North Carolina teacher Kris Nielsen wrote a provocative and lengthy essay for his blog Middle Grades Mastery.
It begins: “I love teaching. Or, I did love teaching. I loved teaching when my job was to teach. Now, I don’t love teaching, because my job is no longer teaching.”
Nielsen began teaching in 2006. He taught sixth grade earth science, writing, “I created my own curriculum, based loosely on the New Mexico state standards. My kids loved it! I kept them busy with hands-on, student centered learning that built vocabulary and concepts along the way.”
Nielsen moved to Oregon and a job he enjoyed, but was let go after two years when his district slashed 350 jobs to cut costs.
Nielsen chronicles a frustrating job search that led him and his family to move cross country to the vaunted Charlotte-Mecklenburg system. He shares his growing disillusionment with the profession.
Here is an excerpt of his blog. Please try to read the full essay before commenting:
What they didn’t tell me in orientation was that I would not have time to teach anything meaningful. I was hired to teach science and the exact same math I had taught in Oregon, but this was different. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is a district that is drowning in its own mandates, risk-taking, and testing culture. I think CMS is a microcosm of what’s to come in American education. It’s depressing. I didn’t like it, so I did some research. An adjacent district was hiring some math and science people and I was attracted to two main things: it was closer to home and they had rolled out a one-to-one laptop initiative recently. Every student was carrying a laptop in class every day. I had to get into one of those classrooms!
To make that story short, I did. It’s no different. Despite the lofty ideals and motivating speeches from administration, everything is the same. I’m not an educator, by the definition I had comes to terms with; I’m an employee of a system that has an agenda. My job is to frontload a small encyclopedia of knowledge to a group of students so that they can pass a test at the end of the year. There are now more shallow and meaningless tests, and my job now depends on the scores. That’s not teaching. That’s not what I do.
I’ve heard this several times already: “If you’re teaching students to learn and letting them discover the knowledge, then shouldn’t they be able to pass those tests easily?” At first, I thought, “Yeah! Totally!” But after trying it, I don’t think it makes sense. Standardized tests are rigidly specific in the knowledge kids should have. They are bent way over into the realm of vocabulary and multiple-choice answers and they don’t even come close to teaching 21st century skills. If I teach my kids how to think and how to learn, then they will not be prepared to pass state tests, because that’s not what those tests are measuring. The tests measure two things: memory and application. The second one is important, but not in a multiple-choice or short-answer sphere.
I’ve gotten to the point where I feel good about how a lesson played out, only to check my email afterwards to find no fewer than five menial tasks that I must dedicate my time to. This is time when I should be planning more lessons, conferencing with parents, and learning.
My students are falling apart. They have little hope. I don’t blame them. They are reminded every year of their failure to pass meaningless tests and they watch the news that tells them they are dumber than the rest of the world. That piece of information is not true, by any means, but you can tell it affects them. And no one stands up to tell them they are doing fine.
I wanted to be part of the fix. I wanted to save the world. But every day I see powers greater than me stomp us down and tell us to get back into the classroom and be glad we even have jobs. If this is the way that public education treats professionals, then it’s time for me to find a new field.
I give up. They win. I have joined the ranks of parents who have come to realize that we are only empowered to do one thing: take care of our own. I hope that things change, but I don’t have the energy, the money, or the time to continue beating my head into a wall. And if the choices have run out for my toddler when he’s ready for school, I will do it myself. Maybe I’ll do it for others, as well. Who knows.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog