This Point of View was submitted by Michelle Adalian, a fourth grade teacher at Schalmont Central School District.
When I was a child, I loved to line my bed with every stuffed animal and doll I owned. I read books, sang songs, wrote stories, had calendar time, and modeled math. Because of the wonder and joy of learning I encountered in my first public education experience in Kindergarten, I knew at the age of five that teaching was what I wanted to do when I grew up. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Smith, made learning fun and inviting. I never questioned my early decision to be just like her and I anxiously waited for the day I would have my very own classroom.
Years later when I walked into my own classroom I came to understand that every fall represents a new beginning. Every year is a chance for teachers to make an unforgettable first impression, create an inviting environment, set up routines, and establish reward systems. Most importantly, we prepare our hearts to grow to include each new face that will call our classroom home five days a week for the next 10 months.
My first year of teaching was hard work but rewarding. I was happy to come early and stay late to prep and plan, collaborate and create. The students’ excitement fueled my excitement. My fourth graders were filled with curiosity, a natural thirst for knowledge, and willingness to grow. We conducted experiments. We formed literature circles and looked in depth at literature. We wrote for a purpose. We “adopted” a soldier who was serving in Afghanistan and sent numerous letters and care packages to his unit. We used manipulatives to solve math problems and worked together to resolve real-life conflicts. We developed social skills and practiced compassion. We celebrated our successes and our hiccups along the way. We found that making mistakes lead to new discoveries. We went outside to run, play, or enjoy the fresh air. We’d come back refreshed, ready to work hard.
Fourteen years later, I am lucky enough to be able to work with a tremendously dedicated faculty and administration that is focused on meeting the needs of each individual student. We plan lessons together, bounce ideas off of one another, and rely on our administration for advice and guidance. Still, it rarely feels like enough. My 4th grade class of 2015 has a different feel than my class of 2001. There aren’t many spur of the moment discoveries or quick games of tag. It feels as if time has been sucked away and it is implied that every second spent in the classroom should focus on “increasing rigor” and preparing for the test. Many kids are stressed, worried, anxious, and nervous. These children are stressed. They ask about the test. When is the test? What will be on the test? What if I fail the test? They get stomachaches and headaches. They put their heads down. They cry. They shut down.
These tests that are becoming the end-all-be-all of student and teacher assessment are killing the teaching profession. They’re squashing creativity. These tests are not informing our instruction as proper assessments should. They tell us nothing of our students or our ability to teach. Please, look at a portfolio of work we’ve completed. Observe students engaged in an activity. Watch the “light bulb” click for a student who’s been working his tail off! But, to be judged solely based off of a test score, especially a test score taken from an assessment requiring students to comprehend material well above their level is unfair. Why is this considered valid?
I hate to drop a bomb, but here’s a little secret: some kids in New York state or around the nation for that matter, don’t care about the test. Why? Because she was taken by Child Protective Services and had the most frightening night of her life. Because his parents are alcoholics. Because her mom leaves when things get hard. Because he lives in a shelter. Because his mother has cancer. Because he is abused. Because she is used as a pawn in a nasty divorce. Because his father is incarcerated. Because, because, because….
Maybe many of those “becauses” seem to apply to a limited number of students, but children are affected by so many events that we, as adults may think are insignificant. In reality, these small moments impact a student’s ability to focus and their ability to try their best, even on a “test day.” A child may not perform well because he missed the bus, because she got into an argument with her sister, because her best friend sat on the bus with someone else, because there is a new baby at home that gets all the attention, because his grandmother is ill, because he is thinking about the next level of his video game, because she overslept. Because, because, because… After months of teaching and learning, it is an injustice to be represented as a number. To be labeled as a 4, 3, 2, or 1 based off of a single assessment is a tiny and unfair piece of a very large puzzle.
I encourage “the powers that be” to walk just an inch in our shoes. We do much more than what a bubble sheet might reveal. It doesn’t show the amount of hugs given to little ones who feel broken, the coats bought for children who wear nothing more than a thin shirt on a below-freezing day. It doesn’t properly depict the teacher who gives up her lunch to provide extra support. It will never show the tears shed and the sleepless nights wondering if one of your students is being abused. It doesn’t total the amount of money spent on snacks passed out to those who rarely have a meal waiting for them at home, or the toiletries given away so hygiene can be properly tended to. I could go on… and on…we all could.
We are not a “special interest group” as Governor Cuomo likes to paint us. We are public servants who proudly perform our jobs each day. We are educators trying our best to lead the next generation to make this world a better place. We need to be supported, not attacked. We need to be encouraged, not degraded. We are loving. Compassionate. Creative. Flexible. Innovative. We carry our students in our hearts long after we exit our school each day. Every child deserves to be tended to with grace, care, respect, patience, and love. Each student has a story that deserves to be heard. I fear for the educational future of my four daughters. My kindergartner enthusiastically announced that she wants to be a teacher when she grows up. I wonder, when she gathers her dolls to play school, will they be sitting in rows with a bubble sheet and pencil in hand?
We are not failing. In fact, we are quite the contrary. There is no such thing as failing when you serve in a school district. We do not allow ourselves to fail. We keep trying, we keep learning, we keep coming back for more. We learn new ways to reach students. We attend workshops, seminars, and conferences. We take advantage of professional development. We seek the advice of others, we serve on committees, we read the latest research, and we assess and analyze data. We have open lines of communication with parents. We are involved in the community. We spend early mornings and late nights preparing, grading, planning and thinking.
No, we are not failing. We are far from failing. We are giving it everything we’ve got and then some.