I was pumped this morning when I realized it was Teacher Appreciation Day. Everyone loves a free cup of coffee and a donut.
But, my real joy came when a former student walked up and handed me a note. “Thank you for being a teacher,” she wrote. “It can’t be an easy thing to do, with tests and politics pulling the marionette strings. It must feel pretty powerless sometimes.” She is right about the puppet strings, but not wholly right about the powerlessness. I have learned to cut some of those strings meant to control my every move in the classroom. All good teachers have, but we could use more help.
Think back to a teacher who influenced you in a meaningful way, and I suspect you will remember character more than content, how you felt more than what you learned. I am not saying content and skills are pointless, just that they are not the main point. Most of what my former student wrote about in her note was about my seeing in her the wonderful person she would become rather than the struggling person she was. “You are able to make every student feel important,” she wrote. “That is a superpower.”
The English teacher I had for my senior year of high school, Paul Steltz, had that superpower. His class was the first to make me believe my voice might be important, my thoughts something worth sharing. He never gave us a single test with multiple-choice answers, and never stood at the front of the room telling us what to think simply so we could regurgitate it and prove we were listening. He did not want us to master the skill of taking a test, or sitting still, or coloring within the lines. He wanted us to think.
His essays had no rubrics. In an educational landscape focused on standardization, he was utterly subjective. He knew school was not a factory capable of churning out a uniform product. Grades were not given in numerical form - five points off if you misspell a word, ten for a comma splice. Instead grades came in the form of narratives. There at the bottom of our page was a paragraph praising what was worthy of praise, and always challenging us to clarify our thinking. From him I learned to write; I also learned what I wanted out of my schooling, my friendships, and myself.
In college, I was fortunate enough to have another teacher with that superpower. John Elder never tried to teach skills that were neat and clean, easy to quantify and measure. You know what I remember most about him and his teaching? I remember the quality of questions he asked me when we reviewed a draft of something I had written, and how attentively he listened to my answers. I don’t remember a single assessment that required filling in bubble sheets. I don’t remember a single moment when I was forced to learn a skill in isolation rather than amid a practical application. I don’t remember ever being bored.
I am not sure my sons will have that experience. My sons are bored already. That is not due to their teachers. Their teachers are exceptional. My boys are bored because they are required to do a lot of assignments regurgitating what they already know rather than exploring what they don’t. They must fill out bubble sheets entitled “The Daily Core Review” that look a whole lot like the standardized tests. They must complete homework assignments because that is what the script says come next regardless of whether or not they need the practice.
As parents we must not be complacent as testing companies and politicians attempt to control classroom practice. We must not simply accept the justification provided by administrators presenting the company line. Ask the teachers of your children if they are being forced to sacrifice anything they consider important in order to meet the requirements of mandated testing. If you do, you will hear talented teachers lamenting the loss of imaginative free play in Kindergarten to make way for practice multiple-choice questions. High school teachers will talk of losing nearly two weeks of instruction for standardized tests, the results of which we never see.
Want to make a difference during Teacher Appreciation Week? Support teachers who are cutting the marionette strings rather than allowing them to bind their hands. Tell the first grade teacher that watching your son read his original poetry at “Poetry Cafe” was invaluable. Tell the Kindergarten teacher that you appreciate her refusal to cut down on free play for the sake of test prep. Tell high school teachers you appreciate the sometimes messy process of complex assessments designed to provoke original thought. Tell school administrators that you want more of those things and less standardization.
Tell them you want your children in the hands of people with superpowers, rather than puppets with strings.