Today I spent some time looking back through my iPhoto ablums. Once I finally made it past the two thousand photos of my son’s first six months, I found myself looking through the photos, many many photos, of my students from two years ago.
It was a perfect year. As I scrolled, the first thing I noticed was the under the sea theme I used to decorate the room that year. Yes, I actually did things like that.
That was one of many costumes our classroom wore. We turned the room into Asia for our continent study, which culminated in a feast of sushi, samosas, and egg rolls. Business people I had never even met created powerpoints and movies to show students what it was like to live in various Asian countries. During our celebration I caught one of my students saying, “I don’t care what my mom says, when I grow up I’m moving to China!”
I wrote and received many, many DonorsChoose grants, for materials such as those you see above, as well as math manipulatives, and an entire set of percussion instruments and recorders. (I would post photos, but they all have students in them. Suffice it to say, they are JOYOUS as they play their recorders and rhythm sticks and as they use the cash register, shopping baskets, and plastic food items to practice subtracting money.)
Half way through the year when bullying became a problem, I presented the issue to the students, calling it what it was, and asked them to brainstorm ways to make our classroom a safe and nurturing environment. And so they did. On their own they created a system of “bully tickets” and arranged to have us discuss the issues on the tickets each Friday in a community meeting. They didn’t stop there, but initiated a school-wide campaign to end bullying, which admittedly mostly involved posters in the hallway and a petition signed by their friends.
If you’re feeling the but, then here it is. But, at the end of the year, my administration was unhappy. Despite it being my best year teaching, a year in which students loved to read, were excited about math, and showed up happy to learn, my test scores were not good. Only 60% of my students met their growth goals in reading. In my school, this counted as an unsatisfactory rating. You can imagine the conversation that ensued. I was devastated. How could I pour so much of myself into my work, into my students, into our classroom, and have it come back unsatisfactorily?
Fast forward a year. I knew that I had to prove myself. I couldn’t invest so much of myself in what I was doing, only to fail, even if the failure looked like low test scores. So I set aside the social studies and music units. I focused, quite doggedly, on pulling strategies groups. I became an expert in the standards of the test. I downloaded test prep booklets from Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers. I gave exit slips (quizzes) at the end of every lesson. I taught the students the exact vocabulary words they would need to know to do well on the test. I made three ring binders full of page after page of skill-based worksheets. In short, I did every single thing I was told to do.
I tried my best to make it all fun. I made games out of the test prep questions. We sang songs and chants to help us memorize our math facts. We created charts to measure and celebrate our academic progress. I scheduled parent nights to talk about preparing for the test, and formed great relationships with my students’ parents that I keep up to this day.
When the test results came back, they were incredible. Hang your resume on them good. My end of the year evaluation was exceptional. And I was proud. After all, I had earned it.
But it had taken a toll.
Student behavior in the classroom had been a struggle all year. We didn’t have time to do the unit-based learning, trading it in for skill-based instruction. The student ownership involved in creating and implementing a bullying campaign was traded in for sticker charts to measure progress on their weekly quizzes.
I would post pictures of the things that we did, but it turns out I don’t really have any pictures from last year. The one project-based unit we did was with my student teacher, and it had to wait until after our tests.
And it didn’t just take a toll on my students. It took a toll on me. There aren’t pictures of the fun things I did last year, either. Because I didn’t do a lot of fun things. And I didn’t write. My blog fell silent.
I was pregnant last year, and I took my blood glucose test the week before our final NWEA tests. The ones that determine 60% of my evaluation. I failed. So I took the three hour blood glucose test, during the day in between the reading test and the math test. Failed again. They diagnosed me with gestational diabetes. Funny, because I faithfully checked my blood sugar four times a day for the rest of my pregnancy, and my sugar levels never spiked again. It turns out stress can make your body have a hard time processing sugar. And apparently I was under enough stress to give myself gestational diabetes.
Tests aren’t going anywhere. And the expectations on teachers are growing. Change can be good. But as we make those changes, I beg policy-makers, unions, administrators, co-teachers, parents, and communities to count the cost of high stakes testing. Tests measure how well students do on tests. But there’s so much tests can’t measure.
Put in another way, was it worth trading my students’ joyous experiences of learning music and eating sushi for their satisfaction of achieving a numeric goal on a computer?
I think I was an effective teacher both years, it just depends on who is measuring.