Flynn Ross, University of Southern Maine
Originally published in the Portland Press Herald on May 12, 2014
It is with some trepidation that I approach graduation with the latest group of new teachers from our graduate teacher education program.
I know firsthand how hard it is out there for them, in a job market that is cutting positions. I know the challenges of getting up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. every day to grade papers before waking my own children to get them on the bus, before a full day of teaching followed by meetings on new initiatives, planning curriculum or proficiency-based report cards.
And I’m not a coach or bandleader traveling with busloads of adolescents until 8, 9 or even 10 at night.
These conditions are not new in history, or across the globe, for this noble profession. Teachers were slaves in ancient Greece, are murdered in Afghanistan, are regularly not paid in Honduras.
However, we live in America. We have jobs, health insurance and, in many communities, we have beautiful buildings and resources, including laptops and iPads in most Maine middle and high schools.
In other states, I have worked in schools with metal detectors, not enough chairs if the students actually all show up and a teacher allotment of 10 reams of paper a year for a student load of 150, so all quizzes have to be squeezed on a half-sheet of paper. Schools are supported and education is valued here in Maine: It’s different.
My newest teachers are again impressing me with their energy, innovation and passion for working with young people.
I’ve just observed lessons in which a high school science teacher embedded quiz questions in the electronic presentation on meiosis that students responded to in real time from their laptops, to help ensure they were paying attention and understanding in a class of 25 students with the lure of texting on their phones right in their pockets.
I observed a collaboration among three new fifth-grade teachers who were teaching the causes of the American Revolution with taxation simulations that culminated in a trivia competition in the auditorium, managing 65 10-year-olds into utter silence because they were so eager for the next question.
A new first-grade teacher created a pen pal exchange with a teacher in Nevada to provide authentic purpose for writing for children just discovering the possibilities of their own ability to write to communicate. She created personalized stationery for every child with their own digital photographs on it so that the children they wrote to would know who they were.
I know my students, these new teachers, are going out into a profession that is being forced to “evaluate” their teaching using standardized student test scores on tests that were never created for such purposes.
These tests are known to be most useful for identifying a child’s socioeconomic status and availability of educationally enriching experiences at home – if they have a home. (My teachers, will you please teach the next generation of policymakers the scientific understanding of validity and uncontrollable intervening variables? Because, clearly, my generation failed to do so.)
I know my graduates are going into a profession that is increasingly dominated by corporate interests in profits with nationalized packaged curriculum that are designed to “teacher-proof” the curriculum with the exclusive purpose of raising test scores.
But I’ve taught them that it’s relationships that matter, as teachers build positive learning environments that activate the area of the brain that directs attention, with the goal of engaging children and responding to them as individual learners. I’ve challenged them to develop the projects that their students will remember when they are 30, possibly in a graduate teacher education classroom saying, “Remember when we did that great simulation on … ?”
They know the joy of seeing a student “get it,” the pride of sharing student work that exceeded their expectations as students were motivated to continue working on and refining a project outside of class time.
They know the power of collaboration and colleagues. Teachers need other teachers for support in hard times, inspiration and humor, to brainstorm strategies for meeting a child’s needs, and for reminders to take care of themselves because they have 100 students to respond to in person again tomorrow.
But my greatest hope for them, as I send them off at graduation into their profession of choice, is that their alumni will return and tell them in person what a difference they made in their lives. For that is the best blessing for a teacher.
Flynn Ross is a professor of teacher education at the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus. She is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.