I taught in the Pennsylvania public school system for 11 years. All the while, I jumped through hoops. That’s what education has become: hoop jumping. We teach our kids to jump through the test prep, practice assessment, and high-stakes assessment hoops. Districts tell their teachers that they don’t have an option: they have to administer the tests so they receive state and federal funds. So, teachers jump through the testing hoops. Parents who ask about opting out and curriculum are handed more hoops to jump through: write letters, sign forms, make appointments, sign up to speak at meetings, etc.
I did not teach one year, including my year of student teaching 12 years ago, that was high-stakes-testing free. In fact, the tests became more frequent, more difficult, and more punitive for my students. The hoops became more numerous and higher, and eventually the state set fire to them by tying student performance to teacher evaluations and graduation requirements. Yet, we had to keep jumping.
It’s time to take a step back and examine what is being lost to the hoops. Specifically, students have lost a great deal. They lost electives and before and after school time, as they worked with teachers and attended tutoring in the name of the test. They lost grammar and spelling instruction in the name of the test. They lost social studies and science in elementary school in the name of the test. They lost handwriting and cursive instruction in the name of the tests. When students asked me to work on cursive writing with them after school because they were stressed about having to handwrite the paragraph and sign their name for the SATs, I taught them how to do it while fuming about the fact that they did not have the simple life skill of being able to sign their names.
And now, my district has lost me, as I officially resigned November 3. Essentially, I hung up my hoop, and I’d like to set the record straight about my decision.
I entered the teaching profession because I wanted to share my passion for reading, writing, and thinking with students. I loved turning on the most reluctant readers to books and having discussions with students about Ponyboy, Boo Radley, Poe, Elie Wiesel, and all of our literary crew. My best days were the ones when the mysteries of a poem finally became clear to students. Seeing students who were weak writers become strong writers over the course of a year kept my passion alive.
But, as the years wore on, the educational climate changed. For all of my passion and commitment, and all of the work I did to get students to read and write and learn, I fought a losing battle. I didn’t know how to combat the testing culture. I asked my administrators why we implemented a Common Core curriculum when the state hadn’t yet adopted the Common Core. I suggested ways for schedules to accommodate students’ desire for vocational, technical, art, and music courses when they lost them to double periods of English and math to prepare them for the tests. I asked why students had to take practice assessments that do not include a writing component when the “real test” does. I never received a clear-cut answer, and administrators started telling me we could meet in their office if I had further questions.
I noticed that other teachers who asked similar questions got the same answer: bring your questions to my office and we can address them one-on-one. I started to notice that other teachers who asked for change, curriculum, and a scope and sequence were evaluated by principals one to two days later. All of a sudden, I was evaluated on days with shorter schedules, days back from vacations, and other days that were not known as the best time for student achievement. I was not afraid of those evaluations because I always held my students to a high standard for learning and did my job, even on those days, but I often chuckled about the timing of the evaluations.
Yet, it is an awful thing to feel as though you don’t have a voice when you are working so hard to teach students to use theirs through reading, researching, and writing. It is an awful thing to feel as though your administrators want you to smile, carry on with your day, and make everything work, when you see students in tears because they cannot take the classes they want and cannot pass a test no matter how much time you spend with them and how hard they try. It is an awful thing to talk to teachers who try to get answers and make some changes to help students and themselves navigate the testing madness, only to see them clam up in public and in district-level meetings because they know they are wasting their breath, only to be evaluated and targeted for speaking up.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly which hoop made me stop jumping. Maybe it was the issues with discipline. Maybe it was the denial of the drug, bullying, and racism problems in my school. Maybe it was the way in which administrators said they were working toward equity in scheduling, yet saddled two of us with the bulk of the testing classes. Maybe it was the way my questions were met with smiles and nods and then pushed to the side. Maybe it was the lack of communication. Maybe it was being told during meetings to say things in a positive manner and be positive at all costs. Maybe it was facing students and parents with tears in their eyes during parent-teacher conferences. Maybe it was years of frustration all rolled into one.
I decided that I needed a break. I was granted an uncompensated one-year leave of absence. I had been a part-time freelance writer for a year and decided to pursue my passion for researching and writing, since my passion in the classroom had been killed by the hoops. I started freelancing full time and began my personal blog about being a mom and a teacher. Imagine my surprise when my union president contacted me and said that PSEA advised that I take down the posts about teaching because I could be terminated. Until that point, I knew that district officials worked to stifle teachers’ voices. I had no idea that teachers, as a whole, did not have their full First Amendment rights.
I begrudgingly took down the posts. Then, on August 1, I wrote “An Open Letter to Campbell Brown From a Teacher On Leave,” and it went viral. Suddenly, teachers from across the country started contacting me, thanking me for speaking up when they could not, fearing retribution. I heard from teachers without unions who could lose their jobs if they spoke out. I also heard from teachers from within my own district who asked me to keep writing because I shared their sentiments in a way they could not.
Next, I started TRUTH In Teaching to help teachers share their stories and frustrations and to show them that they are not alone. Teachers from all over the country signed up to receive the newsletter, “Liked” TRUTH’s Facebook page, and sent me notes of thanks and encouragement. I made it possible for teachers to anonymously submit their Teacher TRUTHs and soon had several submissions. So many asked me to hold on to them until they decided if they wanted to publish; some of them said just writing their TRUTH made them feel better. Even anonymously, though, they were afraid to speak up about what was happening in their districts.
Early in September, my union president contacted me again. This time, he said that I had upset my superintendent with my site and blog. I never received any form of communication from my superintendent. The only way that I knew that I was “on notice” was through my union president. It is my understanding that my site and I were discussed behind closed doors and the district solicitor was contacted. Because I have no firsthand knowledge of this, I will say nothing more.
Here is what I do know: the superintendent scheduled meetings at every elementary school to discuss the approximate 20-page lesson plan that some of the anonymous teachers and I mentioned on the site. I did not attend the meetings, so I will not discuss them. But, I find it interesting that the meetings were held only a few days after my union president contacted me and that they were held at elementary buildings, when the anonymous Teacher TRUTH posts were written by elementary teachers. I was not surprised when teachers asked me not to publish what they had sent me, after the meetings with the superintendent.
While I cannot identify the hoop that pushed me to take a leave of absence, I can say with 100% certainty that I resigned because I refuse to abide by the unwritten gag order the superintendent is imposing on teachers. How can an institution of learning squelch teachers’ First Amendment rights? How can an institution of learning dictate what the public knows about a public-funded entity? How could I, an English teacher, allow myself to be censored when I never censored my students nor encouraged them to censor themselves when they conducted themselves respectfully and with support for their opinions and ideas?
I now am a former teacher. I now work to make it possible for teachers to share their TRUTH. I now work for a positive change in our school district so that our students can learn how to be the leaders, and not the followers, of tomorrow. It starts with allowing our teachers to be leaders themselves.
Images via Flickr by Brian Dewey and Derek Davlos