When I think back to my first, and only, year teaching in a public elementary school, one word that comes to mind is “naïve”. Despite having been in classrooms overseas for many years and working with children with disabilities in a hospital setting for quite some time before entering my own classroom, I simply was not ready for what I encountered in my neighborhood Chicago Public Elementary School.
Now, I’m not even talking about what most first year teacher’s experience, which is a decisively difficult year no matter where you are. (I actually think I was fairly well prepared overall, for a beginning teacher.) No, I’m talking about that nagging feeling that something is just…off.
What I saw during that year just never sat right with me. As it all unfolded, I wasn't able to put my finger on what exactly it was, but time and again I kept feeling like something was wrong. It’s funny, because now, after a couple years of getting educated in the corporate education reform agenda, I can discuss in detail every policy decision, the history of reform that led to my experiences, and debate what the flaws and holes of the reforms were with research to back it all up. But at the time, I had no words to put to the feelings I had.
I thought I’d take a few blog entries to share some of those observations. Some are funny, some are tragic, and some are so personal I haven’t fully decided if I will share them on this blog or not.
My inner-city Southside neighborhood school administration must have been one of the first to jump on board the data-worship machine. Nearly every professional development day was devoted to pouring over data sheets and computer screens. I still remember one surreal encounter with my principal where we were to have written out, color-coded, how all of our students did on the Scantron (quarterly computerized benchmark) tests. As a special education teacher, I had personally administered the tests to most of my students. I saw how they did not even bother trying to read the passages and I didn’t force them to. I knew from my own assessments that some of my 3rd-5th grade students were reading below a 1st and some even a Kindergarten level. So when a 5th grade passage popped up on the screen, I was much more concerned with keeping their spirits up than if they correctly answered the silly multiple choice questions correctly.
As I sat down for my meeting, and my principal asked how my students did, I shared my observations about the tests, and then said jokingly, “I suppose ‘Joe’ guessed a little worse the second time than the first”. I shared how the tests did not provide much meaningful information for me as a special education teacher, but then went on to share some appropriate assessments I’d done in class. I also shared the great breakthroughs I’d had with one student in particular, my little “Joe”. He had been identified very late in having a learning disability and hated reading with a passion. Since he was so embarrassed by his reading ability, I had started to tutor him privately during my prep period and he was starting try! This student was an amazing artist and loved drawing manga-style cartoon characters. So when we worked together 1:1, he and I read quite a few manga together. He was becoming motivated and was asking to take practice words home. His father even commented that he’d never seen “Joe” get so excited about school before.
But my principal was not satisfied. He asked “but how will you change your teaching practices based on these tests” and repeated the question two, three times. Each time I answered, “well, these particular tests aren’t a valid measurement…” but each time he cut me off and reread his question from his prepared sheet. I finally saw that he needed something to write in the assigned space so I answered “I will work on phonics instruction and vocabulary building” or some other inane blanket statement. He scribbled down the answer and then dismissed me.
It’s funny, because I thought I was there to have a discussion about how my students were actually progressing. I was excited to tell him about my success with “Joe”. But he was there to have a discussion about test scores.
And those Scantron tests were just the beginning. Our administrators—of course-- also had us put up data walls in the staff rooms. We spent hours and hours writing children’s names and scores on little cards, attaching them to little magnet strips, and creating our data-licious wall of wonder. But it didn't end there. Each teacher was also forced to put up classroom data walls. The children picked out their own “code name” and then every child’s scores were put up on the walls of the classrooms. I protested this move venomously, but the administration would not budge and up went all the scores on the walls of my students’ inclusion classrooms. As you can imagine, this was quite a shock for my kids. They were already terribly embarrassed about having to go to the “dumb room” (I had actually started to take other non-disabled peers into my room as a reward in order for the students with IEPs to feel it was a privilege going into Ms. Katie’s room. And this was even working for a while.) But nothing could prepare them for seeing their code names grouped down at the bottom of the wall far below all their typically-developing peers.
And my little “Joe” was devastated. He would not pick up a book for weeks. He would not join me during prep time for days. He cried and asked me every single day during this period, “Ms. O, Am I dumb?”
I never quite knew what to tell him. At the time, I still trusted in my administrators. I believed them when they said it was important to spend hour upon hour looking at data entries. I dismissed my intuition which screamed this was wrong. I tried to convince myself that data-analysis and teaching really were the same thing. I wasn’t trying to be openly insubordinate to my bosses, but was still trying to reframe their pointless questions into conversations that would be useful. I did not yet understand a system which rewards obedience over critical-thinking and compliance over problem-solving. I actually believed that my questions and suggestions would be perceived as collaborative attempts to create better learning environments.
I wish I had had all those professional development hours to collaborate and plan with my colleagues instead learning to read endless amounts of data. I wish I could’ve asked for advice on Joe’s troubles and created better inclusive classroom environments for him. I wish my administrators cared more about the flesh-and-blood children in front of us than the endless amounts of paperwork that had to be filled out. I wish my kids were more than data points to be scotched –taped onto some wall somewhere.
My unknowing “insubordination” eventually came back to bite me. But back then, I was still too naïve to know how much that bite would sting.