Bricks without Straw: A Reflection on Teaching.

Fundiementals returns on Monday. Continuing now with my Bible notes – Exodus Chapter 5 reminds me so much of teaching it’s scary. Deserves its own post.

Pharaoh Myers

“And Pharoah/Principal/Superintendent/Chancellor Myers said, “Your funds have been cut, and you shall have more children in each class, and each of you will have less help because there is no money for teacher’s aides. Yet you will be punished if your children do not succeed at the same rate as before.”

And the teachers cried out, “But how can we teach as effectively as before when we have more children and less help?”

And Pharoah Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you shall be punished if your students do not maintain and even increase their standardized test scores. And there will be no more free breakfast, for the city has decided that these freeloaders cannot take the well-earned money of the producers of society. And there will furthermore be no more Head Start program, for the same reason.”

And the teachers cried out, “But how can our students learn if they are fasting every day? And how can we make up the difference in our students’ knowledge base without the help of additional programming, when we are already teaching with more children and less help?

And Pharaoh Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you shall be punished if your students do not maintain and even increase their standardized test scores. You will lose funding, and there shall be no art class or music program or sports teams because we must concentrate on testing skills. And there shall be no recess because we must not waste time on play. Yet you must maintain the same level of order in your classrooms and increase your student’s test scores.”

Your students have only improved by 50%! You have brought shame on all of us! More paperwork for you!

And the teachers cried out, “But how can five year olds, who are developmentally, biologically programmed to learn through play, learn in this way that forces them to sit as adults for six hours at a time with no break? And how are they to learn how to manage social skills if they never get to interact with one another freely? Don’t we already have an epidemic of violence and bullying in our schools?”

And Principal Myers replied, “Nevertheless, there is no time for anything except reading and math and test scores. They will improve, you will improve them, or you will be punished.”

And the teachers replied, “But how can the children understand anything that they are reading about if they have had no exposure to anything in the books? How can we teach children to understand books that are about art and music and games and places and experiences that they have never, ever experienced? How can we accomplish this without enrichment programs and field trips?”

And Principal Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you will raise your student’s test scores and not make measly excuses. You will be punished when you fail.”

And the teachers replied, “May we at least use the lessons that we have practiced and perfected over our careers to help us raise our students’ scores?

And Pharaoh Myers replied, “No, you must use this new mandated curriculum, and your students’ scores will increase.”

And the teachers replied, “But we do not know this new curriculum. Wouldn’t our time be better spent individualizing our own methods to each of the many children in our classes, especially now that we have more children with less help and no enrichment?”

And Pharoah Myers replied, “No, you will use the mandated curriculum and learn it, and implement it without mistake, because it is teacher-proof, and the program will raise your students’ test scores. And if your students’ test scores are not raised by the program, you will be punished. The fault will be yours, not the program’s. And you will do this while I increase your paperwork load by 500% as you input ongoing test scores for data-driven instruction and monthly reports and flawless bulletin boards for when my inspectors come around to make sure that you are following all our instructions and increasing students’ test scores. ”

And the teachers replied, “But why must we spend valuable classroom time administering weekly tests to kindergarteners, who can barely hold their pencils yet, and whose learning at this stage in brain development is not linear as with an older child?”

Pharaoh Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you will do this, and if you fail to bring up your students’ test scores, you will be punished.”

Yes, it was really that monotonous. And, at times, insane. And heartbreaking. And hopeless-feeling. For me, anyway. I actually didn’t realize how strongly I still felt about this, how overwhelmed and angry and embittered toward the ed system, until I read this passage on the same day that I had a meeting with a friend about some social justice work. And I broke down crying at the memory of the time when I used to care so much about helping children who needed a boost, who weren’t born with a head start, and how painful it was to go back into battle every single day against all these forces that were in place to make your job nigh-on impossible.

I’m not sure I ever really let myself feel the defeat before. It feels so dark and hopeless to know that any little light that you can give a child on any given day has only a slim chance of surviving the onslaught of crap that the child will face for the rest of the day, and you’re going to be starting from scratch again tomorrow, and nothing is ever going to get better, and you’ll always, at best, only be half a step ahead of the darkness threatening to bring you down. That’s how I felt anyway. A suburban teacher in a well-funded school with aides and a regularly renewed library and parents with ample time to volunteer might have a very different experience. Or not. At any rate, our public schools are not all created equal.



Filed under book reviews, personal, religion

9 responses to “Bricks without Straw: A Reflection on Teaching.

  1. Stephen River Smith

    I have to comment on the inherent ties of this subject to that of religious abuse covered in earlier blog. Like you, my experiences as a public school teacher brought me to the brink time and time again. I was fortunate to have begun my career before ‘Pharoah came out of his closet’, wielding an ever-bigger, ever more invasive scepter, but I didn’t leave until seeing the evolution of mandated, paper-wielding, creativity-obliterating ‘group-think from afar’. I love the biblical dialogue you use here–you certainly know your Pharoah(s). 🙂 But, even more so, you know your caring, creative teacher. But as destructive and insidious as it is, what more can we expect when an institution reaches that critical mass, far removed from its charges, drunk with its own self-praise, and made the standard bearer of change (the latest theories hammered into systems delineated a to z on tablets of stone)–too arrogant to ever again speak for the student; too self-justifying to ever again come down off the mountain. The differences between Religious abuse and the abuse of any system of oversight or governance are hardly worth mentioning. Man’s fall-back position will always be that of strength/power trumping weakness, knowledge and systems of knowledge trumping the intuition, giftings, and compassion of those who care more for their “neighbor” than for themselves. At every juncture, the weak places of the heart, where compassion rules, are no logistical match for the power of size, money, and influence. In how many ways did Jesus warn of this? And yet even in the Church, the seats of power rule the day and lead the flock. When will we see that Jesus made it a simple matter of ruling versus serving. It will always be the “little ones”, the serving ones who get it done. Those who rule from seats of power will simply play their roles, increase their wealth, and die alone and exposed–no matter how lauded by the world or their peers.

    • Yeah, I do see the parallels to the other post-it’s kind of a happy accident that they ended up being back to back chronologically, because I wasn’t that intentional about it, haha. Love that line about ruling vs serving.

  2. This isn’t so much ‘bricks with no straw’ as ‘bricks with no straw, and bring your own mud’!

  3. Stephen River Smith

    Meant to say “THAT WAS SOME BLOG!!!” When a guy can laugh through gritted teeth, you’ve done something special. This needs to be on the wall of good teachers everywhere. Just had to get it off your chest, didn’t you!? 🙂

    • Ha, I suppose it’s a measure of my monumental frustrations as a teacher that this post wrote itself in a single one-off that took at . ; most 15 minutes to write? I think I re-read it once for spelling. Maybe. I wish I could say it required thoughtful creativity, but I just wrote down what I remembered until the memories started slowing down. :\

  4. Salinda Sheffels

    perhaps this the best case for the “exodus” and going back to the land of promise and personal responsibility and homeschooling?

    • Part of me agrees with you, and I have been very tempted to commit to homeschooling my own children when the time comes, because I want to protect them from a system designed to cannibalize them and turn them into worker drones with precious few critical thinking skills. On the other hand, I see several major problems with this as a general call to action. First, it simply leaves out a large portion of the population who simply can’t afford to stay home and dedicate themselves to the education of their children. Second, I know several people who were homeschooled, and while I know for a fact that it can be perfectly effective if done well, I’m also very aware that more often than not it produces an adult with a very lopsided education- strong in the areas where the parent or the child herself is naturally talented, but with huge gaps where nobody was available with the expertise to push the student through areas of difficulty to true learning, and it is in precisely these places that a human learns what education means. Third, I really believe that in a democracy, some form of standardized curriculum is necessary to create the common community out of which civic spirit arises. I don’t believe our current system actually achieves this by a long shot, but neither do I believe the answer is for everyone to hide in their bubbles and do their own thing. There has to be a basic common vocabulary of experience before there can be true civic dialogue, and so I believe very firmly in public education. I think it needs to be fixed, not abandoned.

  5. Wonderful post…Beastly problem.
    Thanks for giving such a well felt and upchucked piece of the whole mess.

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