In honor of Independence Day, over the next several weeks I am going to look at different aspects of freedom as they relate to the classroom. American or not, I firmly believe that the academic freedom of teachers is part of what allows education to be truly life-changing for all those involved.
After my first three years in the classroom, I almost quit teaching.
For anyone who knows me now, that is a pretty surprising statement, but it is completely true. As a student teacher, I had loved being in the classroom. My cooperating teachers said I was a natural, and I was even formally offered a job with the school I was student teaching in before I finished. I was getting married and moving to another state so I couldn’t take it, but the offer and the rightness of my experience student teaching cemented my belief that my career was on the right track and teaching was the right place for me. In the following few months, in amongst getting married and moving cross-country, I landed a job in my new state teaching Ancient History to freshman. I went in full of excitement and energy.
Was I in for an eye-opening experience.
This new job was in a state that had high-stakes testing at the end of each year. If a student didn’t pass both the class and the state test, he or she did not pass the class. If enough students did not pass the class, the school would see penalties. Enough penalties, and the state would take over the school. Long story short, the school district had decided the best way to make sure the most students passed the tests was to dictate not only standard curriculum (which is a pretty normal and acceptable thing), but to create what they called “pacing guides” which basically told teachers exactly what to teach (and therefore, what not to teach) and exactly when to teach it. And you better stay on pace or else!
Despite administration’s claims otherwise, pacing guides (at least for my subject) contained very little higher order thinking and often looked more like a list of facts to memorize than a comprehensive curriculum. If you taught more than what was in the pacing guide or included enrichment topics and activities, you were chastised by administration, sometimes to the point of censure, and in a state with no teacher’s union, if you pushed the envelope enough you risked loosing your job.
Case in point: I remember one staff meeting very clearly where we were told that if we taught anything but exactly what was in the pacing guide, we knowingly committed educational malpractice and were just as irresponsible and reprehensible as a doctor who knowingly committed medical malpractice.
With the passion and conviction of a newly minted teacher (and maybe a little blind optimism and stubbornness), I pushed the envelope a lot. A smart career move or not, I butted heads with my principal and tried to teach beyond the pacing guide and standards. In my honors classes, I was given a bit more freedom to do this, but in the regular level classes, I was given all sorts of grief any time I stepped outside of the boundaries of the hallowed pacing guide. I was told I was doing my students a major disservice by teaching anything that wasn’t in the standards, that my students would all fail the end-of-year testing, and that as a first year teacher, especially one new to the state, I was out of my depth if I said anything else.
I stuck to my guns throughout the year (and let me tell you, it was pretty miserable–I’m shocked that I didn’t develop ulcers from the stress of dealing with the push back), and when test results came back, something pretty wonderful happened. My students had more perfect scores on the test than any other Ancient History teacher’s classes. It was not unusual for a teacher to have two or three students score perfectly on these tests. I had eight.
I’d love to be able to tell you that the school saw that what I was doing had some merit, that they decided to throw away the pacing guides or at least scale back their use and give teachers a bit more freedom in the classroom, and that the culture of the school totally changed, but it wouldn’t be true. Mostly what happened is my principal ignored me. I was still expected to cover the pacing guide and we were still beat over the heads with it at staff meetings, but if I taught more than that, well, the administration just kind of pretended that they didn’t know. I got very little support (really, read NONE here), but at least I didn’t have the weekly or sometimes daily hounding, chastising, and threatening that I had gotten my first year.
I don’t tell you this story to complain about that job or to crow about “overcoming the system.” Truth be told, the whole thing was pretty miserable and there were many ways in which the system beat me. Even though I had some great students, loved my coworkers, was developing a great speech team, and was passionate about education, as I said before, I almost gave up teaching. That being said, there are many powerful insights that I gained from teaching in this situation that have shaped who I am as a teacher and my views on education and the importance of academic freedom in the classroom. Here are three I want to share with you:
When you take away a teacher’s ability to direct his or her own classroom, you take away the personality and character of that classroom. You might ask well hand the students textbooks and a video and call it good. If everyone is teaching the exact same thing at the exact same time with no variations to consider student ability, student interest, and teacher expertise and passion, teachers become robotic fact dispensers. It is not that curriculum isn’t important, but there needs to be a human element to a classroom too. Take away a teacher’s academic freedom and you take away that human element.
Students are constantly learning–as much from how you teach the material in your curriculum as the material itself. In that district, students did not learn to equate success with the ability to think independently, analyze, or question. They learned to equate success with passing a multiple choice test and that school was about memorizing a successively longer list of arbitrary facts until the test was over, at which point they could forget it all. This is problematic for so many reasons. Life isn’t a multiple choice test. Students need to learn to think, not just to memorize to be successful in the real world. If all that is important in life is a set of facts, our society is doomed. How many adults do you know that can tell you who the first emperor of China was or what civilization invented algebra or who fought in the Wars of the Roses (all things my students had to know)?
No matter what anyone says about not teaching to the test, everyone teaches to the test. As much as my administration made me crazy, they were in a tough position. The fact that schools get sanctioned, loose funding, and can be taken over by the state makes everyone live in fear. Just as the state test becomes the benchmark for a student’s success, it also becomes the benchmark for a school’s success. “These are some important facts” becomes “These are the most important facts” becomes “These are the only important facts.” Anything that isn’t appearing on the multiple choice state test becomes a luxury that a school can’t afford to teach. Even me, with all my ideals and hard work not to fall into this trap, found myself sometime putting aside important life lessons and good teaching to make sure my students could regurgitate a list of about 600 facts that I knew the state test would pull from.
I could go on and on, but there is only so much room here. If a system like this pushes teachers like me out–men and women who come in with passion, energy, and knowledge, that is a tragedy for our students, our educational system, the future of our society, and the men and women who are wonderful teachers. I’d love to hear your thoughts on freedom within a curriculum in the comments below.
Next week I will tell you about what happened to me in year four and why teaching did not become a blip on my career map. Until then…
This Week’s Featured Product
A fun way to read, compose, and respond to poetry, this project is a unique activity for your middle or high school classroom. It works well as a stand-alone mini unit or as something to incorporate into a larger poetry unit. For more details or to purchase this product, click here!
This Week’s Journal Questions
For the teacher: What does freedom mean for you as you teach? How much academic freedom do you have? How important is it in what you do and how you teach? Is it important?
For the student: Is freedom different in different situations? As a student, do you give up some of your freedoms? Should you have to?
A Recipe from My Kitchen:
Homemade Maraschino Cherries
- 4.5 cups tart cherries
- Hint: Tart cherries give your finished product a delicious slight tang. If you prefer no tang, use sweet cherries.
- 2.5 cups water
- 3 cups white sugar
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 teaspoons almond extract
- 3 pint jars–canning jars work great!
- Wash and pit your cherries. Hint: If you don’t have a actual cherry pitter, you can use a straw. Pull the stem from the cherry, place the straw where the stem connected, and gently push it through. The pit will pop out the opposite side of the cherry.
- Gently place 1/3 of your cherries in each jar and set aside.
- Place any left over cherry juice (the stuff at the bottom of the bowl you had your cherries in) in a measuring cup. Fill the measuring cup up to 2.5 cups with water.
- Put water/juice and sugar into a small sauce pan on the stove and heat gently on medium low heat, staring frequently, until the sugar is dissolved.
- Place sugar water in the refrigerator until cool.
- Once the sugar water is cool, pour 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 1 teaspoon almond extract over the cherries in each jar.
- Fill the rest of the jar with the sugar water so the cherries are at least covered, leaving at least an inch of headspace in the jar.
- Place the lids on the jars, shake gently, and refrigerate.
- Your cherries should sit for at least three days before you eat them in order to fully absorb the flavors. They will last for several weeks in the fridge (though they are so tasty, they may not survive that long).