It is relatively easy to do some things poorly, including TEACHING and LEADING.

For master teachers in the classroom who remain (despite the pressures of high-stakes testing and the accountability movement) creative artists of learning and student engagement, the month of May (in North America where I live) can be the best month of the school year to teach. The reasons are simple:

  1. In most states, high-stakes testing is over and the pressure to “teach to the test” is off.
  2. The end of high-stakes testing pressures means some teachers feel freed to teach creatively, engaging students in more project-based learning and in-depth studies which both students and teachers find more rewarding, memorable, and genuinely engaging.
  3. Administrators are thrilled to see students engaged in learning activities (even if they are not strictly correlated to published academic standards) instead of having bored kids troop through their office as yet another discipline problem.

For some teachers and in some contexts, however, May can seem like the worst month of the year to teach. Again, the reasons seem straightforward:

  1. Baseball practices and games have started for many students, and that means late evenings of practice followed by days in the classroom of students with tired bodies as well as minds which want to be far afield.
  2. Our present educational climate of high-stakes accountability promotes a school culture where teachers as well as students believe their reason for existence (the instrumental value for which they live all year) has been accomplished: Taking the battery of high-stakes tests administered for the state department of education at the direction of the U.S. federal government. Given the cultural beliefs which exist today in many classrooms, it is logical for both students and teachers to ask: “Why am I here? My “mission” has been fulfilled.” Keeping students engaged in this type of culture is challenging indeed.
  3. The days are growing warmer, the summer is fast approaching, often distracting shorts and skirts grow more common in classrooms and hallways. Each of these factors compete with the goal of maintaining academic focus.

I visited an Oklahoma school this past week where the principal had faced an almost constant stream of student discipline problems all day long. I do not know the details of those situations, but I guess many of the above factors played into those discipline cases. Perhaps there are other factors I’ve neglected to include which are also common at this time of year, leading to more discipline referrals and problems in general keeping students’ attention and focus in class.

When I was a teacher-aide at a Lubbock high school in 1994-95, I remember there were several coaches who started showing full-length movies EVERY DAY in class for their students as soon as the state assessments were over. In some cases, these coaches taught a class named “TAAS Prep” at the time, for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) as it was called then. What a waste of time, taxpayer dollars, and learner heartbeats. Yet, that was reality, and I am sure there are more than a few teachers (in Texas and elsewhere) content to flip on a DVD or VHS movie and let their students quietly watch it instead of attempting to actually engage students in an authentic learning activity– especially given the aforementioned factors competing against “engaged learning” in North American classrooms in late May of 2007.

As a Texas K-12 teacher for six years, and also as a parent of students attending Texas schools, I understand the desire both students and teachers have to CELEBRATE after the tests are over. There is SO MUCH pressure and stress on our students, our teachers, and our administrators today when it comes to high-stakes accountability that the situation should be judged intolerable. If I was teaching in the classroom today, I’m sure I’d feel a strong urge to celebrate and essentially cancel learning in the classroom for the remainder of the year, as some other teachers do. But if I would give into that temptation, what a ridiculous and even immoral culture I’d be buying into and supporting through my actions.

I believe students and teachers are in schools for much higher and far more important reasons than merely preparing for and taking tests. I know what the realities are, but I refuse to normatively accept those high-pressure testing realities as the conditions we should want or accept in our schools. Speaking of “norms,” what is NORMAL in school (in many cases here in the southwestn United States where I’ve spent my professional teaching career) has been radically redefined in basic ways in the past 10-15 years. Let me share a quick story to illustrate my point.

My wife heard a story this past week that absolutely broke my heart. At an elementary school back in Lubbock (I won’t state the name) the teachers announced the results of the grade level’s math test results. Everyone passed, except for ONE SINGLE STUDENT. That student failed. At the school assembly where this was announced, of course that single student who failed the math test knew who he was. In fact, he openly wept at the assembly.

a frustrated student

What have we, as a society, just communicated to this young ten year old boy? How many ways are there to succeed in this world? How many ways are there to fail? A diverse array in both cases. Yet because of this single failure, on a standardized mathematics examination, we have metaphorically branded an F FOR FAILURE on the forehead of this precious, priceless, young soul. Where is the accountability for this barbarous act of violence? Where are the voices now, concerned about leaving children behind? The fact that I was one of the cub scout leaders for this young boy last year, and he was a personal friend of my own son, makes this story hit very close to home. I am angered by this story, and fed up with the educational culture which has allowed it to happen. I am also deeply disappointed by the educational professionals who voluntarily perpetuated this act against this young student. I am not saying that administering high stakes tests is morally equal to the act of working in the gas chambers of the Holocaust, but I am reminded of the defense used by multiple war criminals in the tribunals at Nuremberg. “I was just following orders.” The morality of our actions is dictated by our values and our ideals, and not defined by what may be considered “normal” or “acceptable” in our prevailing culture.

My family and I were able to see the superb movie “Meet the Robinsons” this past Friday night. What a WONDERFUL film with some of the best messages I have ever seen in a motion picture concerning learning, failure, the power of words, the existence of free will/volition, the importance of unconditional love, the powerful potential of adoption, and many other key themes. I plan to write a blog post dedicated exclusively to praising this film and its messages in the week to come, and I can’t wait to buy my own copy on DVD– particularly to use a clip from the Robinson’s dinner table discussion about FAILURE to make an important point in educational workshops with teachers and students. Instead of going to that assembly where he would be publicly made to feel like a LIFE FAILURE, I wish that Lubbock child had instead been able to go see “Meet the Robinsons” and then been able to discuss the themes with caring adults and peers who valued him, his ideas and his abilities. Unfortunately for him, that was not the case.

We cannot permit ourselves or our students to be defined by failure. Failure is a powerful teacher, and every “successful” person (who can be termed “successful” by varying criteria) has realized their own personal successes because of a learning journey that included failures. In many cases, some of those past failures were quite BIG. Our goal in school should not be to demonize and criminalize failure, but rather to view failure in its realistic and healthy context: As an experience with constructive potential on the journey of learning and of life. In fact, we should celebrate failure (like the Robinson family) if it resulted from a creative attempt to do something new or different, or if it simply resulted in a learning experience for the person in question. We sometimes call these “teachable moments.” They can happen every day, and they often happen when we (or someone else we know or see) fails. If Thomas Edison and his team of scientists had been defined by failure, where would we be today? What if Abraham Lincoln had allowed himself to be defined by failure? What about Marie Curie? Mahatma Gandhi? Martin Luther King, Jr.? My own parents and grandparents? This list could (and does) go on and on.

fail harder

Teaching in North American schools in the month of May can indeed be the best of days, and the worst of days. If you happen to have the privilege of teaching children this month who have been told by a ridiculously RIGID and narrow educational assessment system that they are FAILURES, make it your personal mission in life to provide opportunities for that young soul to understand they ARE NOT DEFINED by the grades they receive at school, the tests they pass or fail, or the words (kind or unkind) which others choose to direct at them.

Our words are powerful, and we have both the power to constructively build up, or destructively tear down. Let us affirm our commitment to build up our students in the month of May and every month– not via easily forgotten and shallow self-esteem catch phrases, but rather through genuine opportunities to let students demonstrate their understanding of ideas and their skills in diverse ways. By truly differentiating learning, which also means differentiating assessment, we can provide both the opportunities for authentic assessments which our students deserve as well as the fuel to develop self-esteem via demonstrated performances that can have a lifelong, positive impact on the developing minds of young learners.

As Albert Einstein said many years ago, not everything that counts can be counted. It’s time we focused more on those things which cannot be easily counted in school on a bubblesheet, but DO count greatly in life. Belief in one’s intrinsic worth as a human being, irrespective of a test score or a grade, must figure high on that list of things which matter most in life.

Be the change you want to see in the world. Make a difference today and tomorrow with the words you choose to use with those people who cross your path, whether that path is at school, at home, at work, at church, or elsewhere.

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6 Responses to Teaching in May: The best of days, the worst of days

  1. Peter Rock says:

    My wife heard a story this past week that absolutely broke my heart. At an elementary school back in Lubbock (I won’t state the name) the teachers announced the results of the grade level’s math test results. Everyone passed, except for ONE SINGLE STUDENT. That student failed. At the school assembly where this was announced, of course that single student who failed the math test knew who he was. In fact, he openly wept at the assembly.

    That’s sad. Last year one student was in tears after not receiving an award at a school-wide assembly. I remember not knowing at all what to say to him. These were traditional awards like “most improved”, “hardest worker” and baloney like that.

    I refused to give awards last year and was reprimanded for not doing so (in fact, I’ve never given traditional awards for any of my classes). Basically I was told that “according to policy” all teachers must give awards and if you don’t do it, then “maybe this school is not for you”. My last day is in June.

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    The end of year awards ceremonies at school can be corny with some of the awards that are given, but they can also be meaningful when the awards given are genuine and reflect acknowledgment of authentic work, skills and abilities on the part of students. I think these events can easily “go bad” when teachers are pressured to give everyone an award, regardless of whether the student has put forth effort for that recognition or not.

    Those types of award ceremonies are not really what I’m getting at in this post, although the issues related to giving student awards of any type are certainly fair game and worth thinking about. Some people take this to an extreme, even arguing that schools must do away with honor rolls because they hurt the feelings of students who do not make the honor roll. That egalitarian ethic, taken to an extreme, can be as negative and damaging as a competitive ethic taken to an extreme.

    My principal beef here is with high stakes assessment, which can literally be interpreted to brand students as “failures” in big ways when they don’t pass a test. Competing for achievement awards and celebrating excellence can be great things, and I am not anti-competition or anti-recognition for student performance by any means. What I am against is artificially raising the stakes of a single assessment (or series of assessments) to such an extreme level that a young ten year old likely has a great deal of problem keeping things in perspective.

    Schools overall, with their grading systems, tend to compete against this ethic I’m advocating here: to maintain one’s own sense of worth and esteem irrespective of what others say. Advertising in many of its forms also is a powerful enemy of this ethic. You have to wear these clothes, buy this product, look this certain way, in order to have value and be accepted. The insidious power of that message via media advertising is something we should continue to struggle against with people of all ages via conversations about media literacy and other means.

    I’m not going to say all schools should do away with end-of-school awards ceremonies because some kids are going to get their feelings hurt (because let’s face it, some always do) but I WILL say we should abandon high-stakes accountability, because of the inherent high costs which are borne by students and teachers alike.

    Sorry to hear you are leaving the classroom, but I wish you well in the next season of your life, wherever you end up going.

  3. […] While gulping down my peanut butter and jelly sandwich during lunch today, I decided to catch up on some blog readings. The clip below, along with the incredibly sad story told in this outstanding post by Wes Fyer seemed to be bookends to the darker themes in the realities of education. Both stories involve “tests”, and both involve tears. The CNN story will hit people with an obvious shaking of the head and questioning, “What were they thinking?!?” Unfortunately, I’m not sure the story of the boy in the assembly will receive the same outrage. […]

  4. John says:

    Here’s what my local school district (Livingston, Montana) is considering doing after taking the “tests”. Every teacher will start teaching the next year’s curriculum to start preparing for the next year’s tests. That’s right! Kindergarteners will start learning first grade material in May! First graders – second grade material… Unbelievable! I know of one veteran teacher who just plain quit and another that is taking a sabbatical.

  5. Peter Rock says:

    “Some people take this to an extreme, even arguing that schools must do away with honor rolls because they hurt the feelings of students who do not make the honor roll. That egalitarian ethic, taken to an extreme, can be as negative and damaging as a competitive ethic taken to an extreme.”

    Please justify.

    As far as I’m concerned, competition belongs on the basketball court, not in academics. I can’t find any redeeming value in separating the winners from the losers when it comes to learning. Honor rolls have no value. When you say this “extreme” stance can be “negative” and “damaging” I’d like to hear why you think so. Let’s say your principal decides to scrap honor roll altogether. How will you convince her that her extreme position causes damage. After all, if you believe this you will stand up for the kids to keep honor roll alive, no? I think this is important to consider. It’s very easy to state that someone’s position is extreme (happens to us free software advocates all the time :))…though if you can back it up, then great. I’ve asked why we have honor roll and traditional awards ceremonies for years and I’ve never heard a valid reason. “Recognition” is not bad, but genuine recognition need not parades, certificates, or ceremonies implicitly comparing students to one another in the academic realm.

    By the way, when I argued my stance (in a lengthy email supported with research including some by Alfie Kohn) I got a short response – “Kohn is a leftist who is not a part of the mainstream”. Unfortunately, I was never given a reasonable retort explaining why my views on traditional awards ceremonies was misguided.

    “Sorry to hear you are leaving the classroom, but I wish you well in the next season of your life, wherever you end up going.”

    Oh I’m staying. Going to another country…another school.

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