Last year, I gave up approximately 35 days of classroom instructional time to give tests. These tests included ACT-style, common assessments given by grade level teams (i.e. all the sophomore English teachers gave the same ACT-style test to their students) every five weeks (these tests usually took 2 days for students to finish), practice ACT tests given by the district, the EXPLORE/PLAN (a standardized test required by the state), the actual ACT (a standardized test required by the state), in addition to all the regular content-based exams (i.e. chapter quizzes for a novel, end of unit exams, etc.). In a school year that is only 9.5 months long, that’s a TON of days to suck up just to give tests. The whole point of these tests is to help prepare kids for other tests. But where does the time come to actually learn?
At my old school, when my former principal told my English Dept. chair that he had to integrate more test prep and more non-fiction, he replied, “But if we spend all this time preparing them for a test, when will they ever have the chance to just appreciate something beautiful?” Remember that? Remember that feeling when you would read or learned something in a class that just resonated with you and made you sit up a little straighter and pay attention a little more? I know the text that did it for many of my students over the years. I see the difference in them. All of a sudden, something got their attention.
In my first year of teaching, I had a rough, rough 7th period class. This class had become a dumping ground for bad students. All the middle of the road students were in inclusion classes (these are classes that by law have a certain ratio of SpEd students and regular students so that SpEd students can be taught in the least restrictive environment) and the smart kids were in honors classes. This meant that all the rough kids, the kids who didn’t care, and a handful of poor souls who actually did want to learn all ended up in my 7th period class. I HATED those kids. I dreaded going there every day. I spent a lot of days yelling or standing around waiting for them to get the hint that I was ready to teach. It was soooo frustrating. One girl in particular, we’ll call her Ruby, hated me. Every time I asked her to put her phone away or stop talking, I was met with such hostility and anger. Finally, I just kind of left her alone. I tried to focus more on the 10 kids who were there and doing work and really wanted to learn. One day, I was teaching Benjamin Franklin’s The Autobiography. This was around the same time as Tiger Woods’s big cheating scandal and I remembered my old professor telling me that Ben Franklin was quite the flirt and ladies man. I decided that in order to get these kids to care about Ben Franklin, I had to up the ante. I started telling them that Ben was like the Tiger Woods of his time. That he was not only an incredibly intelligent inventor and writer who played a role in the founding of this country, but he was also a big time celebrity. He dined with powerful political figures and held court with kings. About halfway through my spiel, I looked up to see Ruby watching me closely. She was rapt with attention and was hanging on my every word. About ten minutes into class, I started to teach just for her. I could see she was excited by the story and what I was reading to them. Her excitement fueled my own teaching and the whole class started to get really interested in, of all things, Benjamin Franklin. She was appreciating something beautiful.
After that, Ruby seriously improved in my class. She took it more seriously, working hard to really improve her grades. At a later report card pickup, she even told her mother I was her favorite teacher. That’s the power of teaching. It’s not something that can be replicated in every classroom because my approach, my teaching style, and my humor cannot be replicated; I cannot be replicated.
In everyone’s quest to “reform” public schools (aka privatize public schools), they claim the most powerful indicator of students outcomes is teacher effectiveness. They think this can be measured by standardized tests. That moment with Ruby? That cannot be measured by a test. Sure, you could point to her “growth” over the year, but what I did was probably more permanent than her ability to walk out of her sophomore year a better reader or writer. Those things are important and they are somewhat measurable by a standardized test, but what is not is the passion I gave her to stop fooling around and start investing in her education. She walked out a better person because of me and that will never be measurable by a standardized exam. Unfortunately, this seems to be something everyone forgets. I’m not just effective because of my ability to get kids to be better readers and writers and thinkers. My efficacy lies in my ability to inspire. And that can never be measured.
PS. That 7th period class that I hated so much? It ended up being my favorite by the end of the year and I won over almost all of those students. Standardize that.