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Can One Number Determine A Teacher's Self Worth?

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The alarm clock went off late and it was raining.  Not the spring shower kind of rain but the opening of the clouds kind of rain.  The bus was early.  The deep throttle of its engine laughed carelessly at the boy as it drove away spraying water onto the only jacket that made him feel good.  He picked the pieces of mud off the school logo as he walked back to the trailer his family just rented.  His dad had already left for work but mom was still asleep.  He would have to wake her up to go to school.  He wanted to just crawl back in bed but his teacher told him how important it was to be at school today.  It was the end of the year test.  He had to be there.  He had to show how much he had learned over the past several months in school.  He loved his math teacher and he didn't want to let her down.

The ride to school was a long, silent ride.  He didn't have time to change his clothes so he began to shake as the water in his shirt soaked through to his skin.  He walked into the office while his mom sped away with the door barely shut.  He had missed breakfast.  His stomach rumbled.  He felt like he was going to be sick.  That wasn't an option right now.  He hurried to his locker and on to math class.  He knew they must have already started the test.  Everyone turned to look at him with the click of the door.  Water ran down his leg, dirty bus water.  He looked down to see his jacket covered in mud. Snickers could be heard echoing through the room.  His math teacher turned to see who had entered her class.  Her smile instantly warmed him.  She softly walked over to him and put her arm around him.  She made him laugh and gently squeezed his shoulders.  Instead of getting the laptop for him to start she pulled out a granola bar and an extra t-shirt from the walkathon.  He was still shaky and out of sorts from his morning but he would do the best that he could.

Every single child we teach has a story.  They are all puzzles with intricate pieces.  As teachers we try to control as many of those pieces as we possibly can but we do not have absolute control over the entire puzzle.  To suggest we do is foolish and irresponsible.  Yet many legislators and administrators believe that we do have a grasp on all of the pieces.  Could you imagine having 30 different puzzles, mixing up all the pieces and sorting them out to put together a whole complete, perfect student?  Impossible right?  Some pieces are at home.  Some pieces are at their second home.  Some pieces are at their grandparents house or an aunt or uncles, maybe a friends house.  And unfortunately for some kids, some pieces are lost forever.

We do our best everyday to identify their pieces and put them together, to make connections and build relationships.  On top of all that, we work to teach content. Who we are as educators is no longer defined in granola bars or smiles.  It is no longer defined in kindness.  Its no longer defined in the hours spent after school working on fractions or proportions.  It is not defined in the moment that a child finally learned all of their multiplication tables, in sixth grade.  It is not defined in the millions of tiny successes that students use as stepping stones to move forward.  It is defined in one number.  The number they earn on the end of the year assessment.  Have they grown enough to show that their teacher is a good teacher?  The circumstances of their morning or of their day does not matter.  The computer that recognizes a colon but not a semicolon does not matter.  The fact that the student could not read the question or their neighbor kept kicking them under the table does not matter.  It all comes down to one number.

This one number is defining teachers around this country.  Teachers who have been identified as wonderful, hard working, exceptional teachers are now marginalized by a percentage and put into a category.  When your life's work is dismissed by a casual percentage your self worth declines.  One begins to question everything they do in the classroom.   Hours are taken from family and friends and depression follows.  How is this okay?  Why do we allow it to happen?  It is incredibly painful to watch talented colleagues fall lower and lower as data, small pieces of data, determine their future.

As teachers we work hard to inspire our kids and light the fire of passion in them.  Why do we not do this for our teachers?  Are we robots, programmed to teach to the test?  No, we are self driven individuals who are passionate about their work.  As teachers we know what is destructive to our students.  We know what causes morale to go down.  We know what causes them pain.  How and why can no one recognize this in us?

I started a book group in our school to help raise morale.  One of the hardest things I have ever seen is a talented, amazing, teacher beat down by the system.  We all give so much and deserve better. Our book is Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.  My hope is that we will all find our passion again and stop allowing one number to define who we are as educators.  Let's let our passion define us.  Let's have our students remember us for the fire we instilled in them because it burned strong in us. Numbers do not define us. Our passion for what we do defines us.

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After graduating from the University of Cincinnati I began teaching sixth grade.  I have taught at the same rural Appalachian school district for the last 20 years and consider it an honor.  Learning is my love.  Continually taking coursework is my second hobby.  While I have earned my masters degree from the University of Massachusetts, I have taken classes from Penn State, The Harvard Extension School, Savannah College of Art and Design, the University of Cincinnati, and The University of Queensland. 

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Guest Tuesday, 25 October 2016