By Christina Berchini
I recently received an email from Brad, a former student who is exactly the kind of teacher most of us want to see at the front of the classroom. Earnest and flexible, creative and brilliant, you’ve really never met a more likable guy. I saw firsthand how his eighth grade students loved him. And he wrote to me to say that he is very probably in his last year of teaching.
Brad enrolled in four teacher education courses that I taught at Michigan State University. When he became a full-time teacher, he invited me into his classroom to help me further my own teacher education research projects. I thus spent quite a lot of time observing his teaching and his interactions with students, the product of our time together in teacher education.
This former student of mine is now in his third year as a full-time middle school teacher. Having taught in a variety of settings, he not only has experience in both “struggling” and well-supported school districts, but he is certified in both English and math; he is a talented singer and musician; he cares deeply about social justice.
Brad is contemplating leaving the field because, according to his letter to me, he can no longer endure “forc[ing] kids to learn things they don’t want to learn and, in my opinion, really don’t need to know anyway.” For Brad, schools are no longer the place where students have the opportunity “to develop their unique passions and abilities.”
Brad admits to struggling with teaching in ways he feels are productive and meaningful, given a context where “so much legislation, testing, low funding, accountability, and silly standards” have dictated his every move.
It took me several weeks to respond to his email. What could I possibly say to change his mind? Responding with a lot of fluff about the profession would be disingenuous. Worse yet, such a response would do our relationship a tremendous disservice.
He wrote to me for the truth. He wrote to me out of trust. I take this stuff seriously.
With this letter to my former student, I initially sought to give new teachers some additional food for thought. However, I want to share my response to my former student because I know that many new teachers find themselves in the scenario he described, and because I know that the problems facing education are of concern to novice and veteran teachers alike, their administrators, and also parents. Finally, I wish to share my response to Brad because we want teachers like him to remain in the classroom, and I hope that sharing my response will inspire teachers who might be at a crossroads:
So, it sounds like it didn’t take that long for you to catch on to a serious paradox in education: The place where good teaching and purposeful learning are supposed to happen is (these days) the last place where this occurs. And you, alongside so many others, feel like hopeless, useless cogs in a larger, broken down machine.
I get it. I really do. You are an amazing teacher, and I am not sure that there is much that I can say to change your mind, or to at least make you stay contributing to a profession you and I care so deeply about. It’s sort of funny; as a teacher educator, my job does not look very different from yours. I, too, am in the unfortunate position of teaching to the legislation, testing, and standards in a context where the funds needed to do my work well have been obliterated. I, too, am forced to use a lot of my time in ways that run counter to what I believe (and know) is purposeful. I find an extremely small amount of comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my frustrations; that most every one of my colleagues feel much the same way.
Alas, the race to nowhere continues, and very few states (if any) are safe from this reality. All of this said, I will offer the best advice I can muster:
Few professions allow you to be around kids in the way we enjoy, as teachers. For all that has changed about education, for all that is terrible and senseless, my motivations continue to rest in the potential to inspire young people, however that should come to pass. And that is what I try to remember, as I move forward with the future teachers enrolled in my courses, toward an uncertain future.
In short, I learned a long time ago that there is not much I am able to do to change the field on a grand scale. The problems you raise are national, and require changes in public policy and attitudes toward teaching and teachers that begin at the voting machines. So my advice to you is as follows:
Think globally, act locally.
Someone taught me a long time ago that large scale, global change and improvement requires baby steps. For teachers, that means not waiting one single minute for politicians, administrators, or even voters to recognize our worth and expertise as educators. Frankly, that moment might never arrive, given the power of anti-teacher propaganda and the ruthlessness of those who promulgate it.
So what does this mean?
This means that you’ll have to find those spaces in between the skill and drill exercises, the random administrator visits to classrooms, the testing, and the mandatory, time-wasting “professional development” sessions. Find the spaces where you and your students might collaborate on the work and issues you have collectively determined are important. Ask the questions and have the conversations that matter. This is what is meant by “local.”
From there, branch out. Find the support in organizations and donors who are itching to fund the kind of work you and your students want to invest in. Hone in on your students’ digital and new literacies to produce texts with and for a purpose. Make a name for yourself, as the guy who teaches students, as opposed to the automaton who teaches curriculum. Slowly but surely, you will find that people are listening.
I will not be so naive as to suggest that the work of a single teacher can change the course of education in this country. But it would be similarly naive to suggest that the work of a single teacher cannot effect change. Acquaint yourself with the work of Rafe Esquith, an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, California; of Greg Michie, a middle school teacher in Chicago Public Schools; of Emily Smith, an elementary school teacher in Austin, Texas; of Ken Szymanski, a middle school teacher in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. All of these teachers have found ways to teach with purpose within a dominant discourse of purposelessness.
One teacher can effect change, and people do listen.
I’ll be honest: This broken system does not care about your ideas. It does not care about your creativity and your talent, qualities I’ve come to know so well as your teacher educator. And the system’s utter refusal to honor people with your skills is a reality I’ve learned the hard way. But young people care. Your students care. Your students need you. Should you choose to stay, your task is to find ways to capitalize on those opportunities to do right and do well, however rare. They exist, and you will find them, if you shift your focus.
You may have to ignore a lot of your job in order to begin to enjoy it. You may have to show up with a smile when what you really want to do is show up with a prepared speech and ‘data’ highlighting exactly how you feel about the latest and ‘greatest’ way by which you’ve been ordered to waste your time.
Sometimes, you’re convinced that there is nothing good to find. And because you are so smart, and so talented, I am going to challenge you to find the good anyway. It’s there. I promise.
Christina Berchini is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. Dr. Berchini earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education with an emphasis in English Education from Michigan State University. Her essays have been published in Five 2 One Magazine, SUCCESS.com, the Huffington Post, and other venues.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.