Let them play jazz

Teachers have been under the public microscope since Socrates first started instructing in ancient Greece. Those of us in the classrooms knew from the start that we were never going to get rich teaching geometry or physical education. Still, as our salaries have stayed flat, the high stakes nature of our work and expectations of accountability have skyrocketed. Much of this stems from increased pressure by lawmakers on schools to boost their test scores. And, like like much else in life, the manure runs downhill and all too often ends up on the teacher’s nice shirt.

teachers lounge 2Most people are unaware of the increasing use of “pacing guides” in classrooms. These are pre-planned lessons or programs that are purchased from the giant textbook publishers/testing companies (this includes Pearson Publishing, a fervent  supporter of the Common Core initiative that standardizes teaching). These “canned lessons” are basically designed to take the human element out of our craft. Everyone MUST follow the same guides designed by the book/test publishers to prepare students for statewide exams that, year after year, seem to produce low scores  and criticisms of teachers rather than the tests. There are elementary and middle school principals who want to walk down a hallway and hear the same lesson being taught, and the same pages being turned in every room at the same time. What about “teachable moments” in which students ask a difficult but off topic question? “Sorry – no time to answer your question, see cuz we need to hurry up and read the next section so we can meet our deadlines getting to the the word problems scheduled for today.” There’s little or no time for a teacher to be creative, passionate or engage his or her students. What is this, North Korea?

Teachers are like all other professionals: there are great ones, good ones and ones that need to be doing something else. This new method of one-size-fits-all teaching and evaluations may work for those at the bottom of the scale. But it does nothing but get in the way of the good and great teachers. (For the record, I consider myself to be a good teacher most days, and occasionally a great teacher, mostly because I have such terrific, inquisitive, spirited students).  Teaching is a wonderful mix of both a science an an art. The science comes in certain techniques that work for all students.  The art comes in knowing when and how to apply them, and how to meet the needs of 33 different kids with different strengths and learning styles.

Let me give some example. You can teach piano or football. Some kids will hit all of the correct notes and music comes out. Some will master the spiral pass or tackle. Even with the basics,  some will have no musical ear, no rhythm or no prowess on the football field, no matter how much they practice. Others are gifted, able to move you to tears by making the piano an extension of themselves, or strategize a Hail Mary pass like a chess-master. There is something innate about the way they make music or move on the field. It is soulful, emotional and takes you beyond the basics. It’s called excellence, talent. And, as educators, it’s what we strive to bring out in our students.

But if politicians, superintendents, and certain principals had their way, they’d make Peyton Manning run his offense the same way as Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne. Or would have made Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninov play “Chopsticks” over and over. Younger teachers feel the pressure to conform. Those who yearn for more mojo in their classrooms often get discouraged and quit the profession.

I, for one, say enough to teaching at the lowest common demoninator. Teachers who are bored with their curricula will no doubt inflict boredom on their students. With increased emphasis on rote teaching, we can’t afford to let any more soul leak out of our classrooms. After years of teaching to the test, it’s time to call an audible at the line. It’s time to pound the ivories, play it by ear and let our teachers do what they do best – bring back the passion that led them to education in the first place.