Causalties of Teaching Part I

Happily, the Chicago Public School (CPS) teacher’s strike is over. Presumably, an agreement (or concession) of sorts has been reached, and student learning is taking place. Unfortunately, in every war, there are casualties, and the profession has lost another good teacher…at least for the time being.

I have a mentee whom I’ll call Sabrina. I met her when I taught a methods class as an assistant professor of music education at a university in Illinois. I watched Sabrina matriculate through the music education program as she did her student teaching and graduate. What was great about this interaction was I had returned to Chicago, and was able to regularly speak to her about the student teaching experience. The only other thing I could have done was to show up on site to observe and give feedback.

Miss Sabrina soon got a job as an instrumental teacher at a high school with CPS. She was excited, as I was for her. You know how you felt when you got your first job in your field; you know, the one you spent years preparing for, and it finally happened. Oh, the planning, the inventory, blah, blah, blah. She literally put in 14-16 hours those first few weeks. I stated to her to exercise caution, as she could easily get overwhelmed and burned out. The profession needed her, preferably intact emotionally and physically.

We discussed assignments, rubrics, performances, evaluation, and the all-too essential element of success; getting along with administration and co-workers. Generally, we discussed a lot of things I suspect are not being adequately addressed in methods classes and maybe only marginally during student teaching. The most somber part of these discussions as you might or might not have guessed, were about standardized tests, and how the need to score well affected every subject taught in the school, and how each subject needed to help students transfer skill building to perform better on the tests.

Miss Sabrina continued on for another two years; those years were not easy, though there were some achievements made. Some of her students scored high in an instrumental contest. Her students did performances off-campus. In other words, she didn’t just clock in and out . She was involved. Yes, WAS involved.

The pressure to increase standardized test scores is a lot more stressful than non-teachers realize. The culture is such that one will be evaluated on their effectiveness as an educator based on how well students score on standardized tests; even if you are not a core academic teacher. Core subjects are generally thought of as language arts, math and science. Everything else is overtly and covertly thought of as ancillary or extra.

What does this really mean? One plausible explanation is that as a music teacher, money that should go to purchasing instruments so that all the students that are programmed, thrown, or otherwise sent to music class can have an instrument to play. Since they are being graded on skills they should be building on a daily basis, they should each have an instrument. In many urban schools with sub-par test scores, we know this is not the case. That money is taken (unbeknownst to most teachers) from non-core subjects and spent on test-taking strategies.

What happens to the music (or other subject area) program with an inadequate supply of instruments, books and supplies? The teacher does one of three things: (1) get really creative and substitute items (this might or might not work), (2) say “the heck with this”, and house students for 45 minutes every day, pass them, and keep it moving, (3) spend countless hours trying to find grants, refurbish old instruments, look for donations and plead with administration to help. All of this, of course, after you’ve taught all day and spent weekends trying to be productive.

In my professional opinion, Sabrina did enact number three. This approach, while noble, is exacting on the human spirit, and unfortunately too much. She resigned, and the administration did nothing to encourage her to stay. I’ve heard the phrase “attract and retain good teachers”, but that is really lip service. In part two, I will outline some suggestions to make that catch phrase a reality. How many other teachers like Sabrina have left the profession, and their dreams behind?

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