Populations are made up of individuals. The wise teacher figures out quickly each class is full of individual kids. Likewise schools are composed of individual teachers. When you start treating individual teachers as unimportant, then ultimately schools will become unimportant. I can't escape the reality that such an Orwellian reality has arrived when a parent goes online and looks me up deciding if I am a good teacher before meeting me or talking to anyone who has kids I've taught. Or a reformer looks at data and makes a determination without even speaking to anyone in a school.
Essentially at their root many of the ideas I think are ill conceived seem to erode my ability to operate with autonomy. Should I have a completely free hand to do what I want? Of course not. But one concept that seems to echo with me is that those shaping teaching view it as a science that can be adjusted in such a way to produce a definite outcome. Where decisions are made by those who operate in a data first environment. Many teaching see the world differently. We know teaching is an art. Imagine a concert where all the solos were scripted. A museum that only featured paint by number artwork. A football team where players ran plays from a script based solely on down and distance unconcerned with score or field position. Those things might be functional and generate predictable outcomes but they would also be very limiting. As a teacher I need to be able to have freedom and play to my strengths on a daily basis. One big thing impeding this is the smothering amount of demands being placed on me.
Already this year I have struggled to become quickly familiar with all my students. I know that a positive relationship is often key to their success. I am struggling to give and grade rigorous assignments in a timely fashion. While chalking it up to age at first I realized I have 142 kids. That alone is enough to bury me in grading if I let it. (1 essay, 5 mins each x 140 = 11 hours) Couple it with the push to standardize curriculum and all the other adjustments I've made over the past 3 years and those I make daily and kids could start to slowly slip to just a name and number on a page and simply part of a larger whole. Sure some of that is the compulsory teacher griping. It is also a red flag. Nowhere am I hearing this on the news or even in discussions about our division. These issues are veiled by clips of new computers, talks of budgets and a Newsweek ranking.
My concerns about student load and class size would be dismissed by folks who would point to data and studies about successful schools. They say it matters little in terms of affecting student success. They are wrong. Efforts to replicate the famous STAR study on class size from Tennessee are a classic example of wayward policy when people forget the importance of individuals. Probably a result of paying people to sit and analyze data far removed from the people the information represents. This is in my opinion a useless enterprise. That is after all what computers are for.
Claims that changes are needed to standardize curriculum intending to give all students access to quality teaching and instruction who currently do not have it drive a disproportionate number of decisions. The basic premise is to fix the SYSTEM without regard to the impact it has on the people within it. Thus revealing the absence of any appreciation for the individual teacher and what they accomplish every day. Big mistake. You can't on one hand claim quality teachers are among the biggest factor in student growth and then ignore what they say and what makes each of them unique. And yes I feel ignored.
There are certainly bad teachers. Heck maybe I'm among them by some measures that are used. But who in their right mind would make efforts to identify bad teachers using methods that adversely affect all those that are not. You cannot simply look at what one teacher does well and finds as effective and then ask other teachers to replicate that same thing. Certain patterns and skills may easily transfer but there are way too many variables to begin to think that it makes any sense whatsoever to just make that idea bigger.
Average Class Size affects the quality of what kids can get from me while they are in the classroom. Total Student Load affects what I the teacher can do. The greatest flaw with any research on teaching is that researchers don't seem to talk to real teachers during their research. The mountains of data keep them from seeing that all those kids I have prevent me from realizing my potential as a teacher, no matter how many methods or techniques I have access to. The same is true for students who are increasingly being asked to take on a greater academic load. Sure the numbers look good from far away but get closer and you'll see what the unintended impact is on individual kids and families. While all this unfolds the term accountability is thrown about as a buzz word like it has any meaning to anyone making decisions. Now this is not a developing nation's classroom lacking basic necessities, but I can affect more positive change with fewer kids. I am drowning in work.
So classes are made up of individual kids and the fact I might now be unaware that one of them was having a bad day matters a lot. The fact I didn't ask how they were doing and engage them in potentially the only real conversation they'll have all day matters. The fact I now teach 142 separate people matters. No Child Left Behind actually has meant more kids in my classes making it harder to identify and focus on ones that need more help. Shame that teachers were and continue to be left out of the loop and simply treated as the group causing the problems and not potential solutions. No doubt we might offer quite a few good ideas that would affect immediate change for the better. Because we are plugged into what is happening. I know these issues are present elsewhere but they never emerge from behind the newest and latest drive for innovation and reform. Truth is I can hardly tell where we are headed by looking back at the track we are following. That's scary and might mean all these efforts aren't really getting us anywhere.
As we prepare to tighten our belts once again as our division faces budget shortfalls I cannot help but expect that means my job will again get harder. That affects me. I have concerns on what changes and cuts mean to all of us in this building every day. I can only hope that decision makers will recognize how the easy course is not always the better course and think first of us and not of them as they chart a course and navigate our course. Be forewarned though that an unappreciative view of the significance and talents of individuals will simply contribute to more ideas not worthy of the term reform.