposed to be at the beginning of Algebra. A few tested in at an early to mid-eighth grade math competency, but most fell way below. Several were 3-4 grade levels below. The test took two full days of class time and made the students groan since the state-mandated pre-assessments were scheduled for the following week. A large number of the students didn’t finish in the assigned two days; these were the ones who needed the remediation the most.
The third test was the state’s standardized pre-assessment used to measure student growth. More students took this one seriously, knowing it is their ticket into a choice high school. It assessed eighth-grade content. The results came in and weren’t terrible.
I am left with a desire to know more about the assessments themselves, their reliability and validity, but I certainly don’t have the time to look into that at this point. I am also left with this question: At what point do we quit testing these students and actually teach them?
Phase IV: Grading and Instructional Rhythms
I am so grateful for the multitudes of educators who are willing to plug along in this behemoth of an inflexible and unforgiving system. To a person, they care first for the students, next about content, and lastly about trying to avoid getting in trouble for not doing things that the district requires. At the risk of being too dramatic, the refrain reminds me starkly of the Hunger Games – where the capital district can host lavish parties (spending millions on EdTech) while the other districts toll away at the not so glamorous business of life (actual educating). Teachers make pennies on the dollar compared to what the systems doll out on test software and subscriptions to multiple, overlapping learning management systems and diagnostics. Not only are dollars wasted, but so are hours and talent.
On a typical day of teaching I spend 10% out of every 53-minute class re-logging into software I’ve gotten kicked out of – one for attendance, one for grades, one for posting materials, one for administering tests. I have actually resorted to using paper for most of the day because the tools are making me more inefficient. As a person that is technologically savvy, productivity driven, and obsessed with efficiency, I find this infuriating. I know the tools are meant to support me and are probably more efficient than relying on paper methods, but it is still quite frustrating.
These tools are a means to an end I don’t really support. The tension within me is palpable. I am grateful for wearing a mask when my students point out the inanity of testing and diagnostic results. That way they can’t see my full facial expression that I am trying to suppress. But, I have learned that grades are the carrots for these students. At 13 and 14 years old, they have learned that the grades are what people respond to. I am doing my level best to tell them that learning is what’s important, that grades do not define them, and that mistakes are the best way to learn. Yet in defiant hypocrisy I deduct points for those very mistakes.
I am also now approaching the end of the first quarter. Progress reports have come out and students are failing. The students are struggling academically or socially or both. I have a few teacher conferences a week and all I can do is tell these parents that their kids are normal early teens. Their prefrontal cortex is not working great, they are motivated by what their peers think, and we have far less control over them than we think. These students are anxious, confused, and some of them are not okay. It is so hard to watch. They need advocates. Some of them should not be in this class, they are overwhelmed by complete lack of the foundations of math. I am researching differentiation and cognitive science, leaning on my coursework from my master’s classes, asking for tips and tricks from fellow teachers. I am trying to pull minutes and seconds of planning and instructional time where they do not exist. How can I reach them all in a way that allows them to grow?
The tension between what I know is right and what I am doing daily leaves my mind spinning with questions and not answers.
Why does being a certain age have to correspond to a certain academic level when we preach neuro-diversity at every corner?
Can a 14-year-old take a seventh-grade class without being stigmatized?
Why do students have to be labeled to get legal support for being who they are?
Phase V: Attempted Reconciliation
We are marching along now with content. I have found and continue to find ways to make the droll of a “standard-a-day” creative, engaging, and transferable. My fellow teachers allow me to vent and pepper them with “how do I” questions hourly. I have a great rapport with most of my students and genuinely enjoy their company. I feel guilty for complaining; I have been at this for seconds compared with the lives that have been dedicated to this field. But the system is broken and I cannot stand it. The factory model is alive and well. These kids are by and large not problem solvers. They can’t even find paper when I leave it in the same place every day. These kids are not collaborators – they have learned to let the person that knows tell them the answer. Yet teachers are pushing them towards trying to find the answers themselves and peppering them with questions to encourage rigor. I am left with this nagging, incessant question: “Where is the answer, what are the levers to shift this system for the better?”
I think most people have heard the adage that it takes more to get a new customer than to retain an existing one. Some companies go to great lengths to avoid losing customers. The same is true of employees. Finding a new person to enmesh into a culture as an employee is a roll of the dice. It is much easier to retain existing employees. As I have reflected on this, I think this is one of the critical pieces of tinkering with the education system and making it a more learner-centered organization. The current model of top-down standards, EdTech, grading policies, etc. in the name of standardization takes away from the creative art of teaching. If teachers were cultivated in their craft instead of being administrative handlers of children, perhaps the work in the classroom would be less contrived. As the tomes of standards and the pacing guides are written and delivered, the autonomy of creative teachers is slowly chipped away. When the deluge of standardized, mandated pre- and post-assessments get piled on, students and teachers get anxious and overwhelmed. Pile on the additional meetings (staff, IEP, 504, content, team, etc.) and expectations (COVID protocols, dress-code enforcement, duty, clubs, extracurricular, etc.) and the passion quickly dissolves.
This is not an indictment of the individuals I am working with, but rather an indictment of the system in which we work. The scrappy, resourceful, “do it at all cost” mindset is great for a startup or a rapid prototyping project, but not for a sustainable, established system. Furthermore, this mentality typically has its loyal subjects who extremely defend it because they want to be able to justify all of the hard work they have put in. The stated mission of my district is “to ignite a passion for learning and teaching at high levels.” This statement is typical of the mission of many school districts. These statements are generally the result of a lot of hard work and thought, community input, panel discussions, and wordsmithing, but they are often empty. As someone with a long background in strategic planning, where is the alignment here? At every turn, the district should be asking itself if its decisions will meet its mission.
For now, my personal reconciliation is looking through the cracks for opportunities to change the way teachers are utilized so that their creativity, dedication, and power to profoundly impact our future citizenry is fully actualized.