State of the New Teacher

I’ve been terrified to write about anything within a hundred miles of politics since I became a teacher. I don’t want to be known by my students, fellow teachers, parents, or readers as anything but me. I’m not “Mr. Moore, <insert political adjective> Teacher,” I’m just Mr. Moore and I care a whole lot about the kids in my community and everywhere else in this country for that matter.

 That being said, I have a hard time dealing with some of the political rhetoric in President Obama’s recent State of the Union address.

 “To win the future … we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”

My layman’s opinion of Obama is that he’s more hungry for a bi-partisan issue than for a superlative solution; in education, he’s found his golden calf. Oh, and is he ever worshiping it.

I’m sick and tired of politicians and people who’ve never set foot in a K-12 classroom outside their own record as a student mandating what should happen in mine. Race to the Top isn’t quite as bad as No Child Left Behind; I suppose I choose it as the lesser of two evils, but I’m not entirely convinced. At least there’s the promise of a little carrot with
RTTT unlike the threat of a big stick with NCLB. Then again, that’s exactly the issue; my generation of educators will be defined by our ability to respond to the false choice of carrots and sticks.

What motivates me to teach isn’t merit pay, a stable teaching job market, tenure, the promise of retirement, or the hope I’ll cultivate a crop of Ivy-Leaguers who will drop in to pay me laudatory visits. What motivates me is intrinsic and personal. I crave the benefit for my students that I had with two loving parents. I want them to graduate and go to college and graduate again, but I want both of those pieces of paper to mean something more than “I followed the rules, I did the tests.”

I think our inability to learn from the kind of “A” students who brought us mortgage-backed securities will mean a lot more than the mirage of Sputnik flying faintly overhead. C’mon Obama, where’s your hope? Why the switch to fear?

I’m not providing an in-depth analysis of his agenda in education, but the continual focus on words like “race” and “win” pit student against student, school against school, and community against community. Do we value citizens who collaborate or disparate tribes who deviate?

I’m upset with the kind of conversation that Obama’s rhetoric is leaving us with, but I hope there are a few diamonds in the rough. For instance, I was very skeptical at first about The Common Core Standards Initiative, but once I actually read through it in detail, I found it was much more broad than I expected. Rather than a blueprint on how and when to do X, Y, and Z, I found a narrative guideline about broad subjects. It wasn’t the prescriptive, rigid national curriculum I feared.

I’m also encouraged about the changing practices in higher education loans subsidized by federal funds and the push for more access to higher education in America for all. We just need to change how we prepare students to get to higher ed institutions. Right now, we can’t seem to get past the idea that standardized testing is the best and only way to motivate schools, teachers, and students.

 As a new teacher, an urban core teacher, and a formerly burnt-out overachiving suburban student during the NCLB era, I hope we can change the conversations about K-12 education and RTTT to make them about learning and not winning.

25 thoughts on “State of the New Teacher

  1. Well said.

    People also use that language with other countries, as if every Chinese person has to “lose” in order for every American to “win,” and I just can’t buy that, either.

  2. Thanks for bringing that up Elizabeth. It’s important that American schools have a role in the globe other than “trying to beat everyone.” What kind of message does that send other than a taunt?

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  4. Steve,

    I just happened upon your blog post. Good writing and thinking.

    One comment, however. When you write of collaborative societies in which competition and conflict doesn’t exist, aren’t you being a tad bit utopian? Frankly, I cringed when I read your rhetorical question: Do we value citizens who collaborate or disparate tribes who deviate? That’s just not the question, Steve. Not the right one, anyway.

    The question is how to live within a society that has lost its core and can no longer pretend that there’s enough of a shared set of values to collaborate. The reason that we’ve “tribalized” is we’ve lost the little we had in common. We distrust because we don’t look at the world through a similarly ground lens.

    I wonder, sadly, what will happen now that the social unity that once undergirded public schools is gone. Tribalizing is one response, and a logical one at that. When those around you seem hostile to your worldview, you pull away, and raise your children among those you can trust. I don’t see anyway to re-form the American core without the government coercing out-groups to cede their particular ways of thinking to the in-group.

    Anyway, the race talk and whatever isn’t helping, agreed. But what could help? At some point, divisiveness takes root and that old watered-down Protestant outlook that had created public education can’t be accepted by most families. We’re at that point, I think.

    The question, then, is “How do we revise public schools by accepting the reality of social divisiveness and tribalization?”

    The question is not, “How do we collaborate?”

    Sorry if this seems too negative. I’m writing fast because I’ve got to pick up my son!!

  5. Great post! I love this part…

    “What motivates me to teach isn’t merit pay, a stable teaching job market, tenure, the promise of retirement, or the hope I’ll cultivate a crop of Ivy-Leaguers who will drop in to pay me laudatory visits. What motivates me is intrinsic and personal.”

    As a science teacher, if money was my motivating factor I certainly would not be using my degree to as an educator. I became a teacher because I care about students and love to coach and mentor them though the development of scientific reasoning and thinking.

    I do have to wonder though, when we have a system that continues to layoff and rehire teachers based on fluctuating state budgets and seniority with little reflection on teacher ability and skill or student needs, are we cultivating an educational culture that focuses on children regardless of if we call it Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind?

  6. Thank you so much for writing this wonderfully challenging comment Kristen. It is exactly what I was seeking when I wrote this.

    Yes, I’m completely going utopian here. I’m new, young, and a bit idealistic to say the least. I’m very aware of my own optimism, but I seek your response and others like it.

    Thank you for picking out that particularly pumice-like line about tribes. I’m not trying to suggest that we all live together in a commune or abrubtly abandon our values in order to be melted down into an American metalurgican mold.

    The idea of America as a “melting pot” was never a good thing. Isreal Zangwill’s play of the same name hinted at an assimilated America which cut individuals of what made their culture unique and personal. That is not what I hope for, I don’t think anyone does.

    I’m merely disheartened by the direction our current language is taking us.

    I hope that we continue to live in place where distrust, as you mention, is hopeful and critical skepticism of our leaders.

    Thank you for offering so many thought-provoking questions. It’s not at all too negative.

    Maybe you are right about the question; maybe it’s not “how do we collaborate.” I hadn’t given enough thought to the fact that we already know a lot about collaboration. I think you’ve made an important distinction there.

    I’m going to take on your question. Look for a response post.

  7. Joe, thank you so much for entering into the conversation. I was hoping to hear your voice!

    The “system” you describe makes me wonder too. I think the core challenge of this new situation (and many more insightful and experienced people have written about this) is how do we define successful teaching. Then, how do we support and identify it?

    The focus is, for us, always on kids and their learning. I think our sharing of stories about that is worth a lot and will add to the national conversation.

  8. Well said.I’ve been thinking something along these lines the last couple days so thank you for actually writing it down and sharing it in such a thoughtful manner!

  9. I saw the movie “Race to Nowhere” last night and afterwards Alfie Kohn spoke. To paraphrase him, “I think there is something morally wrong with wanting other countries to do worse than us in things like education. Why all the competitiveness?”
    I think teachers are being thrown into existential crises in America because of the lack of meaningful discussions about what’s best for the students.
    I agree with you, teachers need to group together and talk about the learning.

  10. Luke, thank you for the affirmation. As my first line suggests, I was unsure about posting this when I started writing. The more I read over the speech and re-read my own words, the more vital it seemed to get out. Thank you so much for commenting and reading.

  11. Thank you so much for the comment and for mentioning Alfie Kohn. I’ve read many of his pieces on grading and the shortcomings of our reward/punishment system as well as pieces by his critics. I like what you say about the “lack of meaningful discussions” in education. That phrases exactly what I’m getting at: that we need to talk, and talk in a way that is authentically open.

  12. I just want to be on the bandwagon; you need no help from me.

    I think the more our students learn about our beliefs about the interconnectedness of caring, teaching, and learning, the less easy it is for them to label us as this or that politically,

    Anyways, be well; stay warm.

  13. This was just what I needed to read after a day of fighting with a poorly conceived student data system that we are being forced to use because of RtT. It is criminal that teachers spend more of their time doing extra paperwork and data collection than we spend improving our craft, and on some days, teaching.

    My fathers served on our local school board for 15 years and worked for GM. He believed that the American car companies began failing when they let “bean counters” take control away from “car guys.” Way back in the1970s, he feared that once politicians wrested control away from educators and local districts, the public education would suffer the same fate. Sadly, I think he might have been right.

    I became a teacher because I loved learning and wanted to share this with my students. When testing becomes more important than learning, I wonder what we’re doing. I see us turning out a generation of test takers, not life life-long learners.

    Right now what keeps me teaching after 30 years, is that I hope I can inspire one student to discover the joy of learning. It also helps that I get to learn from bright young teachers like you and Joe. Now, off to complete more tedious IEP paperwork on another badly constructed state-mandated data base.

  14. I’m not sure my administrators would agree that they are lucky to have me, as I tend to rock the boat just a bit.

  15. Hi Steve! Thank you for writing here and sharing your thinking. I am really concerned about the language of racing and winning in Obama’s education policy, too. And thought, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating, I don’t think it is anything new or particular to this president. This is the same language in the 1983 federal report on education, A Nation at Risk It’s the kind of language that perpetuates a sense of crisis and competition. I think it speaks to a lot more than one president’s education policy; it’s a representation of the bigger picture of power and economic relations. Purposing schooling around capitalistic (competitive, nationalistic, rationalized) pursuits is the rhetoric of both “parties” for now. So, it seems for teachers interested in critical pedagogy, interested in changing power relations, we have got to own up to our politics, they are there in everything we do, whether or not we reflect on them, question them and make them visible… those acts, reflection, questioning, making visible power structures- with our students could be one different purpose for education. Dude thanks for making this thinking space!

  16. Bravo Steve,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s too bad that your voice is not heard by the powers that be. All too often I, like hear people on TV talking about education as if they are educators and no, they are not!
    Like you, I have been uncomfortable with Obama’s focus on winning… returning to #1 in the world, instead of competition why aren’t we moving to cooperation/collaboration in tone and vision.
    Thanks for your very articulate post. Keep them coming…we need you!
    Bonnie Kaplan
    Hudson Valley Writing Project

  17. I will admit….the stable job market and retirement were two things that I considered when becoming a teacher, but money never was. I can’t ever remember considering money, and I can never remember a time when I thought that money would make me work longer, harder, or smarter.
    I have thought many, many, many times that money would make me a less stressed out teacher. There was a large block of time in my life in which the stress of bills, etc, took away at least a small piece of my sanity and made me a worse teacher than I could have been.
    I would never want my kid in a class with a teacher motivated by money, just like I would not want to be in a doctor’s office who was motivated by money.
    Money will not change the system, I can remember reading research proving that when I was a pre-service teacher. Systems, procedures, tests, new schools, standards will not change the system. People will. Until we start hiring and recruiting and a new type of teacher, the culture in our schools will remain he same.
    The folks outside of the institution will continue to blame the teachers, the teachers will continue to blame the folks outside of the institution. Neither will look at themselves and what they have contributed to the problem.
    If I was Obama’s speech writer…
    “To win the future we also have to better educate our kids. Teachers need to stop giving kids crappy assignments that are useless. Teachers need to stop sucking the love of learning out of their kids. Teachers need to be willing to change themselves first, before they can change their kids. Because in the end the kids will reflect not the administration of the schools, not the policies, procedures or standardized tests. They will reflect who the teachers are. The people they are with every school day, every minute of the school day.”

    So many people have written recently that teachers should not be blamed for the problems in failing schools…then teachers should also not receive credit in the schools that are succeeding.

  18. Touché Paul!

    I love that you bring up the point about who kids spend the most time with in school. In my own case, I remember spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about standardized tests, but thankfully I also had many wonderful teachers that stick in my mind. Those teachers won’t ever leave, but sadly, neither will some of those tests and the stain they left on my experience.

    I think your addition to Obama’s speech is interesting. It makes a clearer challenge to teachers while still lighting a little fire underneath them (stop sucking the love of learning…). I think teachers challenging themselves first is a wonderful statement. Our own learning is what needs to take place publicly in our classrooms every day.

  19. Lacy,

    Thank you so much for reading and leaving such a thoughtful comment.

    I often wonder, being so new to education, about all the conversations I’ve missed. I can read about Nation at Risk, but I didn’t live through it so I always wonder about the nuances I miss in text.

    I wonder if our conversations today (and the political speeches we hear) are just recycled and rebranded rhetoric from decades past. But maybe the people who lived through it and remember it think the same things.

    Thank you for highlighting the things I wished Obama did, “reflection, questioning” and making learning visible. These should be at the center of our discussion, not topping countries who don’t even try to educate the portion of population that we do.

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