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The DOE stopped by to see why I underperform.

By Nikki Connery

I am stunned. A dozen men and women file into my room like a colony of ants, invading every nook and cranny of my second-grade classroom. Poking into files, looking for evidence to prove that I, the teacher, am the reason my students are not passing MCAS, the Massachusetts state test.

Observers from the Department of Education (DOE) want to see if I use "best practices" to teach my 7-year-olds "higher level thinking skills." In this 30-minute period, I must demonstrate that I use probing questions, a technique called "think-pair-share," that I am not the center of attention but a "facilitator," and any and all other current catch phrases. My head is spinning. I cannot concentrate on the little child in front of me.

When my "guests" arrive, my 23 second- and third-graders are working at several centers—learning arithmetic, seeing numbers in different contexts, and writing descriptive sentences, all with the help of colorful, personalized materials that I have spent a great deal of time making for them.

When they finish, they color in a Christmas present that shows the activity they were working on. This may be "too cute" and not what the DOE are seeking.

But that is what I, an individual, bring to my teaching. Just as we are told to differentiate instruction because children are different, I bring to my classroom my strengths and talents, which include art and music.

From my perspective, I see my students working together, engaged, learning. But I am certain the people from DOE are observing through a very different lens. They have their own opinion of teachers in "under-performing" city schools. They pay no attention to the lack of staff and materials, or the neglected physical surroundings—the falling tiles, leaking bathrooms, rodents galore.

A few days ago, one of the wall tiles fell off the wall and landed atop my nicely made games. I am thankful that it missed my head, but I was worried about asbestos and spent the evening calling people trying to find out if was dangerous for me or for my students.

On our faculty, we all have rodent stories to tell. Once, I was being evaluated by the vice principal and trying to interest my students in a lesson about summarizing the plot of a story, when a particularly inattentive child raised her hand with such gusto I was overjoyed at her enthusiastic response. But when she spoke, it was to point out a little mouse poking his head between my metal racks, somewhere in the midst of the glue cups and scissors. Well, that certainly got the children’s attention off the point I was trying to make.

Luckily, our morning visitor didn’t drown in the white gooey mess and the assistant principal, always the professional and used to dealing with bizarre situations, said off the cuff, “Well, maybe he wanted to learn, too.” Strangely enough, it all fit into the story we were reading, “The Mouse and the Motorcycle.”

But the men and women sent by the Department of education don’t pay much attention to these mundane issues.

It seems they also don’t want to acknowledge the issues surrounding the lives of many of our students, the lack of stimulation and learning experiences in their first five years, and for most, little or no English spoken at home. Nearly 90 percent are poor enough to receive subsidized lunch. 

If we mention these problems, the educational establishment glibly responds that we must be saying poor children cannot learn. Of course we are not saying our students cannot learn. We work hard at teaching them every day, or at least the majority of us do. But we are acutely aware of the obstacles. Whether their parents are extremely young, uneducated, addicted, unemployed, or just have too many children at home, many cannot help their children excel in school. I am always surprised at the number of children who come to kindergarten not able to count to five and not knowing any of their colors.

I have seen wannabe gang members wearing their gang colors in second grade. I was beaten by a child on the playground when I tried to stop him from striking another child’s head into the ground.

The reality is, we teachers provide some of these adorable, innocent, and some not-so-innocent, children with the only structure and security they have in their lives, and a chance to experience another kind of life where caring, kindness, and respect are modeled.

Why don’t we trade places with those teachers in affluent communities whose children do so well on the MCAS, and learn their “more effective” methods, or just have them come to our school and take over for a few months to watch their “best practices.”

We give the DRA Reading test, Dibbles fluency tests and the MCAS test in September and October, followed by a week of MEPA testing of the ESL students. In January and May we repeat most of these tests again—almost a quarter of the school year spent testing instead of teaching.

Even students who have only been speaking English for a year are expected to take the MCAS. Is it a surprise that they score “not proficient” in English?

Any good teacher could predict those test results after two weeks with her students. This push to standardize is turning the humanity and joy of learning into dry data analysis and test-driven instruction. The only thing this amount of testing does is deplete the resources that could be used to lower class size, renovate crumbling buildings, and buy basic supplies.

This year I bought 500 pencils, a case of paper. crayons, glue sticks, scotch tape, masking tape, magnets, magic markers, two dozen scissors, games, treasure box items, spray-painted broken down chairs, and dozens of colored folders and matching notebooks. I have bought paper towels, toilet paper, soap, tissues, soapless cleaners for the dirty hands, and cleaners for the desks. Why? Because the schools have no money for such things. Instead they change math and reading programs, which requires buying new books, and do this for a couple years until the next “new” idea comes along that promises to magically fix all of the problems.

When that doesn’t work, they figure they have to fix the teachers, so they spend money for more teacher training. We must be the problem in these “underperforming” schools. In the past year, we have taken a vocabulary and writing course, ESL courses, courses on the Skillful Teacher and Differentiating Instruction and Efficacy training, to prove to the Department of Education that we are improving our teaching. We take courses in the summer, and then they make us all take the same course again at required teacher meetings during the school year. But what I really would like is to have common planning time with other teachers in my building, because I learn more from sharing ideas with them for a few minutes than in two hours reading new, unrealistic, and irrelevant theories.

Last Friday when the DOE people all came into my room, I am certain that they didn’t consider the obstacles. They did not know that I have done the best that I can, and have stayed at school until 6 pm many nights trying to incorporate what everyone told me to do. I just saw 12 figures in my room with their clipboards and solemn faces watching me and my nervous class.

Well, I am proud of what I have accomplished. I kept my mind focused on my last year’s scores, which showed my students made a two-year gain in one year, even though many still didn’t pass the MCAS.

Hopefully, I have done some good in my 30 years teaching. This year, one of my students had a fire in her house. When the alarm went off, she was there with her brother and his friends. She told everyone that “her teacher”—that would be me—told her they should all get out right away if they heard a smoke alarm. It warms my heart to think that what I said to this beautiful little girl just may have saved her life.

Nikki Connery teaches at the Chandler Magnet School in Worcester, Massachusetts. You can contact her by e-mail. A shorter version of this essay ran in the April issue of NEA Today.

Photo: Chris Christo

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