It is totally reasonable to expect employees in any workplace to be open to change and to the challenges that change often brings. I’m an elementary school teacher. If I weren’t open to change, if I weren’t up for a challenge, I could not do what I do.
The children I teach are young. For them, so much is still unknown. Routine is important because often life is unpredictable and insecure. The students in my class are feeling things out and developing a sense of their own identity and their place alongside others. They have not yet internalized all the conventional ways of being in the world.
I genuinely enjoy the time I spend with my students. It is exhausting, yes, but also enriching to be daily in the midst of their energy, curiosity and creativity. Funny and unexpected things happen all the time. No two days are the same.
It is often repeated that teachers must also be learners. Real and meaningful learning emerges from my experiences working with kids in the classroom. But I have also had to engage in a different kind of ongoing learning. It is imposed from outside and from the top down. Over the length of my 17-year career, there have been many changes in the public school system in Nova Scotia. New initiatives and policies require that teachers constantly learn new systems and methods. There are ever-evolving “best practices” promoted for teaching and assessing. Expectations for writing report cards have changed with an absurd regularity. Technologies for documenting information have become increasingly onerous. Methods for recording and tracking adaptations and behaviour incidents are extremely time-consuming. Teachers also expected to be accessible and approachable, to be responsive to families’ questions and concerns and to communicate regularly. Recently new curriculums and subject categories have been introduced. I could go on. Most changes have been introduced with inadequate support. Often no time and little training are provided to help teachers to make the necessary adjustments. So, the second shift of my work day grows in length, the one that begins after the kids go home and that continues on weekends.
I often leave PD sessions demoralized, feeling utterly overwhelmed by my growing responsibilities and by yet another steep learning curve ahead.
The irony is that these changes and new initiatives rarely emerge out of the hard-won experience of active teachers. In fact, there seems to be little input from the teachers who are responding daily and directly to the current and actual challenges in the classroom. In significant ways, we have been denied the autonomy to make meaningful decisions at work and the agency to contribute to positive change.
The micro-management of teachers as they write report cards illustrates the degree to which the teacher’s professional judgement has become devalued. The basic formula for writing comments (currently:strength, challenge, goal, next steps) is constantly being tweaked in trivial ways. (Teachers have been inserviced countless times on almost imperceptible, and in my opinion, meaningless changes.) The structure of the comment is inflexible and must be adhered to. Language is prescribed – only certain words, terms, and phrases are acceptable. Inflexible character counts add to the frustration. Yet, within the imposed structure and the constraints, we have been directed to write in a “natural” voice, in an easy-to-read and colloquial style. We are not trusted to use our own words to write about the unique gifts of actual children; nor are we provided with an easy to use checklist of outcomes. After many frustrating and laborious days and weeks spent writing, report cards must be passed on to administrators for approval. Sometimes pages of revisions are suggested. The whole process can be galling and dispiriting. In the end, I am often reluctant to sign my name to the document.
A few of the changes to education have been positive. But many, in my opinion, reflect an effort to create the appearance of progressive and equitable education. The lack of real support for inclusion, for example, can be shocking. The irony: Mountains of data that outline a child’s strengths, challenges and interests, that describe the materials and personnel necessary for that child’s success, and that track, and report on the student’s progress. The report certainly looks thorough. And yet, in the classroom, there is less, sometimes no EPA support, Learning centres are overburdened and classroom teachers are stretched beyond their means. Despite best efforts, it is with deep regret I acknowledge that children with special needs are often neglected in the classroom. Diverse and inclusive classrooms remain a fundamental and persistent problem..
In order to collect data that ostensibly supports student success, the bureaucracy involved in my job has become absurdly unwieldy. The system’s effort to be “everything to everyone” has resulted in the failure to be anything at all. The public school system in Nova Scotia has been enjoying an extended “having its cake and eating it too moment”. Educational outcomes, standardized tests, formulaic report cards, and data obsession cannot be reconciled with the concurrent expectations that teachers be inclusive, culturally sensitive and responsive, that they differentiate and adapt instruction and assessment, address diverse mental health concerns, manage increasingly difficult behaviour issues, and develop meaningful personal relationships with each individual student.
I care about my work. I want to do a good job and it bothers me deeply that I can’t.
Teachers, like me, have worked at the very centre of these conflicts. For many years, I was afraid to speak out because I was uncomfortable with my failure to make things work. Like many others, I “took one for the team” and covered for a dysfunctional system. But pressure has been building. Teachers are now standing up for education. We understand that change can be good and we are up for the challenge.