At first, I thought it was just me until a colleague shared a similar intuition. All year long, I could sense something in the air at school, something unsettled. Transitions are, of course, the hallmark of adolescence, and I quickly eliminated the shifting voices and hair styles of my students as the source of my discomfort. The dust clouds tumbling from last year’s RIF, which tore fifteen teachers and staff away from our flock in mid-fight, seemed to have settled into the peripheral corners of the building, and not even the occasional burst of unexpected media attention this year appeared to have awakened them from their slumber. Something else was at work.
I guessed it had something to do with growing pains. My school is no longer new. The stream of students entering and leaving is no longer novel, and neither are our hopes for them. Our rhythm, at times, resembles an old band playing a familiar song–the beat is there, the chords are working, but some of the original verve is gone.
It makes no sense, I know. Many of our faculty are relatively new to the school, as are the administrators. Their contributions are fresh. The teacher IMPACT observations are not as foreign as they once were , though they still permeate the place with nervous energy. Today, our fifth senior class will walk and receive their diplomas. Parents will cheer, a few too loudly, and another year will make its curtain call. A blend of normalcy and completion should rule, and yet I have the sense that another storm is brewing just beyond my view.
Last week, I learned that DCPS has unveiled a detailed standardized curriculum for next year. Beginning with English, teachers will receive set unit plans, essential questions, and objectives. I believe final assessments for each unit will also be provided and tracked. Common Core standards will be embedded in curriculum, and even teacher choice in literature selections will be limited by “suggested readings.”
A quick glance at the first released units reveals some good ideas (although the complete absence of grammar instruction is, in my eyes, criminal), and I understand the desire to guarantee academic outcomes by regulating teacher output. But I also already mourn the days when teacher intellect, student responses, and broad standards shaped the lessons taught. I am trying to keep an open mind, but I worry that cookie-cutter instruction will never yield the unexpected morsels of surprise, or nuggets of discovery which kept the classroom alive.
I guess I miss the days when our building first opened, and even the students felt as if they were actually writing history. The faculty was small enough, and close enough, to gather at the end of each advisory for dancing, wine, and bar-b-que at someone’s home.
Now, too many of us pass one another in the hall with barely a morning nod. Collaborations became something of an administrative chore required for evalutory purposes. Effectiveness became not so much a goal as a prerequisite for continued employment. Everything feels like a tally is being kept by an invisible hand. No one and nothing, except maybe the hand, is immune from scoring and “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” stares.
This year found me teaching 11th graders for the first time. Some I had also taught the year before. While the faces were familiar, a few exhibited behaviors that were new to me. Some mischievous male students now seemed more uncertain and easily provoked. A few feisty girls arrived sullen and primed to challenge any suggestions of authority. Uniform and cell phone violations became more troublesome, as did students who arrived unprepared.
Excuses were more elaborate, and curiosity more disguised. The days of easy instruction and belly laughs still came, and I cherish so much about our exchanges. But I found seventeen-year-old’s to be a much tougher crowd. Besides, my mainstay jokes and life stories invariably lost some of their zing with a second telling. Some days I found myself nostalgic for the ninth grade innocence or tenth grade exuberance with which I had grown accustomed.
Last week, graduating seniors held their Class Night gathering, a new tradition at the school. Each year, they unveil their selection for “Teacher of the Year.” For three years in a row, I have finished either first or second. This year was no exception, and I was, of course, very proud when my name was called. “Memorable,” they said.
Then students took to the microphone to share memories of high school. Their recollections were interspersed with a slide show which always elicits laughter as they watch pictures of how they once looked and behaved. After an especially funny remembrance, one girl walked to the microphone, paused, then asked, “Hey y’all, remember when we were friends?”
The room grew quiet for a moment, a silence followed by nervous laughter. “Now we all have our groups and stuff, but remember freshman year? We were going to be the best class ever.” Then her voice broke for a moment before she added, “I love you guys. I’m gonna miss you.”
In that moment, I realized what I had been feeling all year was a similar loss of connection. The push to “paint-by-number” permeating so much of education these days had removed some of that old spontaneity dripping from the rafters.
No one was as close as they once were. Too much had happened, was happening, might happen. After this latest graduating exodus, life for those adults left standing in the building will be as uncertain as it is for our young people jump-starting their lives. I just wish I shared the same sense of wonder and excitement they display as the moments of change unfold on that commencement stage.
Perhaps what has been lost for us teachers is the air of partnership that once defined our practice. In the wake of the Rhee years, the timbre resonating everywhere still suggests competition more than collegiality. Colleagues vie with each other for high scores and building status. Yesterday’s darlings work to maintain their glory; fresh upstarts plot their ascension; veterans eye the retirement clock. Administrators must play the same game, just at a higher elevation with thinner air.
The student/teacher bond is still there, but some days it does not feel the same. My manual grade book was “lifted” twice this year in two separate classes when I turned my back to individually help a student. Despite my pleas and promises of immunity, no one saw anything, and they were never returned. I was able to reassemble my records, but I lost something more each time. I lost my sense of absolute trust, and I now keep my book at home, or lock it in my drawer at school.
As all breathlessly await the standardized scores which have practically become the sole measure of our building’s worth, it is hard not to “wax poetic” about the old days when teachers shared stories, strategies, and coffee in the lounge not because we had to fulfill some requirement, but because we wanted to spend time with one another and improve our craft. Today, the teacher lounge is no more; it was converted into an office.
I guess I, too, just miss the days when we were friends.