Lives of Quiet Desperation
by Susan Ohanian
I was in the car listening to On Point. when a flash of awareness about the state of teaching today knocked me for a loop. Tom Ashbrook was interviewing Susan Cheever about her book American Bloomsbury, in which she explores the cross-fertilization of ideas among Concord neighbors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts, and Margaret Fuller.
When Cheever started to read a short passage from Walden, I had to pull off the road, not because this passage isn’t very familiar, but because the contrast with the lives of quiet desperation of teachers in this country today hit me hard; it made me sick to my stomach, and I actually started to cry.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Think of what today’s teacher must write:
I went to the classroom because I wished to read scripts shipped in from corporate conglomerates, to front only the facts that corporate politico committees in Washington D. C. have declared “scientific.” Newly appointed coaches roam the hallways to drive me into a corner, telling me what I must teach and at what hour of the day I must teach it.
I run an anti-high stakes testing/anti-NCLB website, and I get a lot of mail from desperate teachers, parents, and grandparents. Have you heard the story about the teacher in Buffalo who was reprimanded for coming to the aid of a five-year-old who spilled a bottle of glue? Here’s the story.
We are being told that during SMALL GROUP INSTRUCTION, teachers are NOT to interact with other students. Now it is pretty difficult to keep 5-year-olds quietly busy with only Harcourt materials while a teacher works with a small group.
Let's say you have 24 children, with 7 in a group. This means 17 kids are sitting for up to 40 minutes. . . quietly and NOT DISTURBING THE TEACHER.
The principal was observing one of the kindergarten teachers during small group time and a little 5-year-old with special needs using glue had the horrific experience of the top coming off of the bottle. Understandably, that child went up to the teacher--THE ADULT IN CHARGE. Also understandably--and professionally--the teacher got up to help this child.
That evening, the teacher got an email from the principal telling her SHE IS NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES TO ENGAGE WITH OTHER STUDENTS during small group instruction (unless there is a real emergency)!
Here was a 5-year-old, covered in glue. What was he/she to do--get STUCK TO THE TABLE waiting for 20 minutes until the teacher finished with that one group?
GROWN-UPS, EDUCATED PEOPLE, ARE LOSING THEIR MINDS HERE IN BUFFALO, and we are supposed to condone this form of child abuse!
When they send in the scripts, they should send in clowns, too. Reading scripts is not a professional activity.
As a founding member of the board of the Educator Roundtable, I call for the dismantling of NCLB, which has brought us scripts, surveillance chiefs called coaches, and misery. Don’t improve it; dump it. The very profession of teaching is at stake, not to mention any hope of joyfully educating children for a democracy. Yes, joy. Why is it now unthinkable to use this word when we talk about educating even primary graders? Think about it.
Join our fight. Sign the Petition. Contribute to our efforts. Come to the meeting in Atlanta on March 17.
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