BY CLAUDIA SWISHER
Recently I held a Twitter conversation with one of my heroes, Diane Ravitch, about why teachers seem to be so quiet during this reform crisis. We wondered then if teachers were like the frog who will stay in a pot of water that is slowly heated to the boiling point, eventually killing the frog.
Are we staying compliant, quiet, swimming around? Do we notice it’s a little hot in here, but adjust … to the water that’s a little hotter, and a little hotter?
Or are we the canary in the mine? Chirping frantically, choking on toxic air? Desperately trying to get the attention of someone who can do something?
When I posted this blog post from Ravitch, one of my friends said a teacher she knows has characterized us as rats leaving a sinking ship. Man, this one hurts. Are we skulking out of a profession most of us committed to for life? Are some of us breathing a sigh as we wave “bye-bye?”
I only know my own story, and here it is.
I’ve taught for 37 years. My father, grandfather, grandmother, mother-in-law, husband, sister, sister and brother-in-law, cousin, niece, son and daughter-in-law … all teachers.
This is the family business. We have committed ourselves to thousands of young people.
When I first became a teacher in the 60’s, I didn’t have a clue what I was really doing, but I stuck with it. I learned my craft. I got degrees. I pursued National Board certification. I participated in National Writing Project. I sought out professional learning opportunities and I found ways to bring that learning back into my classroom.
I took everything I learned and I “invented” an English elective that combines my passion for English Language Arts, reading education, library and media services: Reading for Pleasure.
I am fierce in my pursuit of excellence in and out of the classroom.
I raised a family and volunteered in my community. I worked hard to balance my life and had little time to become an active, vocal teacher.
But am I a frog or a canary or a rat?
For years I smiled and complied with mandates and directives. I trusted policymakers to have the welfare of my students in mind. I taught. I stayed in my classroom and worked with my students. I stayed out of the teachers’ lounge, ate in my room, and graded papers at night. I attended workshops and participated in my profession. I raised my children, worked in my community.
One of the first times I felt policymakers truly showed me how little they invested in public education was during the OBE debacle. Outcomes-based Education was going to save us … we all geared up to adjust our learning and our teaching. Then, oops! OBE is evil! Forget it!! They imposed and removed their mandates impulsively with no regard for kids or classrooms. They were just responding to the political climate.
We saw more testing, and with NCLB, now testing was going to become high stakes … every child in America would become an on-level reader, just because we said so. But I went along. Things were a little hotter, but I loved my kids, I loved my job, and things weren’t that bad. I could adjust.
These changes began my shift from frog to canary … I had heated conversations with my colleagues about the idiocy of demanding perfection from elementary students. Oklahoma began instituting more testing … not high stakes yet, but give us time! More requirements. More laws. More mandates. Less support.
I wasn’t especially vocal, because I didn’t think I had a voice, but I saw what was happening. I started attending more workshops and conferences, looking for ways to stay true to my students and still deliver results demanded of the non-educator meddlers. I continued to learn.
Standardized testing became more and more high-stakes. I had learned how irrelevant standardized tests were to students’ learning, and I despaired for children who would be forced to take these tests and perform at arbitrary levels, or risk not being promoted, or not graduating.
The last year was a watershed. It seemed as if the stars aligned in a way to show me I had to do more than just chirp … I had to squawk as loudly as I could. Now teachers would be evaluated by test scores, schools would be graded by them, 3rd graders would be flunked because of them, and high school seniors have been denied diplomas.
Everything I knew about testing and the data they provide tells me this is harmful, and just plain wrong. That’s when I started speaking up. The more I squawked, the more I learned.
Now the focus of my learning was not to take back to my classroom, but to save my classroom.
Forces have aligned, with different ultimate motives, that are putting unsustainable force onto our public education system. TFA, Broad Academies, Gates Foundation, ALEC … precious few career educators in the lot, but a ton of ideas, unproven, to “fix” a problem that does not exist.
Some are here to raid the public money that sustains education, some are here with motives that may be more pure. But none of these “reformers” are willing to listen to the three groups who are most knowledgeable about public education: the students, the parents and the teachers.
One of my former superintendents often said everyone has an opinion about public schools because we’d all attended them, so even without training, everyone is an expert.
In Oklahoma, a group of teachers formed a Facebook group to stay in touch with issues that affect us statewide and nationwide. That group, EFFORT-SOS, “Educators For Fairness, Openness, Responsibility and Truth; Save Our Schools,” currently has nearly 1500 members.
We are talking to each other. Members post and discuss, agree and disagree. We are starting to have these conversations. But is it too late?
Whereas my father was held in great esteem, and my grandfather was warmly remembered by former students 60 years after he taught them, now my family business is seen as an inconvenient problem, an expensive impediment to making more money with testing, with Common Core, with expensive technology and textbooks.
Here at the end of my long career, my profession is held in low esteem by “reformers” who were educated by teachers just like me, teachers they are betraying.
This will be my last year to teach … so am I the rat leaving the ship? I hope not. But I know I’m tired of being ignored by policymakers, of being held up as the problem in public education, being belittled and marginalized by people who couldn’t last a week in my classroom.
I’m tired, but I think I have a few more squawks in me.
– Claudia Swisher teaches at Norman North High School and is a National Board Certified Teacher