I make no apologies for writing about the many things that are broken within the public school system, most especially the District I work within. Don’t get me wrong, there are rare gems of goodness that reveal themselves from time to time but, unfortunately, the reality is that even when these gems do arise they are quickly consumed by the brokenness – just like my students. It’s a tragic cycle.
My school is not doing well in the areas that matter to the people who make decisions. Let me translate this for you – my school is under performing in their test scores. I will be the first to admit that I don’t care much for these tests. It’s not that I think tests are completely irrelevant, I just think they only speak to one very small piece of the picture. If a school was a 100 piece puzzle, test scores are kind of like two or three random pieces in the middle. You definitely need them to complete the puzzle but they are embedded into a much larger image. Without that larger image, the individual pieces just don’t make any sense and can easily be mistaken for something they are not.
My Principal has been told by those above her that 100% of our students need to make four months of growth on one computer-based reading assessment between January and May. This ultimatum is currently being passed along to the teachers in my building. Those teachers whose students did not show one month of growth from January to February are now being told that their students need to demonstrate two months of growth in March. One small puzzle piece.
If we were sitting down over a cup of coffee, I would be happy to paint the larger picture for you in intricate detail. However, I will refrain from that for this post in order to address the heaviest weight I have been feeling – the consumption of our students.
Students are more than numbers. My students are more than their Independent Reading Level. They are whole people with stories, faces and names. To conclude that all of their growth can be measured in a single test causes them to be seen as nothing more than a commodity. There are many things that grieve me about our schools, but this breaks my heart into a million pieces…and it should.
Each one of my students has made progress this year and I could provide you with a narrative of where my students were in August and where they are now. I assure you they are not the same. I can also tell you about each one of my students – their strengths, their weaknesses, how they learn, what inhibits their learning and what makes them smile. I know these things because I spend hours with them every day and I am intentional in my pursuit of knowing them as individual people. I can look in their eyes and see when they are having a bad day. I know when I need to push them harder and when they need a hug. There are also times when I don’t know how to respond to them or I just can’t hear the message they are trying to communicate. In these moments, I seek help in hearing their voice. I ask others for insights that I may not be able to glean. But, I continually make every effort to listen and respond to their voices that are longing to be heard. These details cannot be measured on a test.
However, this test is the single determining factor that others use to judge whether or not my students are growing and, subsequently, whether or not I am an effective teacher. That’s a heavy weight. Even more, it diminishes my students to nothing more than a number. Within this system, they become a faceless child who exists to manufacture a product. Additionally, the role that I have as their teacher is relegated to what I can produce through them. The relationship I have with them is seen as little more than a means to an end, if it is even considered relevant at all. Everyone becomes a tool – a commodity – and the end result is something more like a factory than a place of growth and learning. This is not the way education should be. This does not at all embrace the importance of the student-teacher relationship and the wholeness of the person. While tragic, the most devastating result of a single track definition of success is the removal of dignity from those within the situation who are the most powerless while those with power continue to demand more while providing less. All the while refusing to hear the voices of those who are crying out for freedom (which sounds eerily similar to Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites).
It is hard not to feel defeated. It is hard to work so hard day in and day out in a place where what you produce matters more than who you are. In my current position, there is little than I can do to change the system. However, I can choose how I live within it. I can choose to see my students. I can choose to hear them. I can choose to affirm their dignity and worth as humans. I can celebrate with them the growth I have seen in their lives. I can choose to embrace a different measure of success – one that rests on faith, hope and the greatest of all – love.
I believe there is another way. I pray that I have the courage to embrace it, live it and advocate for it until what only exists as a dream becomes a reality.