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Frustration in the Classroom

Listening to the Teacher

Publication Date: 2005-02-20

This is quite an editorial--trying to represent teachers rather than denounce them.

In recent years, teachers have been pummeled, shamed, cajoled, enticed, even humiliated, under the relentless pressures to conform to the profusion of dictates emerging from Sacramento and Washington.

Teachers do need to be held accountable, and mediocre ones need help to do better, and if they can't, they should do something else. But an avalanche of school reforms has not sufficiently taken into account their often demoralizing impact on those who have to implement them: teachers themselves.

Conversations we've had with teachers reveal that many are frustrated, worn out, and increasingly, angry. Experienced teachers are marking time until they are eligible for retirement benefits -- and then plan to bolt the profession. And this at a time when the state needs every experienced teacher it can get -- and thousands more.

One fifth-grade teacher from Pleasant Hill, an 18-year-veteran of the classroom, described "stress beyond belief" to meet new reporting requirements which take five times longer than in the past. "Within the last year or two, the demands have been cranked up beyond any reasonable expectation that any teacher can meet," she said.

What used to make teaching fun, challenging and creative has instead become a tedious, boring exercise. And, they say, children are increasingly reacting the same way. A first-grade teacher in Oakland told us that for the first time in the 10 years on the job students ask, "Is it time to go home yet?"

These days, teachers spend less time on social studies and art, less time on field trips, less time on "project-based" curriculum. "The fun part that gets you through the bad times is being buried under the onerous requirements, the extra classes, more preparation that is being demanded," said Steve O'Donoghue, an experienced teacher who runs the acclaimed Media Academy at Oakland's Fremont High School.

Even the financial rewards doled out by Sacramento to motivate teachers to find ways to improve their students' test scores may have had just the opposite effect. Many teachers find the rewards insulting, because a reward implies that teachers will be more effective if a government handout is dangled in front of them.

You'd think teachers would rise up in protest. But they haven't. Despite the image that teachers' unions project, teachers are not a militant lot. There's a huge gap between the clout unions wield in Sacramento and, at times, in Washington, and the isolation and powerlessness experienced by individual teachers.

What has kept teachers from outright revolt, they say, is the prevailing ethic not to make waves, and to "be professionals."

"We've been told to shut up," said one teacher who recalls asking tough questions at a training workshop on a state-mandated phonics reading program. "Every time we say something in a meeting, we have higher-ups who stand up and say, 'We are professionals, we will respect one another, we are not here to argue.' "

Some teachers feel so vulnerable to retaliation from district administrators that they didn't want us to use their names. Even tenured teachers fear the dreaded "involuntary transfer" -- assignment to another grade or a more distant or less desirable school -- if they challenge the reform orthodoxy.

Also, teachers who resist the new requirements face serious consequences under state and federal laws. "They're threatening us; they're saying, 'If you don't comply, we'll take away your class-size reduction money, we'll take away your federal money,' " said Sharon Zinke, an elementary school teacher for 37 years, mostly in Hayward, and an instructor at UC Berkeley Extension. "Our jobs are on the line. Teachers are afraid to do anything."

So far teacher frustrations have been largely hidden from public view. That's because teachers are reluctant to share their deep discouragement with parents -- thankfully. The last thing a parent wants to hear is how unhappy their child's teacher is with teaching.

Another reason is that so far teachers have so far not abandoned the classroom in large numbers. The reason they're staying, however, has more to do with economic realities than because they love their jobs. "If this testing thing keeps up, and the economy picks up, you'll see a lot of people leaving the profession," said Peter Farrugio, who taught elementary school for 18 years, mostly in Hayward, and now trains new bilingual teachers.

One Oakland second-grade teacher told us that after 27 years he'll stay only until he qualifies for retirement benefits. "If I could afford to leave financially, I would leave now," he said, late one afternoon in his brightly decorated classroom, long after his children had gone home. "I'll try to do three more years, but then I'm walking away from California. I don't want to be a part of it. I have sold my soul."

Teachers' latest fear is that schools will face more budget cuts as the Legislature grapples with a huge budget deficit. And they'll have to dig into their own pockets to subsidize their students' education. "Everyone will be expected to do more with less,' said Fremont High's O'Donoghue. 'It's part of a long-term pattern to put the onus on schools to solve problems they didn't create, and aren't designed to fix.'

Clearly any serious reform program must include boosting teacher salaries. (Starting salaries for teachers in California average a pitiful $34,000). And teachers also deserve more time outside the classroom to learn how to implement reforms, from the state's new curriculum standards to innovative teaching methods.

Every parent wants their child taught be an energized teacher, not by one who feels trapped in the classroom. Teachers need to feel free to express their views without retaliation. And we must listen -- and respond -- to what they have to say.

http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2002/11/24/ED59251.DTL

November 24, 2002


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