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Bring Back the Joy of Teaching and Learning

Ohanian Comment: Daily, I receive messages from desperate teachers who need to find a way to bring back the joy to their classrooms. Twenty-year veterans, forced to perform rote rituals shipped in from publishing conglomerates, are disturbed to find themselves now hating teaching. However maybe there's a ray of hope: teachers around the country are beginning to wear "Bring Back the Joy" buttons. Could this be the start of a trend?

Bring Back the Joy of Teaching and Learning
by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Californiai Educator

Marie Avera saw her moment of truth in the eyes of a bewildered child.

Stressed out about raising test scores, the Vallejo City teacher was trying to drill a math concept into her students' brains when it became obvious that one child just didn't understand. "I said, somewhat sharply, 'Don't you get it?' He just looked at me with his big brown eyes. I felt terrible."

At that point, she told her students to close their books. "It's time for us to go out and play."

"And I thought to myself, "What are we doing to our children?'"

The stress of raising test scores to meet state and federal standards is changing the classroom environment from a place where learning is exciting and fun to something more like drudgery, say many educators. And teachers worry about the long-term implications for students and teachers.

CTA President Barbara E. Kerr says the biggest challenge facing schools is that the joy of teaching and learning is hard to find in today's classrooms. "Testing mania has gotten way out of hand and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act further exacerbates the problem," says Kerr, who taught first grade and kindergarten in Riverside for more than two decades.

Everywhere she goes, teachers share the same concerns. In growing numbers of schools, scripted learning programs take up most of the school day - and the rest of the day is lost to pre-testing and testing.

In addition, there are so many state standards to cover, teachers feel as though they must rush through the curriculum even if it means leaving slow learners in the dust.

Teachable moments? Class discussions? Hands-on learning? Field trips? Physical education? Music? Art? In all too many schools, they are fond memories of the good old days. Even recess has been eliminated in many places. As a result, teachers are frustrated and often unhappy, which may in itself have a trickle-down effect in the classroom. And many students are turning off to school.

The problems have raised concerns throughout the entire country. "If we allow ourselves to become script readers rather than teachers, we can become at least uninspired, and ultimately dangerous," warns Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.

Testing, she says, is a form of gospel these days. But if teachers don't question it, "we will ultimately fail our profession, ourselves and, most critically, young people who count on us to help them build lives."

"Children have a lot of differences, and you can't look at them as statistics," says Avera, a member of the Vallejo Education Association. "Children have hearts and souls and creative minds. When you try to make them all the same through rigorous left-brain learning and
drill-and-kill, you can lose that individuality, squash their self-confidence and kill their love of learning."

Not so long ago, says Avera, things were different. "We understood that some children develop faster and some develop slower, and that children need to go at their own pace. Children were valued for having creative genius in the arts, music or other avenues."

She recalls one student who didn't excel at anything until the class built gingerbread houses. "His was an incredible and amazing cathedral." His success spilled over into other areas.

"But there's no room for that anymore. There's no time to pull that shining intelligence out of children in different ways."

When teachers were allowed to use creativity in teaching the basics, she recalls how well thematic units were received. When she taught about the rain forest, for example, she brought in books and puzzles and had students build a tepee. "I had students who said to me, years later, that they remembered making a tepee and putting it up. I don't think today's students are going to remember filling in the bubbles very fondly."

As school has become, in many cases, drudgery, Avera says she has seen the behavior of children change. "It's heartbreaking to see, but I am watching some kids just give up. They put their heads down and become obstinate and angry. They don't know what to do with their anger, and they lash out. They are disengaging. School has become like the corporate world where some people rise to the top and others fall behind."

She is not alone in her belief that today's schools have a corporate mentality that focuses on productivity and scores rather than what is actually good for children.

First-graders at King Elementary School in Richmond are eager to learn.
Teachers in San Diego are extremely concerned about the changes in their classrooms since Alan Bersin became superintendent, says Terry Pesta, president of the San Diego Education Association. But they are afraid to speak up for fear of repercussions. "Everything is done through fear and intimidation. That's the pattern here.

"If teachers are not considered team players, they are in trouble. If they speak out, their principals will harass them with negative evaluations, incessant observation in their classrooms and any other subtle way they have of instilling fear. The number of people with poor evaluations has multiplied many times."

A longtime San Diego Education Association member, who does not wish to be identified, says he was recently talking about how joy was harder to find in the classroom. A friend replied, "That's the way it always is in business. Why should you be protected?"

"I went into teaching because it is not a business," responded the teacher. "I went into teaching because it was creative and humane. But they changed the job on me. I knew I wouldn't be highly paid, but no one ever told me that education would become a business where students were widgets turned out on an assembly line."

In previous years, he recalls, teachers would collaborate on lesson plans that got students excited about learning. "Now, instead of talking about what's best for kids, teachers obsess about things like, "Where on the wall should we post the standards?' I can't count the number of staff development sessions that dealt with how to write an agenda on the board. Administrators think it's teaching us to be better teachers, because an agenda shows we're planned and organized. But kids don't care about any of that stuff.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm in Alice in Wonderland - things are so ridiculous, it's hard to believe they're true."

He adds, "I'm not putting down structure, but I like living, breathing classrooms. I think there should be some sense of edge and that no one should be 100 percent certain what will happen every day. But that's really ill thought of here."

As for the joy: "It's as if someone is trying to throw a wet blanket over it every time you try and grab it.

"You see the glint in the eye of a kid after a great lesson, and you feel like you changed a life. No one can take that away from you. But we aren't given the chance to revel in that; we aren't encouraged to find more of those moments, because we are under pressures that have nothing to do with what is best for children."

Another San Diego teacher who did not wish to be identified says it's harder to motivate students now that enrichment has been eliminated throughout her district and most schools have scripted programs. "Administrators feel that if something is not related to the standards, it's frivolous, so there goes music and art. There is nothing wrong with standards-based education - students need to have certain skills when they leave school. But to say that all students must learn in the same fashion and have a one-size-fits-all education doesn't seem logical. When they are adults, will they be able to work in a flexible workplace and be creative and innovative? Will they be thinkers?"

She has considered leaving the profession now that her job is so rigid. "My plan is to weather the storm and see if things improve."

Pressure on teachers to increase test scores sometimes means rushing through curriculum to cover standards at breakneck speed. Lizel Bettencourt, a science teacher at Orosi High School near Visalia, has a biology class with mostly English language learners, many of them reading at the third-grade level. The first three chapters of the textbook are supposed to review material previously learned, but the material is mostly unfamiliar to her students who struggle with simple words, let alone "mitochondria." Nonetheless, she is told that she must fly through them to get to Chapter 4, where the standards that will be tested kick in.

"I can't go back to the old material to reinforce the new material, because it's supposed to be review. If I did that, I would never get to the standards," she says. Lab projects to provide hands-on learning are not available, although her district has said it wants to have more project-based learning in the future.

"But I don't give up," says Bettencourt, a member of the Cutler-Orosi Unified Teachers Association (COUTA). "Students have to pass my class to graduate. I do everything I can to help them and make sure they are not going to fail. I tell them to come in after school and at lunch, and that I will be here to help them."

Teachers are under other pressures in addition to teaching to the standards and preparing students for tests, she adds. "We now have to make sure we are 'Highly Qualified Teachers' under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Many of us are taking classes and are worried we don't have the appropriate credentials. It seems to me that some of the pressure needs to be let off."

Children with high academic abilities need to be challenged, but scripted programs and rote memorization have them rolling their eyes, says Debbie Petinak, a second-grade teacher at Cutler Elementary School near Visalia.

When high-achieving students are bored, they tend to do just the minimum amount of work required, which can result in mediocrity, says Petinak, a member of COUTA. "They know they can get by with that because there is little incentive to be creative."

Special education children, who are now expected to pass standardized tests as well, are suffering emotionally, says Jenny Rodriguez, a resource specialist at Crowley Elementary School in Visalia. "I'm seeing children who are more anxious," says Rodriguez, a member of the Visalia Unified Teachers Association (VUTA). "I've been trying to put my finger on what's happening with students. It's almost as if their brains shut down when there is anxiety and pressure. It's almost as if they are saying, "I'm going to shut down and go through the motions, but I won't learn from you.'"

She is especially worried about the impact of relentlessly testing special ed students. One of her students, Stanley, had auditory and visual learning disabilities. He needed an hour to write a paragraph other children could do in 20 minutes. When he was told he only had 20 minutes, he got frustrated. "We had been pushing him and pushing him... Maybe we pushed him overboard with our demands." Stanley eventually became so unstable, he had to be placed in a group home.

Rodriguez worries that the same could happen to other children.

"Special ed teachers are much more anxious today," she says. "Our students are expected to meet the very same academic standards as mainstream kids. I'm seeing teachers who are becoming overwhelmed and frustrated by the demands. Myself, I don't have enough time to do everything and sometimes I feel like I don't even have time to breathe."

"We most definitely need to bring happiness back into education," says Robert Ellis, a first-grade teacher at King Elementary School in Richmond, a high-crime and high-poverty area. "It's hard to feel happiness when children are coming from fairly depressing conditions at home, and then see depressing conditions at school."

One of the more depressing conditions is a playground that's usually covered with broken glass. Since it's not fenced off, people wander in off the streets during the day.

"My biggest ax to grind is that our school lacks toilet paper in the bathroom," says Ellis, who dispenses wads of paper when students are excused. "I don't think children can focus on literacy and anything else if certain biological needs are not met."

His school also lacks soap in the dispensers. "But I haven't even started with the soap. I'm still trying to have an open discussion on the toilet paper."

To compensate for the depressing school atmosphere, Ellis works hard to create a cheerful environment within the four walls of his classroom. "I've created a 10-foot tree out of papier-mâché because our school yard lacks foliage. I've made a sky on the wall with large sheets of colored paper. I try to bring humor into the classroom, and every now and then we might even break into song."

He is working hard to raise test scores. Direct Instruction, a scripted reading program, takes up most of the morning. He prefers the program to Open Court, which is used in other Richmond schools, "but I hate the thought that I can't have a creative idea and run with it."

Avera in Vallejo feels lucky - and happy - that she can provide prep time for other teachers when she comes into their classrooms to teach language arts. "I combine writing with art, poetry and storytelling," she says. "I get stories and poems out of children with phenomenal depth about their lives and reality. It's a way for them to understand themselves."

"I believe in having standards, but the pendulum has swung too far," she adds. "I think we need to look realistically at testing because right now it's not providing a true picture of what a child can do. We need to get politicians out of education. We need to get teachers in the political arena to say, "No, what's happening is not child-friendly. This is not compassionate.'

"I am waiting for the day when teachers across the country can take back our schools from politicians," says Avera. "It's time for them to get out of our way and let us do the job we were trained to do."

Teachers still love the job

Three out of four teachers consider themselves "scapegoats for all of the problems facing education," according to a Public Agenda survey.

Given the chance to start over, however, 60 percent of teachers would choose the same profession all over again, according to another survey, this one conducted by NEA.

Public Agenda, a non-partisan policy research group, found teachers to be "committed, but dispirited."

It's no wonder, says NEA President Reg Weaver. "Many teachers believe that the new testing mandates eliminate their ability to utilize best practices for good teaching and learning. The flexibility and creativity they need to provide their students with what will help them most - an individualized approach - has been taken away."

The NEA survey released this year shows that public school teachers spend much of their own time expanding their knowledge and skills, and hundreds of their own dollars purchasing classroom supplies, books and materials for students.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001) provides ample cause for despair all by itself. Last year, it classified nearly 70 percent of California schools as failing to meet new federal standards. It requires each school to show Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) not only as a whole, but for each subgroup - ethnic minorities, English language learners, special education students and students living in poverty. If any subgroup fails to meet AYP, the entire school fails.

The frustration for teachers is palpable. "We raised our API 52 points, but have not met our AYP," says Debbie Petinak, a second-grade teacher at Cutler Elementary School and a member of the Cutler-Orosi Unified Teachers Association. "But I still love teaching. The kids make it all worthwhile despite the stuff you have to put up with."

"I love the job itself," says sixth-grade teacher Tom Hernandez, a member of the Visalia Unified Teachers Association. "It's the politics that's so frustrating."

— Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
California Educator


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