Mrs. H. is a teacher in the elementary school in which I volunteer. A dozen or so years ago we were Reading Recovery colleagues. We attended the same meetings, observed each other teaching and assessed each other’s students. Her advice to me during those years was valuable and insightful.
Reading Recovery is all but gone in our school system and we’ve both moved on…she has gone back to the classroom and I’ve retired.
I arrived at school yesterday ready to work with my students only to find that Mrs. H was using “my room” to test several of her students.
Focus on Testing
When I was teaching as a reading specialist/Reading Recovery teacher, I was already fighting the overemphasis on testing and the (IMHO) pedagogically poor practice of teaching to the test and obsessing over standards. General education classroom teachers were being forced into the “teach to the test” mode. My classroom had no such restrictions since I was pulling students out to remediate them. I could focus on “good teaching,” “best practices” and “authentic learning.” During staff meetings, and frankly, any time I had the chance, I argued against the move towards a “testing culture” in our school. Our principal became tired of my complaining and eventually told me to keep it to myself. He was correct only because I was directing my complaints to the wrong people. He had no control over what was coming from the Central Office, the State Department of Education and the Federal Department of Education.
As the years went on, and the “testing culture” grew I brought my argument to the central administration. I was no more successful in changing things, but I did at least, direct my arguments at the people in our system who could make a difference.
Just like in other school systems around the country, there have been significant changes in our local school district since I did my student teaching in one of our schools almost 40 years ago. When I started teaching I learned from other teachers that testing had a purpose…which was the diagnosis of student learning needs and the analysis of the effectiveness of my instruction. The content of a test must be aligned with the content of the curriculum, but I have learned that the written curriculum is only a small, albeit important, part of what goes on in elementary schools. Watching excellent teachers go from educating our children to “teaching the tested standards” has been frustrating, knowing that children are being denied important social and personal skills — as well as content not found in the singular attention to Literacy and Math instruction.
Eventually, even in my “protected” classroom position, “The Test” became all important. I was charged with coordinating the annual testing (along with our Guidance Counselor), analyzing the data and guiding the curriculum towards the tested standards. The timing worked out well for me. After a few years of having to focus on the tests my job was eliminated. There wasn’t enough money to afford the luxury of having support specialists in schools to help struggling students.
Freedom to Teach
When I retired I discovered that volunteering has a freedom I hadn’t experienced for a long time. The teachers I volunteer for know me and know that I have the skills to help their students so they allow me to use those skills. They let me teach.
Fast forward (do today’s children know what that phrase means?) to yesterday…
When Mrs. H was done with her testing and I moved back into “my room” we talked for a few minutes.
She asked me how “retirement” was and I talked about how nice it was to be able to teach…to focus on the needs of the students with whom I work, rather than the standards…to focus on trying to help children learn to read, instead of how far they need to be in order to pass the test.
She went back to her job…and I went to get my next student.
While I was helping the student — a first grader — it occurred to me that I was teaching. I wasn’t “working on skills,” “prepping for assessment,” or “teaching standards.” I had no such restrictions…just some time to help a 6 year old understand the reading process and learn to grow intellectually.
When my student went back to her classroom I reached into my bag and pulled out a wristband which I had ordered from a group on Facebook. The wristbands are popping up all over the country…and I bought a number of them to share with other teachers.
They say, simply, Just Let Me Teach.