Sunday, June 10, 2012

What I've Learned in 25 Years Teaching

As a recently retired teacher, I feel I should impart some grand wisdom about the state of education in West Virginia and the nation. I’m not sure I can. But I can tell you some stories.

When I was in high school during the turbulent 1960’s, I felt that public education was essentially designed so students would blindly conform with social norms and values, such as doing one’s work without questioning authority, maintaining the social order and the status quo, and supporting the government and the military. (If you were against the Vietnam War, you were not considered patriotic.)

In 1969, as one of two graduation speakers for my high school class, I wrote a speech calling for radical changes in education. I called for debate and critical thinking rather than rote memorization to measure successful learning. I opined that it was no wonder young people and disenfranchised communities became angry when excluded from the American Dream through unfair and unequal treatment in jobs, housing, and education, especially when the influence of a powerful military-industrial complex causes government to be unresponsive to people’s demands for change.

When I began teaching in rural West Virginia in 1987, I was much more pragmatic in my approach. Keeping twenty-five fourth graders engaged for six hours a day will always be a challenge, let alone getting them to think critically. I found most students willing to work hard, but resist thinking. They expect to be led to the answers and be rewarded, except for those who are so frustrated they don’t even try.

I would like to believe that becoming a good teacher takes time and experience, as I feel it did for me. Although many people told me in my first years that I was a good teacher,  I knew that I wasn’t in many areas at first.  However, I have seen great young teachers and lousy experienced ones. Most teachers get better as we learn from our mistakes and our successes, from each other, and from various other available sources of professional development. But in the current system, teachers are not given many opportunities to learn from each other.

In the course of my twenty-five year career I’ve seen radical shifts in education at the elementary school level. When I started, teachers were obligated to meet well defined instructional objectives set forth by the state in any way the teacher thought best.  For many, this meant adherence to textbooks purchased by the county school districts and their accompanying worksheets and tests. Most teachers added in project-based learning and themed units of study to tie together learning in different subjects. Some teachers preferred to develop their own materials or purchase supplemental materials, such as classroom sets of books, rather than sticking to the textbooks. These materials enhanced student learning, and that was accepted, even encouraged.  Standardized tests in 4th, 8th, and 10th grades gave students, teachers, and schools a general idea of their progress. Graduation rates and college entrance exams provided additional data.

In 2001, a forward thinking principal at my school felt that a computer lab with an enthusiastic teacher to staff it would help narrow the gap for kids who didn’t have computers. With the help of grants and donations we got computers, and with federal Title I funds (funds given to schools with a high enough percentage of students eligible for free lunches), the principal  hired me as a reading specialist to improve reading and writing through technology. Released from grading, testing, collecting homework assignments, parent conferences, and behavior issues that make teaching a daily challenge, I entered my “glory years” as an educator. Students looked forward to their time with me, even the behaviorally challenged, and using a mix of basic skills software, word processor-based writing activities, and projects using applications such as PowerPoint and the Internet, students in my elementary school had an hour a week to learn using technology. Classroom teachers, many very tentative about computers, could learn along with their students.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) put an end to that and many other creative responses by teachers and schools to the problem of the achievement gap between economic and racial groups.

A disclaimer is in order here. It really doesn’t matter what results the greatest theory of education produces in students when applied by experts. What matters is how real teachers and real schools apply those theories. So in the 1980’s and 90’s there was a great debate about “Whole Language” as a method for learning to read and write. The best practitioners of this approach produced excellent results concentrating on group reading of “Big Books,” individual choice in reading materials once independent reading skills were obtained, and “Writing Workshop” time in which students were encouraged to write whatever they wanted, and the process of writing was emphasized over the correctness of spelling and grammar. However, many teachers with inadequate understanding, support, or skills, applied the methods unsuccessfully and overall reading scores suffered, especially for those who entered school with limited skills and who enjoyed less parental support (which correlates strongly with lower economic status). The achievement gap increased.

The reaction, embodied in NCLB, narrowed the elementary school curriculum dramatically to focus on distinct, measurable skills in reading and math.. Teachers in primary classrooms were required to deliver an hour of scripted phonics instruction. In upper elementary, teachers were encouraged to concentrate on narrow skills such as reading speed or isolated comprehension skills, and to constantly assess student progress. Teachers had little time in their schedules to squeeze in writing activities and were prohibited from teaching writing processes during reading class. Reading scores improved to a degree, but West Virginia learned, as others have, that critical thinking and higher level comprehension skills have suffered. Once again, it may not be the theory, but the application that causes the unsatisfactory results.

In the last couple years of my career I spent most of my time, as most reading specialists do, reading with small groups of students and concentrating on isolated skills as required by the implementation of  NCLB. I no longer had time to staff the computer lab, which got used mostly for testing. Classroom teachers were told to use their textbooks and admonished to be faithful to the prescribed curriculum, including how to introduce and teach lessons and where to be in the book during the course of the year. Principals were required to do “walk-abouts” to insure compliance. At our school, teachers found ways to work in independent reading, writing and projects, but it was difficult to find the time given the requirements.

Today, students spend hours and hours taking a variety of tests, practice tests, assessment tests, skills tests, and computer based tests, in addition to tests teachers give in the course of teaching the required curriculum. They spend literally weeks on required county and state benchmark and standardized tests.

I’m pleased to report that the pendulum may be swinging back to giving teachers more flexibility through the “Common Core,” or “Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives” as West Virginia calls them. However, be advised that only by implementing truly collaborative professional development models which place teachers at the center will better teaching and learning result.

In twenty-five years of teaching elementary school including fifteen years in a second part-time job working with teachers at all grade levels improving the teaching of writing, if I have gained any grand wisdom, it is that

  • Students need to spend most of their time actually engaged in what you want them to learn.
    • During reading time they must read even as they’re mastering the alphabet and its sounds;
    • They need to write about everything they’re learning and learn grammar through the process of working with others to edit their work;
    • In all other classes they need to be engaged in learning and projects of genuine interest to them as much as possible.
  • Teachers learn best with and from their peers, so they need opportunities to spend time with other teachers, seeing how they teach, giving each other feedback.
  • Principals need to be smart, experienced instructional leaders so they earn respect from teachers.
    • They should be collaborative, not authoritarian in their approach
    • Any system of teacher evaluation should have a panel of expert teachers who can either help improve or weed out incompetent or ineffective teachers. Professional teacher associations need to help design these systems.
  • Teacher preparation programs should do a better job weeding out inappropriate candidates.
  • Technology is a wonderful tool for learning, but computer programs cannot replace good teachers. 

NCLB is proof that lawmakers do not understand education. Its basic tenets are untenable, and it has, in my opinion, done more harm than good. Lawmakers should pass laws that support teachers seeking out rigorous professional development, and schools which provide it, bringing in outside consultants as needed. Teachers working in the most difficult teaching situations should be rewarded so the best teachers will seek out and stay in those positions.

I made a decent living as a teacher and feel fortunate to be able to retire with a pension in an age of cutbacks. I hope that our country’s economy improves and that professional educators get the support and respect they deserve, though that support and respect should not depend on the state of the economy. A healthy economy, competent workforce, and an informed electorate cannot be maintained without investment in a professional teaching force.

This essay was published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Sunday, June 10, 2012


  1. Great piece, well written and all true. Congratulations on your retirement, Paul, although it's a darned shame that we're losing a dedicated and skilled professional. Have you retired altogether, or will you be mentoring/ advising/ teaching as an independent contractor here in West Virginia?

  2. Paul, thanks for a thoughtful post at this point in a career. Your summative points suggest, to me, that at all ages and in multiple roles, we learn primarily by reflecting on and interacting about authentic "doing." That stance is foundational to writing project work, too. Congratudolences on your retirement - from a '63 HS graduate still teaching! JSD

  3. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for this lovely and thoughtful reflection on your career and the state of education. I agree with Jim, it does sound like the writing project work we have all learned from by doing and reflecting together.
    I like Jim's 'congratudolences'
    Enjoy retirement and all the interesting doing and reflecting that might make room for.