It’s pretty hard to be a public school teacher in the US right now.
We are in the middle of administering the annual state tests here in Massachusetts. You know, the ones that are supposed to assess a fifth grader’s ability to read, but really assess his ability to read ninth grade level materials and then write a pithy, on point analysis in one sitting.
Yep. Those awesome tests.
The ones that are beginning to count more and more toward our teacher evaluations. The ones that help to decide which schools are successful and which aren’t.
The tests that use words like “spectrometry” and “minutiae” and “chirring cicadas”. For ten year olds to decipher.
I don’t feel very good about myself during these tests. You know why?
Because I have to make kids sit still for 5 hours in a row.
Because I have to tell them that I can’t explain what the word means.
Because I have to hope that they will remember to “include evidence from the text” when they compare the article on scientific discoveries in a far distant part of the world to a poem about nature.
I don’t feel good about myself on test days.
This year, I don’t feel particularly good about myself as a teacher at all. I am aware of my age. I am acutely aware of my obsolescence. My outdated pedagogy. I feel a little bit useless.
I am sad.
At the end of these long, tiring days, when my back aches and my legs feel weak, I walk slowly to my car, wondering if I have done a decent job today. I think about the kids, so young and fresh, so eager for the energy and life of youth. I worry. Am I failing them because I am too old to connect with their lives? Am I failing them because I don’t know the latest research on reading comprehension? Am I too cranky? Too worn down? Is the constant struggle to meet the standards taking away the soul of my classroom? Do they wake up in the early mornings wishing that they could stay home and avoid me and my lessons?
I don’t know.
I am sad.
Then I get to my classroom, in the early morning light. I turn on the Smartboard, move the trash barrels into place. I gather yesterday’s worksheets from the “hand in” bin. I boot up my computer, make a morning message that pokes fun at the testing. “MCAS”, I write. “Mango Chocolate Awesome Sauce”. I put out the morning work, file corrected work, turn the compost.
I’m still sad.
This isn’t why I became a teacher. To make children fill in bubble sheets. To make them “restate the prompt” and “find evidence from the text.” I am not here because I love data or because I think its a good idea to measure each child’s ability to copy the writing style of a so called “educational expert”.
Still. I am a professional. I do what is expected of me. I greet the kids, make sure that each has a freshly sharpened number 2 pencil. I remind them to bring in snack, to have a book on hand. I chat with the nervous ones, hug the tearful ones. Two are clearly sick; I hand them tissues, remind them that they can get water when they need it. I run a short, quiet “morning meeting”, then get them all into their seats. I remind them that I believe in them. I remind them that we will have some “math fun” when all of this is over.
I hand out the answer booklets. And the test booklets. And the erasers and highlighters. I read the directions. “Cheating in any form is forbidden. You may not use dictionaries. Or cell phones.” I take a breath. I remind them to “Make a dark mark” and to “erase completely any mark that you wish you change”.
I am sad.
As the kids settle in to take the test, lollipops or Jolly Ranchers arranged in neat rows on their desks, I click on my email.
And I read this, coming from a colleague whose son was in my class a couple of years ago: