Teachers have to fight to do their job

The special education teacher told me the kind of story you’d want to hear from a special education teacher.

A girl in fifth grade couldn’t read and could barely speak. Nothing was working for her. The teacher found a reading program designed for autistic children and fought the bureaucracy to get approval to be trained in it. She gave the program to the girl and it worked. Other special ed teachers have heard the story and are asking for the same program.

She can’t fight any more, she says. She’s on a long leave of absence and may simply retire.

I’ve been asking New Mexico teachers how they are faring in the brave new world of public education. My question: Is there still room for creativity or spontaneity in teaching? Are they able to bring their own ideas and abilities into their activities? Can they to respond to whatever is happening, in the world or in that classroom, regardless of what’s on the day’s official task list?

The first thing to know is this: nobody’s happy. The problem, they say, is testing, testing, testing.

We’ve all been hearing these complaints: too many days spent on testing itself; too many more days devoted to teaching just for the tests; and the way the test results are applied – not to improve students’ education but to grade teachers.

They worry about what’s coming: the shift from the Standards Based Assessment tests to a new brand of tests that must be done on computers. This creates a disadvantage for students with limited computer experience or typing skills.

The new Common Core national standards are not as big a problem, at least not yet. The standards specify goals and objectives, not the curriculum. One teacher said that, for example, he can assign the John Steinbeck novel “Grapes of Wrath” in 11th grade English when the students are studying the Depression in history class. But teachers are worried that the standards will lead to rigid curricula.

The teachers tell me they will bend the rules to help students. “Comply and defy” is the new motto, one teacher said. Something awful is going on when teachers think that doing their jobs well requires them to sneak around their employers.

An old movie (1984) called “Teachers” was on TV recently. Actor Richard Mulligan dressed up as Abraham Lincoln to read the Gettysburg Address and did other stunts to make history class exciting. It turned out he was a mental patient, accidentally put in charge of the class. We cheer for him, don’t we — the crazy person who didn’t recognize how inhibited he was expected to be? Many movies about education follow that theme: the teacher who defies convention to inspire students — from “Dead Poets Society” with Robin Williams to “Pay It Forward” with Kevin Spacey.

New Mexicans are all concerned (heck – we’re hysterical) about an education system that isn’t delivering the results we want. In a big bureaucracy, one way of trying to force results is to impose uniformity and take lots of measurements. That enables the officials at the top to claim they’re accountable, but it make life difficult and frustrating for the employees who deliver the actual service of education. And the problem is compounded by multiple levels of governance – federal, state and local, all trying to exert control.

Teachers believe they are being treated by top management as the problem, not the solution. That’s no way to get the best out of any group of employees, especially not professionals.

What’s needed is top managers with the expertise to get results by allowing and encouraging individual excellence, not repressing it. That requires trust, patience and willingness to take the heat. We don’t seem to have enough of those qualities in New Mexico government.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2014

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