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Back To School Blues 

New starts and old obstacles

To most people, I think "back to school" means pens and pencils, notebooks and folders, new school clothes and lunch money. For me, and I think for most teachers, the rush of emotions associated with a new school year is more complicated.

As a student, I have always simultaneously enjoyed the anxiety over what the new school year will bring combined with the sheer freedom of starting over. After all, very few people ever really get the chance to start over. I suppose that's why people have these mid-life crises: they need to start over and their profession just doesn't give them that opportunity. As a student, you start over fresh every year. Even if you are the worst student in the world, I think there is usually a feeling of hope at the start of the school year, the inkling of the possibility that this is the year things will be better.

I guess that feeling is why I've never left school. The one year I spent away from being either a student or a teacher was fairly depressing, and when I thought about it I realized that it was at least partially because the future offered no potential for change. As a teacher, each year I get to work with a brand-new set of people. The start of school means that literally anything can happen, good or bad.

Yet the start of the school year also brings with it a reminder that education is not always so joyful. When we sit in our first teachers' meeting of the year, we are bombarded with the results of last year's tests, closely followed by the goals for this year's tests. "Not that tests are the most important things..." we hear. And yet.

Year after year, we are told that the goal of everything that we do, of each bulletin board we create, each activity we design, each question we pose, each relationship we foster is a number on a printout from downtown. All of that caring about students, worrying over content in essays, encouragement to frame a difficult thought, it is all for nothing if the kids can't manage to crank out the correct multiple choice answers on a given morning in June or write the appropriate formulaic response to a canned prompt in March.

I am not one of those people bandying about phrases like "if I've just reached one child..." or "teachers touch lives." That touchy-feely crap is not the stuff of real education in my book (though I hear it spouted enough in inspirational literature for teachers). If you have only reached one child, you are a failure as a teacher, I'm sorry.

But on the other hand, there is certainly more to education than the ability to regurgitate facts on an end-of-year test. My sister, who teaches kindergarten and is therefore clearly a saint (St. Wipes-Children's-Noses), is constantly forced to evaluate whether her five-year-olds are 1s, 2s, 3s or 4s. Those of you with kindergarteners probably won't have to think really hard to recognize that those little numbers are much less consequential than the excitement of learning to read or the joy of play. Those of you who know anything about children's development also know that children develop at different rates and that it should not reflect poorly on a student, a teacher, a parent or a school if a child is learning something at a slower rate than another child.

At high school I tend to think that the things that matter are the books that influence the students' thinking and the discussions that inspire them to dig a little deeper. Test scores may matter in the short run, but how accurately do those little numbers actually reflect the value of people? How many of you failed to ace the SAT, yet somehow manage to function and even prosper in our society?

There is big talk about "individualizing education" but there is little actual progress in that area. In fact, it's the opposite. Education is getting to be all about the numbers and about sameness when it should be about individual growth. I'll be the first to admit that individual growth is a hell of a lot harder to measure, but is our goal decent education or easy measurement?

Clearly the goal is not individualized instruction. Now scripts and daily lesson plans are being provided by the school district, meaning that student needs and individual issues are of less concern than keeping everyone on the same page in the textbook. Of course, the school district's rationale is that many teachers don't do a good job. Well, nobody's going to argue with that. There are many, many bad teachers out there. But it seems like a rather backward solution to try to impose utterly scripted plans on all teachers. We should all strive for mediocrity?

So the school year has started again. And it is hopeful because there is always the possibility of greatness from every student and teacher. But how sad that in order to catch a glimpse of that greatness you have to wade through the pages and pages of scripted lesson plans and interminable rows of numbers. The saving grace is that most teachers I know are more than willing to rise to the challenge and strive for greatness despite the sometimes overwhelming obstacles would-be educators place in their way.

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