Teacher Leaders Network
With Thanksgiving arriving, we begin to hear and read commentaries about all that we are thankful for. As a teacher, I am mindful of the role teachers have played in my own life. Of course, the climate and values in education have changed somewhat since the 1970s, and what I once may have believed about schools and teachers when I was a naïve child must be tested against the rigorous standards of today.
I attended two different American military schools in Germany for kindergarten through second grade. Perhaps due to moving around a fair amount as a child, I find it hard to reconstruct memories of the teachers from those years. I’m told I was a skilled reader at an early age. Had anyone asked at the time, we would have likely attributed my facility for reading to my parents’ constant encouragement and the many high-interest books in our home. I now have to assume that although I can’t remember my earliest primary-grade teachers, they must have been brilliant educators. As we are frequently reminded in education these days, “the teacher is the most important factor in student success.” Thank you to those Armed Services teachers, whoever and wherever you may be.
In third and fourth grade, I was living in Colorado Springs. My dominant educational recollection is that my fourth-grade teacher punished me harshly whenever I held my pencil the wrong way. I was confused and humiliated by the insistence that I meet the highest standard of pencil-gripping and meet it immediately. But now, immersed in the field of education myself, I’ve learned that we have to be tough, we have to produce results and keep students progressing on schedule. And this teacher certainly produced results: I ended up in a program for gifted students when I reached fifth grade. The fact that I felt no connection to my education or my peers is far less important than the fact that my skills were far above average and growing. My tears and alienation were inconsequential, non-measurable and non-educational outcomes, so let me now give thanks for that fourth-grade teacher. I’m only sorry that my pencil grip never changed.
For fifth and sixth grade, I moved to Los Angeles and attended my fourth elementary school. I thoroughly enjoyed those years and imagined I was having a wonderful life. By today’s standards, however, I suffered from a conspicuous lack of measurable progress. I am sorry to say it, but my fifth and sixth grade teachers did not fully embrace accountability. The gifted program involved exciting enrichment activities but no summative assessments. Though I didn’t mind at the time, I can see now that those years represent a wasted opportunity. Where was value-added measurement when I needed it most?
Instead of helping me continue to make more than a year’s progress in each grade level, these teachers tried to promote “love of learning” and “personal responsibility.” Not really the school’s job, was it? In the absence of clear and rigorous state or district mandates, they had me reading Ray Bradbury in fifth grade and J.R.R. Tolkien in sixth. To make matters worse, my sixth grade teacher had us discuss the books without a single worksheet or objective assessment tool in sight. Open-ended conversation about The Hobbit made for pleasant class time, but did little to guarantee that I could have passed a rigorous, standards-based assessment. From a contemporary educational perspective, I have to ask, what was the point?
There were other signs of trouble, too. We memorized and recited poetry in class, and sang songs for no apparent reason. My fifth grade teacher even came out to the playground and taught us new games, organized a class Olympiad, and fostered friendly competition and sportsmanship. What exactly were the learning objectives and intended outcomes here? Where was the accountability? When I think of all the better ways that time could have been spent, I know now that some benchmarks must have gone unmarked. My inclination to give thanks is lessened somewhat at that realization.
I must concede that in fifth and sixth grade I thoroughly enjoyed school -- but not in any measurable sense. I made many friends, and even still keep in touch with a few of them, but what of that? As a professional educator in the 21st century, I am often reminded that I need to be data-driven. I don’t have time to waste on ephemeral pleasures or concerns about social and emotional matters. Performance counts.
Thanksgiving this year has made me realize that some of the blessings in our lives are obvious, but some warrant deeper examination. Looking back on my early education, I am thankful for those teachers who put academics (and pencil-gripping) first -- and thankful that those teachers who tried to reach the “whole child” didn’t harm me irrevocably. They may have shirked their accountability and neglected rigor now and then in their reckless pursuit of the joy of learning, but somehow it all worked out in the end.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
David B. Cohen teaches English and serves as an academic advisor at Palo Alto High School in California. He is a National Board Certified Teacher and a co-founder of the Accomplished California Teachers (ACT) organization.