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At the Chalk Face: My Best Year as a Teacher

I began teaching in my first, full-time classroom in 2006, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  It was right in the thick of various No Child Left Behind changes and shifts, and it was about the time that data became paramount and a new program was being handed down every other week.  Or so it seemed.  I worked in a highly diverse middle school on the Westside of Albuquerque, where kids had to adhere to a uniform dress code (an attempt to offset gang relations) and where fights happened after school at least twice per week.

I don’t think I would call it an “urban school,” by today’s definition, and it certainly was not “inner city.”  But, it was a huge school in a lower-middle-class part of a large city.  The staff had to attend too many professional development sessions geared toward prepping kids for the state Standards-Based Assessments, and every one of those involved a district official reading a PowerPoint word-for-word.  Of course, those PowerPoints had the NM PED (New Mexico Public Education Department) logo on the slides, so you knew it was a top-down mandate.  Teachers were observed by administration regularly and then conferenced.  The end-of-the-year summative evaluation included talk of test scores as part of the conference, just as they do now.

Sounds dreadfully similar to our current times, doesn’t it?  You know, it wasn’t.  First of all, I hardly ever had to put aside my lessons so that my students could take the test of the week–STAR, MAPS, Discovery, EoC, EoG, formatives, whatever–and I found that I had a smooth, cohesive movement through the material that I taught to my students.  My science department certainly discussed how things were going and shared our best practices, which we more often than not adopted, borrowed, stole, or whatever term fits that mutually beneficial arrangement.

When I was evaluated by an administrator, I felt at ease.  Usually, she would walk in, sit down, and watch.  And listen.  She would get up and interact with students.  She would participate in class.  She would even raise her hand.  If my lesson was particularly interesting, she would ask permission to join a student group.  Once, she even turned in her own lab report.  My students thought nothing of it.  She was part of the class.

Now, when an administrator walks in to do a “learning walk,” or “walkthrough,” or whatever buzzword your school calls it now, they don’t interact.  They eyeball their clipboard or iPad (depending the school’s budget) and look at the walls, the board, the lesson plan, and then they watch the teacher, all while scribbling or typing notes into their Charlotte Danielson rubric–always looking for something they can ding you for.  Not because they want to and not because they’re mean people; because they’re training and their own evaluations say that they have to find something negative about every teacher.

The students feel it, too.  This is not part of the class.  This person is not here to be part of their learning community.  They’re smart enough to know that this person is here with an agenda.  It affects them.

One of the things that makes me cringe is listening to teachers speak about how much the Common Core State Standards have improved their teaching.  Now, they say, they are listening to their students, asking more questions, asking their students to justify answers, and leading discussions with their classes.  That bugs me.  It bugs me because that’s exactly what I was allowed to do (and loved to do) during my first year.  Sometimes, it took my classes way longer to get through a topic than was planned because I wanted to hear their thoughts.  I wanted them to disagree with me.  I wanted to disagree with them.  I wanted to take them outside and let them learn while blowing off some steam.  I wanted to have FUN.  Students want to have fun.

Now, with the implementation of the Core, a few unpleasant things have come about.  Many education leaders will claim that this is due to “bad implementation,” but I don’t think so.  This is the way it was designed to be.

  1. Schools that don’t achieve highly on CCSS-aligned standardized tests are being required to adopt a “standardized classroom” model.  It may not be called that everywhere, but it’s all the same.  You’ll notice and teachers will feel the pressure to maintain classrooms that have similar elements in every classroom in the school.  These are the elements that those out-of-place administrators look for when they’re scanning the walls and the board.  Missing one?  Lose points.
  2. Testing has increased dramatically, painfully.  During my first year, I wasted two total weeks of my time administering tests that I didn’t care about.  During my last year teaching (in 2012), I wasted over six weeks administering different types of tests throughout the year.  From what my colleagues tell me, 2013 is already even worse.  Not only does this eat up important learning time, more importantly, it disrupts that smooth continuity I described above.  Great classrooms work because they’re allowed to develop a flow and a cohesiveness.  These tests are increasingly breaking that flow and creating problems for both students and teachers.
  3. My end of the year summative evaluation included graphs and reports about my students’ performance on the state tests, but they weren’t nearly as “high-stakes” as they are now.  My administrator and I talked about them.  She asked questions; I answered.  Never once did I fear for my job.  Never once did I feel that I was being scrutinized by that once piece of my evaluation.  People were a little saner back then.  I think that everyone felt okay with that conversation, because we knew, as professional educators, that those scores were only to be used as a diagnostic and guidance tool, not as a measure of teacher effectiveness.

Ironically, in the more flexible environment that I was allowed to create, and despite not using any of the strict and orderly methods being prescribed by state education departments today, my students performed and showed “growth” better than those of my colleagues by 15%.  My administrator was happy, but didn’t tell me to become some “master teacher” to whip my colleagues into shape (it wouldn’t have happened anyway–my classroom was the most laid-back in the school).  I was not held up as an award-winning teacher.  But I did tell her that I hope to continue teaching the way I did.  If data was needed to show efficacy, she had it.

My kids were happy to come to class.  I loved being there.  My coworkers were friendly and relatively at ease.  My school was a great place to be.

Now, the reforms we’re seeing in our schools are poisoning that environment.  Trust is being challenged every day between administrators, teachers, students, and parents.  That’s not the way this is supposed to be.  Schools are communities.  They are not corporations.

When people say we need to get our schools back, that’s what they mean.  They want their kids, teachers, and leaders to be happy and to like and trust each other again.  Some schools need work.  Some schools need outside help.  Some schools–like my first school–need to be left the hell alone.  We need to bring back the environment where kids and adults like to go every day–to be happy.

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Kris Nielsen

Kris Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. Kris is an activist against corporate education...