Today, I was in an elementary school to coach teachers on instructional strategies. In case you are unaware, schools are going through tremendous changes right now to meet the very challenging Common Core State Standards and new teacher evaluation systems (at least in NY and NJ). Teachers are expected to work miracles with students who are coming to school with less and less basic skills. They are forced to teach classes of heterogeneously grouped students with huge discrepancies in terms of ability levels, non-English speaking students, severe behavior problem students as well as dealing with (and almost having to answer to) overbearing parents who continuously blame the teachers if their child is not succeeding. Or behaving. Or not doing his homework. Speaking from experience, teaching is more difficult now than it ever was. Period. And it’s not getting any easier. I taught for 16 years and truly empathize with what our teachers are going through. Student test scores (in NJ) have become a part of each teacher’s end- of-the-year evaluation, so it is weighing heavy on each educator’s mind. State testing, coupled with the new evaluations systems, have ultimately led teachers to “teach to the test” and as many have told me, “taken the fun out of teaching and learning.”
Driving to the school, all of these things were on my mind and I was feeling a little sad as I entered the building. I signed in, met briefly with the principal who wanted to talk about test scores, and then went into a third grade classroom. The teacher is a fabulous one and has the patience of a saint. Out of 20 kids, she has 12 who are special education. Two more should be classified, but their parents will not allow it. The teacher told me how frustrated she feels but comes to work each day with a positive attitude and smile on her face – for herself and her students. I admired her perseverance and dedication and thought about all of the other teachers I know and work with who are unhappy with their roles and limits in the classroom.
As I watched the tiny third graders noisily hang up their backpacks, talking with friends and vying for the teachers’ attention, a voice came over the loud-speaker and asked us to stand for the pledge of allegiance. Everything stopped and we stood up and faced the flag. As I crossed my hand over my heart, I saw eager little faces with tiny hands on their hearts and with their squeaky voices, lisps and slight mispronunciations, the students loudly recited those famous words that American school children say each and every day. Pledging allegiance to our country and our flag. Putting our faith and trust in the leaders of America to do the right thing. And suddenly, my heart grew warm, my eyes got misty and I smiled. There is something about seeing a group of children with hope in their eyes and determination in their voices that is uplifting and inspiring. And right then, right there, I felt like things in education and our country will all work out. It has to. For our students. For our teachers. For our futures.