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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 11/16/2010

Teacher: ‘Maybe it is time for me to go’

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Lisa Parisi, who teaches fifth grade on Long Island in a collaborative classroom model with a special ed teacher. She has been teaching for 25 years. A version of this piece appeared on her blog, Lisa’s Lingo.

By Lisa Parisi
I’ve always been a teacher who relishes change. I have volunteered to have my grade changed four times; my room and my district, each three times. I changed while I watched others do the same thing year after year after year....

I remember a teacher who worked in my school when I first started. I walked into her room one day right before school started. She reached into her desk, pulled out her plan book from the year before, opened to the first page and announced, "I’m ready."

"Wow," I thought. I can’t wait until I am that good. I happened to mention my desire to my principal who told me, "You don’t ever want to get that way. Keep growing and keep learning." I didn’t really believe him at the time. I believed that there was only so much to learn and once you learned it, you were done and ready to just keep doing what works.

Well, I obviously learned, over time, that this just isn’t true. The learning never stops. I haven’t hit my limit yet. I am a good teacher...I’ll even say I am a great teacher. But each year brings more challenges I need to overcome. Those darn kids keep changing on me. LOL

So here I am, 25 years into my career. I have watched many ideas come and go. I embraced most of them, until I realized (usually long before the administration did) that things weren’t working. Whole Language, Lesson Study, Math Their Way, Orton-Gillingham.

While all of these ideas have great benefits, they also all have great detriments. As an educator, I truly believe that it is my job to reach everyone. And if the programs don’t reach everyone, then something needs to change.

Whole Language, for example, replaced a phonics based program which was boring and taught only decoding skills. Whole Language made learning exciting and meaningful. Comprehension was key. The problem? Kids with difficulties needed phonics, too. In fact, most of the kids needed phonics, too. But it wasn’t built into the program. So, while I continued presenting at conferences about Whole Language, while I continued teaching colleagues in district about Whole Language, I began to build a program incorporating phonics back into the reading program. And every time I demonstrated my program at a conference, participants would breathe a sigh of relief. They knew it too.

We are now learning about Teacher’s College writing and reading in my district. It is being fully embraced by the administration. We have trainers coming in. We are being sent to TC for workshops. We are being given multiple materials, lots of in-house support, and dicta to meet frequently with other members of the grade level to coordinate our work.

And, as usual, I see some great benefits to TC reading and writing. The language used makes teaching the steps to crafting simple. The kids are reading and writing much more than ever before....

But I also see detriments.

It took me too long to get to confer with one child. By the time I got to him, he had almost finished his book but couldn’t tell me anything about it. I was angry -- with the program and with myself for allowing this struggling reader to get by for so long [without my help].

The whole-class lessons, while short and sweet (eight minutes is the goal) still only reach about 50% of the kids...

My literacy block is one hour. I come back from lunch, have one hour of literacy, and go home. I need more than that.... Plus, that precious 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. period is the only time I am in school at the same time as our partners across the country. We need that time to collaborate synchronously.

In the past when I saw detriments, I would change the program, keeping the good and removing the bad and working in my own ideas. After all, language arts is something I have always been really good at teaching. And I have the data to prove it.

So I want to keep the Teachers College language ... keep the celebrations, keep the partners. But I want to step in often. Small groups allow me to meet much more frequently than individually. I want to group kids according to need and meet with them daily to help them jump the hurdle and move on. I want my literacy block to be 1 1/2 hours and in the morning. That gives me a good 45 minutes for both reading and writing. I want to keep coordinating reading and writing. We are writing fiction and reading historical fiction. I like that. It makes sense.

The problem? For the first time in 25 years, I am getting pushback. I am being told I cannot change my literacy block time; I must coordinate with the other fifth-grade teachers, doing what they are doing, when they are doing it, and I must keep the format of mini-lesson, partner work, individual work with conferring, and ending mini lesson.

For the first time, I am being pushed into a lock-step, spoon-fed program. I am not able to use my wisdom and knowledge of my students to change things at all. I am not able to keep the good and get rid of the bad. The belief is that, once I really work with it and learn it, I will love it and see the benefits. But I already do see the benefits. I just see deficits, too.

For the first time, teachers in my district are being told what to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it. We were always told the "what" but had so much leeway with the "how" and "when." Not so anymore.

And it makes me not want to teach anymore. The times are changing but I am not comfortable fitting into the mold.... Because of Race to the Top and the fear of accountability, I am being held back from doing what I know will help my students.

Hold me accountable. But let me do it my way, failing or succeeding on my own terms. I will pay the consequences if my way fails. But I will not accept the consequences if your way fails.

I am sad. Maybe it is time for me to go. I hope retirement age comes quickly.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 16, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Learning, Teachers  | Tags:  literacy, literacy blocks, race to the top, teachers, veteran teachers  
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Comments

No, stay.

Our responsibility to our students outranks our "accountability" to the marketers of scripted curricula. The common problem with the previous teaching programs you mention is that they don't take advantage of the intellectual presence of a teacher, in the room with the children. The process of active (and creative) interaction with your students you describe so clearly is the real art of teaching, isn't it?

The scripted curricula go further than ignoring intellectual presence and authentic interaction; they outlaw it. This is hurting the cognitive and emotional capacity of the 10th grade students that come to me in chemistry. They need you, back there in their elementary years, or they can lose all hope of being heard and understood by their teachers and drift into a daze. Don't go. We all need you.

Posted by: mport84 | November 16, 2010 5:50 AM | Report abuse

Lisa,

You raise an extremely legitimate argument. You want to be considered professional enough and trusted enough to be able to teach your way and be held accountable for the results.

This is the epitome of academic freedom and yes, you should be entitled to that freedom.

However, when you state, "...I want to group kids according to need and meet with them daily to help them jump the hurdle and move on," that's the epitome of tracking. After a quarter of a century as a professional educator you should realize the error of this approach.

Therein lies the problem(s). There are teachers out there unable to do the "right" things, essentially operating under the misconception they always know what's best. Too many don't. Too many would operate their classroom at their convenience instead of for what's best for each of their students.

You clearly seem well intentioned and are to lauded for your time and efforts with students. But if someone like yourself is inclined to incorporate something as damaging as tracking into your classroom, imagine what some of the lesser well intentioned teachers would plug into their daily routines.

Troubling, very troubling, and that's why there is so much more oversight into classroom practice than there used to be.

Posted by: phoss1 | November 16, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse

Hopefully there's something between staying and going that benefits the kids and recognizes and encourages good teaching.

For lack of a better term, I'll call it "rising up." I'm not sure what it means - strikes? demonstrations? a manifesto? a revolution?

But I think without a good, organized rising up, everything valuable about teaching will be lost. The opposing forces are too strong. And they don't care about children; they care about profits.

Posted by: efavorite | November 16, 2010 7:45 AM | Report abuse

Lisa,

Please don't leave! You have articulated what all effective teachers know. You don't teach programs or lessons. You teach CHILDREN! Continue to use your creativity, skills and techniques to reach them where they are and take them further. Think of all the children over the years that have achieved because of you and push on. God Bless you!

Posted by: candycane1 | November 16, 2010 7:55 AM | Report abuse

Please stay Lisa -

And try to form links with other intelligent, creative, experienced teachers like yourself who can stand up for what counts, and help the next generation of teachers.
And efavorite is right; some type of "rising up" is needed.

@phoss1 - have you ever worked in Special Education? Tracking is a dirty word because in the past it locked kids into set groups that they couldn't get out of.....there are many variations of 'tracking' however, that are helpful for short periods - math and foreign language study are the two most obvious - you have to complete a level before you can understand the next. In Special Education, you basically have tracks of one! Everything is adjusted for the individual student so he/she can learn despite many obstacles. In public schools there are still many students with undiagnosed learning differences, or speakers of other languages that cannot absorb linguistic material at the same pace in certain areas as other kids....it doesn't mean they will be stuck in certain groups forever, but you have to meet them where they are to help them move forward; otherwise they get frustrated and give up.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 16, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

I think what LIsa Parisi expresses – being pushed into a "lock-step" teaching format – is an experience shared with most teachers nation-wide (and especially for veteran teachers). And it looks like it will get worse before there's enlightened improvement.

The standards and testing mania got its (most recent) start with the publication of A Nation at Risk, a political screed that warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" in education that threatened the nation's security. Its inaccuracy was exposed by The Sandia Report, but conservatives and big business (and Bill Clinton) pushed Goals 2000, which morphed into No Child Left Behind (with Ted Kennedy's support), which is now Race to the Top.

All of these "reforms" are top-down. All assume that standardized test scores measure student achievement. All
tout "accountability" for teachers and schools. All assume a direct tie between high test scores and a successful, robust economy.

And ultimately, they ignore poverty, huge education spending disparities, immigration, social class, and the powerful effects of social programs on learning. Instead, they task teachers with "fixing" the perceived problems, which are more chicanery than reality.

Still, the "fix" is to push up test scores. Curricula and instruction narrow. Rote memorization increases. Critical thinking and discussion and citizenship are squeezed out. The quality of education declines.

In general, public education is pretty good, the data show it, and most people like their local schools. But it'd be difficult to know that by reading mainstream media reports. While presumably "smart" people shipped jobs off-shore, sold toxic collateralized securities (and bet against them), and broke the American economy, media –  Waiting for Superman – report the lie that it's the fault of public education (and teacher unions).

Two absurd articles written recently by Amanda Ripley– in Time and The Atlantic – are typical. Her pieces echo U.S. Chamber of Commerce propaganda. She recites conservative "reforms:" more testing, charter schools, performance pay for teachers.
She skirts the abandonment of high-stakes testing and the substantial social reforms made by Finland, a top-scorer on international tests.

Meanwhile, conservatives and charlatans who shout "accountability" for public school teachers, run from it for themselves. The big bankers took taxpayer aid and paid each other bonuses. Supply-siders who ran up the national debt blame others, and plan to do more of it. Corporations sit on record amounts of cash, but don't hire, and ask for more tax cuts. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than middle-class citizens.

Lisa Parisi isn't the only good teacher to contemplate leaving.
Many more are thinking the same thing; many have already left.
When informed thinking is discouraged and criticism is view as disloyalty, the workplace declines psychologically. So does learning.

That's the real education problem.

Posted by: DrDemocracy | November 16, 2010 8:28 AM | Report abuse

DON"T GO!

This is so sad, it's going to make me cry. You are exactly the teacher we need in every single classroom!

Reading this I kept picturing the computer animated video that was posted here a couple of weeks.

I think I'm going to send this article to our BoE.

Posted by: valerie11 | November 16, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Lisa,
Feel your pain, am in the same boat as you. Know we have a lot to offer students if we could just do what we have learned is best for children. The scripted, new programming always seems to have a piece missing. It works beautifully when we can merge these programs together, giving each student what they need to get the most from their education. Am not at retirement age either, but am thinking it might be a better option than compromising what we know is right. Teaching seems to be the only profession where the professionals are treated like their clients. Might it not be better if we let the professionals do what they know works rather than making us teaching robots?
Hang in there Lisa, there are lots of us feeling your pain.

Posted by: Peppered | November 16, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Hang in there, indeed. But what does that mean? Taking more and more crap until your spirit is broken (or your job is gone)? How does this help children learn and both teachers and children thrive?

I understand that most teachers are not firebrand organizers, but unless some of you are, I see no good coming from simply hanging in as a teacher in a system that you know is getting worse and worse.

We know what happens to individual teachers who stand up to craziness in the system. They're made examples of, so remaining teachers keep quiet.

Shades of Nazi Germany and every other oppressive system devised by the powerful few to control the masses.

Posted by: efavorite | November 16, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

To Lisa, I wonder if you have considered taking on a supervisory position in your district. Usually there is something like a curriculum specialist or a leader teacher or something. People in those positions should be open-minded and flexible and have background in teaching. It sounds like you are that way. Think about it, if you were helping your district choose curriculum, there wouldn't be such a dogmatic approach.

I think what is really critical here is the different approaches taken by Lisa's principals. The first principal told her to always keep learning and to keep changing. Now she is being told to rigidly adhere to a program that is not working for her students.

This is why I am starting to see the word "reform" as embodying all the "worst practices" in education. Leaving a student who is having trouble struggling and not intervening because you are sticking to a schedule is not a best practice. It is an odd idea. I am sure the program has many good ideas. A rigid schedule is not one of them.

I am trying to think of workable solutions for you and your students. I can only come up with parent volunteers. Is there a parent who would be good with struggling readers? My child's teacher has parents come in to do reading groups with the top readers so she can work with struggling groups. The top readers basically run the groups themselves and the parents who sign up are just mediating. I know that won't work everywhere, just an idea. I suppose your curriculum or whatever it is, is also rigid on parent volunteers. Good luck!

Posted by: celestun100 | November 16, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

efavorite says: We know what happens to individual teachers who stand up to craziness in the system. They're made examples of, so remaining teachers keep quiet.
____________________________________
This is the real reason that "reformers" want to eliminate tenure. It's not about getting rid of ineffective teachers--which can be done even with tenure. It's about compliance. That's the real advantage to hiring TFA's and the like. They drink the koolade and do what they are told for two years until the next batch of newbies takes over.

Posted by: musiclady | November 16, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

A veritable cauldron of threats in these comments, including strikes.

Do the bad teachers tend to stay longer than the good teachers?

Why do you think Phoss1 says "too many" teachers don't know what's good for the students? This is true. This is why proactive efforts to strengthen the teacher corps are needed.

And no, efavorite, this is not shades of Nazi Germany. Calm down.

Posted by: axolotl | November 16, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I am so sorry to heat this, Lisa. I understand what you are going through.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 16, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Lisa:

I say this with sadness, but go and go quickly. You can't fight the plutocracy and it wants lousey teachers that conform. That's what the entire IMPACT evaluation system in DC was created to do and it's being touted as a "model." Both parties have now adopted this stupid idea that the business model that ruined the American econoomy and brough about a worldwide recession is just what is needed in edeucation. Fighting the plutocracy is a waste of time. Quit and find an easier job. You'll be replaced by TFA's who don't know any better and the only ones to suffer will be the kids, but you can't help them anyway. That's the message that Bush and Obama, Spellman and Duncan, Klein, Rhee, Kopp, KIPP, TFA, NTP, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The LA Times, NBC, Oprah and the rest of the corporate media have for you and its backed by billions of corporate dollars. You can't fight it. They don't want you. Save yourself. That's just the way it is.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 16, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

Lisa... you are precisely the kind of teacher who needs to stay. Hear the words of bloggers here. Well with one RIDICULOUS expception. Who is this phoss1? This person hasn't a clue about education if he/she would refer to small group teacher conferencing as "tracking!

Posted by: teachermd | November 16, 2010 9:59 PM | Report abuse

@phoss1:

You clearly don't understand special education. Grouping according to ability is part and parcel of most Direct Instruction programs and they work very well for the populations that need that support. In your typical single-grade classroom you will find a span of several grade levels of ability. Teachers should be able to make curriculum and instructional decisions based on student needs. As an Autistic Support teacher, I'm able to do that every day. Regular ed teachers should be trained and supported to do this as well.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | November 17, 2010 5:55 AM | Report abuse

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