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We must fight to keep quality in teaching

Fight for fun, creativity and laughter.

by Amy Prime

On a recent trip to the grocery store, I ran into three people whom I later couldn't get out of my mind. The first was a teacher who will be retiring this spring. As she passed me, she gave me a sad half-smile and shake of her head, and with a weary voice simply said a number. I recognized it was the number of days left in the school year that she is counting down.

A moment later, I stopped to visit with an acquaintance who used to work for the schools as a paraprofessional. She mentioned that she planned to write a letter after her child graduates this spring. In the letter, she planned to make her feelings clear about what she saw happening in the schools, especially the poor treatment she believed she witnessed of the teaching staff.

As I continued to shop, I came upon a veteran high school teacher. Knowing that he’d been having a difficult year, I asked whether he planned to return to teaching next year. He said he hoped something else might turn up so that he won't have to.

There is a crisis, and the crisis is real. The Internet lights up with pieces written by retiring teachers who are glad to be getting out of a profession they used to love, and by educators begging young people not to choose teaching as a career.

If you teach, you don't need to get online to read these thoughts. You hear them every day as you pass your colleagues in the halls, at sporting events, at church and in the grocery store. Teachers who are close to retirement crunch the numbers to see if they can make it financially if they leave a year or two earlier. Newer teachers wonder if the degree they earned in education might transfer to another type of job.

If we don't stop, take a serious look at what we are doing, and make a huge change, then we will have destroyed a noble and essential profession. This is not imagined. The attacks on teachers have been steadily increasing.

Politicians don't want to look at root causes of students’ achievement problems, such as poverty or lack of parental support, so they threaten teachers with pay and benefit cuts if achievement on high-stakes tests isn’t as good as they would like. Administrators have to worry about those same test scores to keep adequate funding for their schools, and, therefore, may not be able to feel they can allow their teachers the independence that they once did.

The result is a demoralized, overworked and underappreciated staff of professionals who are forced to consider abandoning ship rather than continuing to be disparaged. If this continues, those left in our classrooms will be teachers who trudge forward, heads down as they try to make it to retirement, or others who don’t care enough to question poor administrative and legislative decisions, and instead just do as they are told.

When people ask me why I teach, I tell them that it's the best job in the world. I say that no two days are the same, that the people I work for give me hugs, and that it's a great challenge.

But the challenge has changed a lot in the 15 years I've been teaching. Collaboration time used to mean the sharing of ideas about what units were really engaging for the kids, or the best way to teach a required concept. Now it consists of making sure all teachers are on the same lesson at the same time in the required texts and that they're being followed without deviation. We are all being asked to do much more -- often things that are unrealistic, not in the best interests of our students or even possible -- with much less. Educators could list numerous examples of what this has meant for them in their classrooms and schools.

Even so, I would like to make an appeal to the educators out there. To veteran teachers I say: Don't go yet. You were here before No Child Left Behind. You were here before threats of unfair merit pay systems and micromanaging. We need you to remember the good that went on in schools then and fight for the return of those positive things. Your experience and wisdom cannot be replicated.

To the young people who want to teach I say: Don't be afraid. Join us. Teaching is a calling that can't be denied. But be prepared to stand up and fight for what you know is right and good for kids. Don't close your door and do your thing while hoping no one walks in to see that you’ve strayed from the script. Instead keep the door open and defend your good teaching practices when questioned.

Fight for fun, creativity and laughter. Fight for art and music and drama in your room and in your district. Fight for smaller class sizes and for time to plan and prepare great lessons for your kids. Fight for better wages and improved benefits.

To do so does not make you greedy or selfish. Wages are a reflection of whom we respect in our society, and you deserve to be valued. Fight against one-size-fits-all in any curriculum. We don't turn out products. We shape the minds of individuals who each have different needs, interests, strengths and learning tempos. Fight for the freedom to use your professional judgment to teach them how best you see fit. Administrators, politicians, textbook companies, standardized test vendors, business owners -- these people don’t know your students. You do. Fight for them.

Now is the time to speak up. Speak up before this new way of doing things becomes the only way we remember. We are at risk of creating a nation of disconnected, uninspired online learners. The consequence of continuing as we are will produce classes of over-tested nonthinkers who know how to fill in bubbles but not how to problem solve, to dream, to create or to love learning.

Your voice as a professional teacher is the one that matters. Find the time alongside all that you already give to your kids to stand up and use that voice. I look forward to the day that I can run into my colleagues and talk to them with excitement about all of the innovative and stimulating work going on in our schools and our classrooms.

Let's fight against this growing crisis and move toward a future in which teachers are celebrated, supported and respected as deserved, and given the freedom to do the job they are trained to do.

Amy Prime is a second grade teacher.

— Amy Prime
Des Moines Register





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