by a Disheartened First Grade Teacher
Pizza Day. Pizza Day. Pizza Day. The words replay over and over in six-year-old Tommy’s head as he sees how long the lunch line is. Tommy grabs his pizza and sprints to his lunch table, carrots spilling off of his tray. Glancing at the clock but unsure what the clock hands actually signify, he knows there can’t be much time left. Trying not to talk to his peers, Tommy stuffs a large bite of gooey deliciousness into his mouth. Before he can swallow or enjoy his favorite meal, he takes another bite and a gulp of milk.
“Time to clean up!” the lunch aide announces.
Tommy’s classmates throw out their partially eaten lunches and line up. With his stomach still rumbling, Tommy quickly stuffs another bite into his mouth. As I approach Tommy, I glance at the clock, knowing that in less than two minutes, one hundred hungry third graders will bombard the cafeteria for their lunch period. I gaze back at Tommy and my subtle nod lets him know he can sneak his lunch back to class. Sarah’s desperate eyes ask me the same question and I must tell her “no,” as her teacher for afternoon intervention services is anxiously waiting for her at the door. Sarah is already late.
Tommy carries his lunch through the hallway, hoping it won’t spill, as the next group of children rush past him to get to their brief lunch period, all feeling the pressure of academic rigor, the jam-packed schedule, and the ever-present tests. It’s a typical lunch hour at my school.
I entered the teaching profession six years ago-- energized, enthusiastic, and eager to put my passion into practice. I currently teach in an upper-middle class town in the greater Boston area. Since graduating college, I have earned a Master’s Degree from a renowned school of education. Through my experience and studies, I have honed my core beliefs as an educator. But, on a daily basis, I find myself internally battling with what I know is best for children and what I am mandated to do.
My intent in writing is to raise awareness of what is going on in the public school system where our students are increasingly being taught in testing environments with stakes higher than ever before, under high pressure conditions. While the stress among schools is glaring for teachers, administrators, and even students, I have learned that the link often left in the dark is the parents. In the past month alone, I was asked to withhold details from parents about their child’s schedule, stretch the truth about the amount of time their children have to eat lunch, encourage a child to take a test after seeing her break out in hives during the last testing session, and explain that our school culture supports play and exploration. Don’t get me wrong--when I see my students stuffing food into their mouths, I sneak their lunch back to the classroom. Despite the Common Core aligned curriculum and many assessments that strip my students from the most valuable moments of childhood, I integrate play-based and authentic learning into the school day as much as I possibly can.
While I struggle to find the words to express my disappointment about the current state of the public education system, I find myself lying awake at night worrying about my students and pondering what the future holds for education in our country? My school culture, among many in our country, doesn’t support meeting the most basic of needs for children, due to the rigorous school day and demands, let alone supporting best practices for teaching and learning. Let me make sure I am clear-- the district I teach in is considered a “model district” in the state of Massachusetts.
While I believe in high standards for children, I do not believe that teaching my first graders 15 different types of math word problems will prepare them to contribute to society in 16 years. While I agree with the importance of early literacy, I do not believe having my first graders undergo at least 12 assessments per year and be pulled out of class constantly for intervention and progress monitoring will prepare them for the real world. In fact, I see the youngest learners deeming themselves as failures as they are unable to meet unrealistic and developmentally inappropriate expectations aligned with the Common Core State Standards. I see the youngest learners having their confidence crushed as they are pulled out of the classroom for intervention up to eight times a week.
The nationally normed set of Common Core State Standards were intended to promote higher order thinking skills “to prepare students to be career and college ready.” I can speak from direct experience that, in many cases, the implementation has increased teacher talk time, increased the amount of time children need to sit passively, and have decreased opportunities for critical thinking. I believe that providing students with genuine context to problem solve, to explore the world around them, and to think “outside of the box” will prepare them to contribute to the complex society we live in today. I believe that fostering creativity and providing students with authentic learning experiences to foster academic and social emotional skills will prepare them for the 21st century. The more my school increases “academic rigor,” the more doctor forms I am asked to fill out about ADHD and the more anxiety my students endure. Each time I utilize practices that align with cognitive science for childhood development, the behavior challenges not only minimize (or disappear) but the learning outcomes increase substantially.
I find myself struggling to tailor my students' education based on their developmental needs as the current education system pressures me to fit them into a mold. I am left no choice but to rush through lessons to ensure I am meeting all of the curriculum requirements, rather than providing the rich and authentic learning experiences that drive me as an educator and my students as learners. The core to my struggles comes from the lack of time I have to provide my students with, what research supports, is, in fact, crucial to their development, such as hands-on learning, play based opportunities, and fostering different learning styles. The many moments that I cannot integrate authentic learning and creativity because there simply isn’t time in the schedule to get off of the curriculum track, these are the moments that are most valuable in the present and future lives of these children.
With color-coded spreadsheets in front of me at last week’s data meeting, I listened to the team speak about my students as numbers rather than using their names. These “numbers” that I know so well, these six-year-olds who have real feelings, needs, strengths, and challenges, are being scrutinized by a red, yellow, or green data point on a graph. I gazed through the window and watched as young children sprinted through the halls to get to their 15 minutes of recess. As I glanced at the stress in their eyes, the stress in my colleague's eyes, and back down at the color-coded spreadsheets, I realized we have lost control, lost power, and lost our ability to utilize our expertise and innovation. What we haven’t lost is our core understanding of what’s right for children. Our students need passionate and skilled teachers who stay in the field. Our students need creativity and to be able to think of an original idea. Our students need to problem solve, collaborate, self-regulate, and explore the world around them. And--how could I forget--our students need to eat lunch.
Tips for parents: Questions to ask the Principal at your child’s school
- What is my child’s daily schedule?
- Will my child ever miss art, gym or music to receive intervention services?
- How long does my child have to eat lunch, not including transitions?
- How long is recess each day?
- Does our school provide and support play-based learning experiences and choice time?
- How does our school culture promote creativity and hands-on learning in conjunction with the academic standards?
- How many assessments does my child undergo a year? How do these assessments help my child’s teacher tailor his/her instruction?