Chapter Four: Open letter to society on behalf of my students

If you have followed my journey you will know that I entered the classroom this year with a bit of trepidation and hesitation. In all honesty, teaching was quite literally the LAST thing I ever thought I would do. But after observing education through my children’s experiences and reflecting on my own, I wanted to dive in and try to understand first-hand the “whys” and “whats” behind our education system and try to have a positive impact. After many failed attempts at finding work outside of the classroom in education, I finally resolved that perhaps I would be able to have an impact at a rate of about 100 students per year. While I confirmed that being in the classroom is not for me, this year is one I will never regret – it was full of amazing people and a lot of personal growth. 

What I learned will not surprise many people. The education system is one that many are frustrated with for a variety of reasons. But like most bureaucracies, the individuals that make up the system are by and large great people, doing their best work. District policies can seem inane and create great annoyance and anger, but the people that come to school every day to teach are well-intentioned, hard-working, compassionate individuals. The educators that keep coming back are called to serve. They do it because they love the students and the thrill of nudging a child’s growth in a positive direction. They do it because it is an act of service towards something greater than themselves. They do it to better our society. 

This year, I got to know my students. They are funny and awkward and working to find themselves. They had good days and bad days. They suffer from insecurities and arrogance in a classic middle school way. For most of them, I knew their interests, their preferences, their strengths and weaknesses, their goals, their friends, their drama… I knew those that had to babysit their siblings most nights, or had to care for a parent sometimes. I knew those that stayed up late watching movies with their older brother or who had to navigate life independently because their parents don’t speak English. There are students where education is their first priority and there are some where they just can’t fit in their lives. The truth is, students need advocates for them to be successful in our system. Sometimes, even with advocates they still fall through the cracks. If they or their parents don’t rise to the occasion, the students have to rely on the lottery of luck – will someone step in to help them navigate towards achievement and success or not? 

Eighth grade is a unique year – especially when it is their first and only full year physically inside of a middle school. They started the year trying to understand how to act in a classroom and how to handle a true middle school workload instead of just turning on their camera. We observed them on a fast trajectory of social maturation from 6th to 9th grader in a short 10 months. Many of my fellow teachers—particularly the experienced ones who taught during non-Covid times—referred to them as feral. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot; I can see where it comes from. Students forgot how to interact in the school community demonstrated by an increase in behavioral issues, increased cheating, and academic apathy. But to me, feral evokes thoughts of being in the wild focused on survival. Honestly, I wished the kids were feral – then they would be more passionate about discovery, interacting with nature, and finding their place in the world. Unfortunately, I think a better metaphor is caged. They missed out on learning how to interact with people and advocate for themselves. Instead they became prisoners of their devices, turning to them for every answer with a desperate, learned helplessness. This observation is powerful. While I saw growth over the school year, we are not there yet. We have to recognize that we are at a disruptive inflection point and decide what we as a school district, community, and society are going to do about it! 

The teachers are also caged. They are backed into a corner enforcing inauthentic behavior management strategies, overburdened with an unattainable number of standards, over-scrutinized and questioned by parents, and left to teach courses that students by and large are not ready to take. Best practice in restorative disciple and social and emotional learning is to know your students. When a teacher has over 100 students, this is a heavy cognitive lift. Dunbar’s number explains that an adult human can maintain about 150 social relationships. While this is debated in science, it was comforting to me when I realized I had good reason to feel socially overwhelmed. The number of standards to be taught before the year-end standardized tests leaves little room for constructivist pedagogy and interest-based exploration. The scheduling of the tests further reduces the time available. The ten-month school year quickly gets reduced to eight by the time we allow for review and make-ups. The non-teaching work day consists of collecting data to prove a need for specialized attention, emailing parents about missed work, or meeting to plan content. There are not enough resources or time available to support the work to be done.  

For me, I have learned that education in the classroom is not my forte – the contrived unboxing of standards doesn’t suit me well, especially in math. While I love math and see its relevance as a language of shortcuts for data analytics and problem solving, the granularity of teaching the quadratic formula to 8th and 9th graders seems ridiculous.  Neuroscience shows that knowledge stays in the long-term memory better if there is a contextual attachment, but it is a real stretch to apply quadratic equations to football and allowance. I can’t disagree with students who ask “when will I use this?” My answer is always, “in Algebra II.” If we follow that logic, very few of them will ever use it either.  

In the end, we perform to what is measured. The students recognize that in our current system, making it to the final test is all that matters. Yet in today’s world, what matters so much more are the skills they learn along the way – empathy, collaboration, creativity, problem solving, and a litany of other “soft” skills. Rarely are these measured or rewarded explicitly. We have to redefine achievement and success if we are going to continue to attempt to grow humans that are more than a test score. In defiance of all of the best practices regarding social and emotional learning, it seems that the education system’s resounding answer is to hammer down on standards and adhere to pacing guidelines and assessments to cover learning loss. I argue that empowering students with discovery and allowing them to find purpose and passion will serve them and our world much better in the long run. 

We as an education system and society have to see the humanness in people. If you notice that your neighbor’s child is always caregiving and you have the flexibility, step in and ask if you can help so they can study or do their homework. If you see that there is a child who never gets outside, get to know their family and reach out and ask if they can join you for a walk or a game of basketball. We have to rebuild the human connection in society – IRL (in real life), not on a phone. It isn’t the teacher’s job, the police officer’s job, or the school’s job, it is everyone’s job! For sure, we can design and enact new social policies, but if we don’t individually do our part to lift each other up we just build the walls of the cage even higher. 

As for me personally, I will not be returning to the classroom next year. Instead, I will continue to work to make the education system better in my own way – by transitioning to a charter school to work on their strategic initiatives. Also, my family and I are launching our oyster farm and will be looking to partner with local schools to provide some real-world educational opportunities on the water.

5 thoughts on “Chapter Four: Open letter to society on behalf of my students”

  1. Laura,
    I taught for thirty two years in VBCPS and our education system was not always like what you described. It did, however, change the last twelve or so years of my career which is part of why or retired when I did. Your comments are spot on and it makes me think about why our current education system is in such great need of teachers . We do have many teachers who make teaching a career but it seems the new average is seven to ten years if that and then the younger generation moves on because the work load is ridiculous. We have lost track somehow of the true meaning of teaching the whole child and I agree, the standards can be a bit much. My experience is in elementary only but it was easily a six to seven day a week work load. It was a career I loved at the time and have no regrets. I am only fifty seven and I now enjoy the time I have gained back by working part time doing other things I love. I have gained so much family time! Enjoy what you do and have no regrets.

    1. First, Stacey, CONGRATS on your retirement! I do think you are right- we’ve added quite a few expectations in the past decade or so without taking anything a way and great and caring teachers like yourself tried to take on the challenge a little at a time. While the tension and pressure mounted over the years, the pandemic illuminated the insurmountability of the expectations. Your sentence “we have lost track somehow of the true meaning of teaching the whole child” resonated with me. I wonder- if we could define the standards more holistically and use the isolated bits as guidance for the teacher and students, how might our teaching shift? How might learning be different for students? I think we are seeing the results of this kind of thinking in alternative settings, but I hope it starts to penetrate the public school system as educators like you and Laura bring the challenges into the light. Thank you for your comment!

  2. Laura, My daughter struggled through Math Analysis this year as a junior. What she learned is this; study hard before the test, get through the test and move on because the next day she would be starting a new unit and in two class days from then, another test. She finished the year with an A- in a difficult HS course, but I bet you in a week she would not be able to solve a problem from her final exam. I have 4 more years before I can retire. I have taught for 31 years so far and the only reason I can not leave yet is because I started in a different district. So while I have retirement in the same state, in VBCPS, one must accumulate 25 years for employer health care contribution, otherwise, my entire retirement benefit is swallowed up by monthly health care costs. When I first started teaching, I truly loved what I did most days. Now, it is simply a means to an end, I still enjoy my students and forging relationships, but the other nonsense is draining. I’m sorry to hear you are leaving but I do not blame you one bit. I do not think there will be enough teachers next year to even fill all the openings in my district, and I”m sure most districts around the country will be facing similar scenarios. Our country is in a sad state regarding our education system.

  3. Stacey – thank you for your comments. Honestly, with only a year under my belt I never want to come across as negative so I appreciate your validation. It was quite eye-opening and fueled my desire to try to do something about it. I am so grateful on behalf of our society for people like you that stuck it out while doing best by the kids. And I am so glad you are enjoying your second act! Laura

  4. Laura,
    Best of luck in your next chapter. As a retired HS retired teacher of 40 years, you nailed it on so many levels. Learning should be relevant, fun, and authentic. Developing relationships will create the path to students for life. In this time, there are soo many obstacles for students and teachers alike!
    Fondly,
    Deb Strausbaugh

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