One of the Real Dangers of Teaching to the Test: Plus Spitwads

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Recent posts about the number of teachers leaving the field early miss an important point: These teachers are leaving for good reason. Many, many teachers have wearied of irrational attempts to teach to tests that are inappropriate for their students. They are tired. For whatever reason, they are also able to break their own rice bowls. They can walk away from teaching. They can enter another field or they can retire. Some take a reduced retirement and use that to supplement income from part-time employment.

The obvious loss from this brain drain can be seen in the classroom. First-year teachers try valiantly to fill in the gaps, only partially succeeding. The research shows that a couple of years are required to learn to effectively manage a classroom. Some people never learn to manage a classroom. Classroom management is learned on the job and many earnest, hard-working men and women don’t survive this trial by fire.

For anyone who doubts my assertion, try to imagine keeping twenty-some 13-year-olds in desks for 80 minutes (many schools are now using the longer blocks to teach English and math, in particular) when 5 of those kids have individualized education plans because they are in special education, 4 have Attention Deficit Activity Disorder, 2 of whom are not in special education, 7 speak marginal English although they are not in bilingual programs, and 8 or more aspire to be romantically involved with some kid sitting in the same room. Throw in a possible kid diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and maybe one kid on the autism spectrum and you have an inner-city classroom that most long-term teachers have had at one time or another. These students may vary academically by as much as six years or more since many districts no longer separate students by academic ability levels. That’s “tracking” and tracking has fallen into disrepute due to our fear of misclassifying students and limiting their prospects. Current educational theory also supports — almost demands — regular group work in which students work with 1 to 4 partners, supposedly learning self-direction, accountability, and how to develop and share new ideas while providing peer affirmation.

It’s probably easier to herd 25 cats than it is to manage a classroom of 25 seventh graders. Twenty-five cats would leave their litter boxes in better shape than the boys’ bathrooms most of the time. They wouldn’t post mean comments on Facebook about each other. They wouldn’t use rubber bands to shoot folded paper or open paperclips. They wouldn’t chew wads of paper into small soggy messes to spit toward a neighbor. They would never hide the teacher’s remote after they were sent to the Dean for nonstop talking. (That was a good one. The culprit eventually found it in a bag a number of other students and I had searched previously. He’d been asking to search the lockers for me. If I’d been crazy enough to consider that plan for more than a nanosecond, what are the odds the remote would have been planted in some other kid’s locker? I’d say 100%. The best part was when the kid in question asked me for a reward for having found the remote.) Cat’s wouldn’t whine about the homework. They might not do the homework, but in an inner-city or severely-academically-challenged school, the kids often aren’t doing the homework either.

Oops. Getting off track here. I should note that the above craziness is not a daily occurrence, but the list is far from a comprehensive. There are so many ways to distract a class. Yesterday’s included putting blue tape over mouths by two students. When I had them reflect, one wrote “I did not safely put tape on my mouth.” The rubber bands are under control because they are an automatic detention now. Spit wads (not a problem in my class) were also put on the immediate referral list. Only one Facebook incident has impacted my classroom to date this year — it’s early — and the immediate bullying seems to have ceased. Tardiness and other distractions are also well in hand.

I love my Dean. I don’t bake as a rule, but at some point I will make that woman cookies. The right dean can make the whole year so much easier and more manageable.

Eduhonesty: New teachers are cheap. They are energetic, enthusiastic and hard-working. They usually are not as capable as their more experienced counterparts at the outset, though. They learn on the job. When too many experienced teachers leave early, a hallway may be filled with well-meaning newbies who lack the experience to mentor each other, in schools where the mentors have left to sell textbooks or plant begonias. The actual behavior of adolescents often stuns these new teachers.

I started at my current school seven years ago. I was one of twelve or thirteen new teachers then. None of them are left except me. That’s a lot of experience and professional development that simply exited the scene. In some cases, these teachers moved into higher-paying, more prosperous districts. Commonly, after a year or two in America’s educational disaster zones, many teachers find easier, more lucrative positions. That leaves our most desperate districts fighting the educational fight with a disproportionate number of first and second year teachers. The students who need the most experienced teachers consequently end up with the least experienced teachers.

Under the current system, I don’t see a fix for this problem. For those who stay in teaching, more money frequently equates with better working conditions. That better paycheck may also come with higher test scores, an ancillary win in these test-crazed times. For those who leave the field, the stress level suddenly plummets, as they no longer have to try to prepare kids for tests that are years beyond their actual learning levels. They no longer risk criticism for failing to do the impossible. They no longer have to figure out who is spitting soggy paper, not as easy a proposition as a reader might think. A teacher has to turn her back sometimes and street code prevents students from snitching.

I have to confess, I have days when I look forward to peacefully planting my begonias.