Currently, I teach in South Carolina. We are ranked 48th in education.
Today is May 1: May Day, International Workers’ Day, Father’s Day (in Germany), and National Chocolate Parfait Day (my favorite). Fittingly, thousands of South Carolina educators walk out today in protest of our state legislature’s inability to pass any sort of measure that makes an iota of common sense. Elementary school students really need to take dozens of standardized tests a year? Give me a break–that goes against any sound educational pedagogy of the past decade or two. Class sizes have expanded to bursting; I’ve had up to 34 students in one class. Needless to say, we could barely move. We just want to support the students, claims our SC Superintendent of Education. Without retention of quality teachers, how do you expect to do so? We are tired of the same old line by the exact same type of policy-maker: “We want to do what is best for the students.” Without respecting teachers or the power of education and the mind, how can we?
South Carolina is a right-to-work state, meaning no unions, no protections, no one with teachers’ and thereby students’ best interests actually at heart. We are exasperated. We need:
- Far less testing and realistic growth-based goals. If we want to actually strive for fairness in education, assessment has to nose-dive away from this injudicious idea that every child’s success is predicated upon their ability to answer questions on a multiple-guess test well. Why should the word differentiation even exist when every student is expected to be the same in the end?
- Education to be valued by society.
- Acceptable working conditions and materials, for ourselves and our students.
- Equal access to all educational resources. Which, in case you haven’t heard, does indeed mean changing the way education is funded to continue the systemic racism and societal stagnation all too obviously present.
- Competent leadership, and competent, experienced professionals (eg current or former educators, educational researchers, etc) informing policy change rather than billionaires with no clue what the inside of a public school looks like.
Why? Because we care. We care deeply about our students, our work, our families, our world. Many of us went into the profession because we wanted to improve our communities and nation through positively impacting the lives of our students…yet we are being ruthlessly crushed by the weight of a woefully inadequate system controlled by woefully inadequate politicians. Many of us are leaving either our states or the profession completely not because of the low pay, but because we refuse to work in and for a system that does not have our students’ interests at heart.
Below, I list 10 points where we, as a state and a nation, must improve as a whole. The greatest nation in the world cannot remain great as we submerge our head in the sand, ignoring our failures and inadequacies. The greatest danger to democracy is ignorance.
10 Struggles in S.C. & U.S. Education
1. Education is not a respected profession.
“Those who can’t do, teach.” “You’re wasting your brain.” “Can’t you find a more useful job?”
How often have teachers heard such adages? The retort in my mind, every time: well, would you rather a narrow-minded, ignorant individual attempt to teach our future health-care professionals, military officers, engineers, politicians, lawyers, etc. how to think critically and problem-solve? By all means! And let’s not even plunge into how underpaid traditionally women-dominated professions are in the United States.
Every year, teachers feel our intelligence insulted by useless meetings, expensive professional development oftentimes not actually applicable to our demographic or content area (for 11 days before the students actually arrive for the academic year?!), weekly lesson plan submissions, and parent phone calls claiming, Susie did not cheat, she just used her resources. We are tired of it. Respect our degrees and years of experience. Respect education. Respect a love for learning and curiosity. Respect intellect and questions. Respect your children and our students. Respect us.
Education is our future; I and millions of other teachers are shaping that future. We make hundreds of split-second decisions every hour, from answering content-related questions to comforting a sobbing student to giving life advice. Teaching is a mental whirlwind, and an occupation laden with immense, overlooked responsibility. Perhaps more and more of the public is behind us, but we keep electing politicians who are not.
2. We are tired of the complete lack of freedom.
The freedom to eat lunch without impatient hands tugging at our sleeves, without hearing our names echoed another 37 times, without monitoring students, without breaking apart fights. The freedom to take a break, to go to the bathroom, to drink water when we are thirsty. The freedom to have an off-day. The freedom to take a day off when ill, without lying on the floor next to a trash can and frantically creating and posting substantial sub plans, or worrying about whether the substitute will show up. The freedom to go home after the working day is done, and leave work at our place of employment. This is the stuff of dreams.
Instead, our days are not our own, caught up in a hurricane of 35 students per hour, clamoring for support, attention, help, and, occasionally, knowledge. When the students leave, we are still there. During the school year, we miss important family milestones. Because we cannot leave. We have a responsibility to our students, which, oftentimes, leads us to work upwards of sixty hours per week. In an impractical system with nonsensical time constraints, we sacrifice our freedoms in order to execute our jobs, plus any of a myriad of responsibilities required by our districts and states.
3. Work follows us. Everywhere.
What I would give to have a job that does not permeate almost every facet of my life. Yet, this is an expectation of teachers. We are expected to found and lead student clubs for no compensation. We are expected to sacrifice most of our time and energy for the cause, the calling. We are expected to coach and attend extra-curriculars. Not only are we expected to pay for and attend our own additional professional development on our weekends, but we are expected to demonstrate excitement about this. Taking Saturday, Sunday, or both to grade papers and lesson plan is the norm, again without compensation. There is never enough time. Our time is not valued.
Please, let me continue to prove to you that I know what I’m doing. We’ve been doing it for four year, fourteen years, forty-four years. But by all means, let us prove it, and waste over 100 hours and ample taxpayer dollars, when we could have spent time actually learning and preparing new, innovative lessons for our students. If you want to know if any of us are great teachers, pop into the classroom for fifteen minutes.
5. Parents, and the children who are not allowed to fail
First, let me point out that parents can be amazing, supportive people. I have students whose parents I love and appreciate, without ever having met them, because they’ve created such awesome individuals. Other parents make me want to smash my head against the cinder block wall.
In the state of South Carolina, especially in our district, the words of parents are gold. Last week, a middle school teacher was reamed for refusing to grant students extra credit. Parents were in an uproar. Most students had not been turning assignments in on time; why, then, give extra credit, when the basic requirements have not been met? Not that parents shouldn’t advocate for their children, but a climate has been created where many children can do no wrong. Parents seem to be either absent or do their best to cushion every blow. Students have not learned how to learn from mistakes, or how to fail. Even failure is no longer failing; we have summer school and credit recovery, test corrections and extra credit. In my district, a student can fail an entire year of classes and still graduate on time. We are helping to create a generation of people best suited for sitting in the basement and playing video games until they are forty. What have we done?
The buzz-words: college and career readiness. Such an emphasis is placed on preparing students for real life, yet the current conditions of education in South Carolina seem to be violently against the whole concept. In the mountains of testing and papers, parent arguments and administrative policies, & the societal expectations, we have lost sight of the important things. The purpose of education, as seen by educators, is to help students become better, more well-rounded human beings, and, equally important, to provide students the tools to continue to be inquisitive, lifelong learners. Think critically. Ask questions. Instead, we are crushing the love for learning. In the name of what?
Countless times, I have heard people exclaim: you can’t blame the politicians! Please, then, tell me: who makes educational policy? The policies that dictate an inordinate amount of testing, massive class sizes, and a salary that hasn’t even kept up with the rate of inflation? It certainly isn’t the teachers, the people who interact most with students and understand practical needs.
Our judgement as professionals is not valued. We have no real voice in this state. Hopefully we do after today, but I, the former eternal optimist, am not holding my breath. We, the residents of South Carolina, keep voting Republicans either without an educatioal agenda at all, or one supporting vouchers and for-profit, private schools, because we love even more social stagnation and the maintenance of the status quo. Policy will not change enough until we vote for the change in the form of, God forbid, a Democrat, or a more moderate Republican with educational priorities.
7. Testing. Testing. Testing. x60.
Before graduating high school, our students will take over 100 standardized tests. A massive quantity of material is to be learned each year, then forgotten over the summer. Students and teachers are under immense pressure to meet testing standards, tests behind which both students and teachers do not see a beneficial purpose.
Differentiation is emphasized. Each student is different, and we must tailor our teaching to each student; however, each test is exactly the same. Thus, we are working under the assumption that each student must also be a great test-taker.
“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”Supposedly Einstein, but maybe not.
Why do we, as a nation, have an inability to learn from other nations and science? The United States is 27th in education and healthcare as a whole, and 38th (of 69 countries measured) in math. Clearly, some investigative learning would be beneficial. Summarized from Olivia Hayes, here just a few pointers we could take from Finland:
- Young children learn best when they have the opportunity to learn from playing, singing, exploring, and games. Numerous childhood development studies espouse this fact.
- Students need breaks, too. No one can pay absolute attention for 90 minute chunks of time. In Finland, students are required to take 15-minute outdoor breaks each hour.
- Standardized testing is discouraged before age 16.
- Teaching, as a profession, is well-respected. Acceptance into teacher preparation programs is just as competitive as into law or medical schools.
Although our country and demographics vary wildly, all of these concepts could be applied here. Stop over-testing our children, and allow them to find the fun in learning and exploring.
8. Misappropriation of funds.
Somewhat shockingly, we are fourth in the world for amount spent per student, yet middle of the developed world in a variety of education metrics. Money, in and of itself, is not the problem, but how it is spent. To better students’ education, the basic qualifications include a positive, safe learning environment, learning materials, good parenting, and great, qualified teachers. We shouldn’t have schools with rats, black mold and leaking ceilings, while school board members make upwards of 150,000 dollars. We should not require teachers, struggling to make ends meet, to buy their classroom supplies. We should not have teachers working two, three jobs in order to pay off their student loans and support their families. We call ourselves the greatest nation in the world–but where are we, really, without quality education? If you’ve seen the film Idiocracy…sometimes it seems all too real.
9. All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.
You are replaceable, my principal told us all during a faculty meeting. There are over 300 teacher vacancies in my district this year. South Carolina is struggling state-wide to fill vacancies. We are beginning to go the route of Arizona and require a simple certification, rather than a degree and, most importantly, prior student-teaching experience, to teach. Bodies, any bodies, are being used to plug the gap, and, somehow, students are expected to receive a quality education with rapid teacher turnover and vapid lessons.
10. We aren’t paid nearly enough to tolerate this.
We are under no illusions–many occupations have their own pitfalls. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, managers, physical therapists, coders–all jobs have their negatives. The difference? Employees are paid enough to make the headaches worth it. We do not feel that 35,000 a year starting salary is worth the time, energy, and heart we funnel into our jobs. It feels downright degrading.
I am no longer tolerating this. I am quitting. If I cannot change it, I will not be complicit in a system that I feel almost violates my educational morals. Curiosity, learning, intellect–none of these seem to actually be valued anymore. Instead of marching on the capitol today, I am marching out of South Carolina in July.
*** Update: I never quit teaching because I cannot give up my belief in education, but rather moved to PA, where everything I previously mentioned is, at least, better! I still do not believe in our system: how it is funded, who makes the most massive decisions, societal lack of value, the described purpose of college and career readiness that is a farce, no child left behind, etc. I do believe in the values of a good education and know I contribute positively to my children’s lives and development, despite whatever else happens. The day-to-day can be consumed by frustrations…if you let it. Focus on what you can change, and do it.