Paint-by-number teaching

28 years ago, when I entered my first classroom, I was a free range teacher. Most of us were, in those years. I couldn’t find a curriculum guide for some subjects, and mentors and consultants were nowhere to be found. I spent a lot of time planning and gathering materials, but it was exciting and creative and the challenges inspired me to learn more, read more, do more.

More and more, as time went on, the constrictions and demands tightened. The trend now seems to assume that it would be better if every classroom and every teacher were the same. Sure, there’s lip service to the individuality of all students, teachers, communities and class configurations, but the constant standardized testing forces the assumption that each classroom at a particular grade level should do the same things at the same time – that standardization is admirable and desirable.

That, in my opinion, is where much of the recent stress comes from. Curriculum decisions, scheduling and guides that insist on regimented pacing despite the teacher’s evaluation of her students’ readiness to move on, give the lie to the party line that teachers’ input is valued. It undercuts the professionalism of the teacher. Teachers are afraid to trust their own instincts about their students. Instead of believing that we can solve problems, we are told to turn to outside experts, and those experts make suggestions that we know we can’t apply without additional support.

The drive to make classrooms the same makes me think of the old paint-by-number sets. You could give the same paint-by-number to Van Gogh, Picasso and Joe the plumber and get standardized results. But in doing so, you would lose the creativity and talent of Picasso and Van Gogh, and Joe would learn nothing about painting – and all the joy of art would be lost.

Teaching, when you are treated as a professional, is a joyful occupation. It’s even fun. And that shouldn’t be a suspicious thing to say – it shouldn’t be a bad thing to enjoy your work. Teaching in a system where every teacher and every student is asked to fit the same mold is stressful, demeaning and joyless. I hope that the trend to paint-by-number teaching dies out in time for our younger teachers to experience how great teaching can actually be.


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