Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Take All The Credit? You'll Get All The Blame

Occasionally, authors receive feedback from a reader that says in effect, "I believe what you wrote; you're on course." And so were we gratified recently when Julie Rummel, a veteran teacher from Findlay, Ohio, told us that she had read something in 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America's Public Schools" (Berliner, Glass & Associates, 2014) that resonated with her experience.

In case you have not commanded to memory every word of 50 Myths, Myth #9 reads as follows: "Teachers are the most important influence in a child’s education." The discussion in the book goes on: "Teachers are important. They provide instruction to students, give them valuable emotional and social support, and are often generous with their time and energy .... They also labor in the shadow of this myth — a myth that seems to celebrate teachers, but which in reality hangs an unrealistic responsibility around their necks. The importance of teachers has been mythologized to the point that it burdens teachers, restricts their ability to serve students in ways they deem appropriate, and may be driving some of the best teachers out of the classroom."

Teachers can only do so much to correct the damage inflicted on children by poverty, ill health, broken homes, or homes run by broken individuals. Some persons flatter with heroic stories and lay unrealistic expectations on them ... and then they blame them when their best efforts inevitably fail. These same persons push policies with names like "value added" and "teacher quality." Teachers naive enough to believe fairy tales will feel the pain when harsh reality shows up. Take undeserved credit, and you will reap undeserved blame. Such is the recent experience of Teacher Julie Rummel when she encountered the new age of education policy with its high-stakes testing, value added evaluation, and other union busting tactics. But, we should let Julie speak for herself.

I read Myth #9 “Teachers are the most important influence,” and here I am now writing to you.

This is my 15th year of teaching. Fourteen of those years have been in inner city, 100% free and reduced lunch schools. My last district had cuts, and, since I had only been there 3 years, I got my pink slip. I was shocked and devastated. But to be brutally honest, I was also relieved. Fourteen years of children screaming at me, parents cussing me out, paying for my own copy paper, watching poverty suck the life out of the lids before they are 9 years old — I was burned-out. I was crying after staff meetings because I knew that what I was expected to have them do was simply beyond me and beyond them. I was feeling like a complete failure, even as they hugged me and told me I was the “best teacher in the world.” I was ready to quit.

My colleagues were all on antidepressants; one committed suicide. The anger and the stress in those environments are hard to explain. Our ceiling dripped into trashcans set on the heater. The kids were angry. They have more emotional problems than one well-intentioned woman can deal with. I am sure you know all of this, at least in theory. My kids were growing, but they were not passing state tests. I could not be deemed a "good teacher" with miserable test scores, could I? So my evaluations were mediocre. "Demoralized" is truly the only word that can come close.

So, back to the pink slip .... I lost my job in May and by August, I was hired in a happy, small-city school with 40% free and reduced lunch. It is now March and not one child has thrown their desk over in anger, frustration, or sheer desperation. Not one desk has been thrown. I cannot emphasize this enough. NO ONE HAS STOOD UP, SCREAMED, AND THROWN THEIR DESK OVER.

Suddenly, 18 of 20 kids are passing their state tests!! Suddenly, I am a great teacher! (ME!) I am getting emails from parents telling me how much their kids love 3rd grade. We can make COLOR COPIES! We have show and tell and nothing gets stolen! Kids bring back their homework! Our walls are painted happy colors! The kids don’t cry. The teachers don’t cry. The kids don’t scream at their teachers, and the teachers don’t scream at the kids. I am competent! I am getting good reviews! I am a good teacher!!!!

This brings us back to Myth #9. It is not me. I am the same teacher, same sense of humor, same ability to connect with kids, same tendency to put off grading and to spend 5 extra minutes at recess. I have not implemented some new strategy. I did not suddenly grow as an educator. (Sorry, Marzano.) In truth, I am only slightly above average. The only thing that HAS changed is that I am now working with middle class families who are raising their children to be middle class citizens. It is a miracle and a gift. And slowly, I am feeling the joy creep back into my classroom and into my life. It is a joy to see those kids every Monday and ask," How was your weekend?" Knowing no one has been evicted. They are ready to learn and THAT is what makes me able to teach.

Thank you for recognizing that.

I am not superman. Nor am I the incompetent, lazy, union-member devil they seem to think I am.

I am so grateful to find someone who sees things the way they are … so that I and my fellow teachers can quit blaming ourselves.

Thank you, Julie Rummel

No, we thank you, Julie.
Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder
National Education Policy Center
San José State University
David C. Berliner
Arizona State University
San José State University

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of the National Education Policy Center, Arizona State University, University of Colorado Boulder, nor San José State University.