Meme: 5 things policy makers ought to know

I was tagged by Richelle for this great meme, started by Nancy Flanagan at Teachers for a Strange Land. Hmm…what do I want policy makers to know?

1. My classroom is unique. So are my students. So am I! So…you can’t clone me or any other teacher!  Policies that attempt to create uniformity in classroom teaching don’t work; they actually aggravate us teachers because they make us feel that our work and our needs are misunderstood. Instead of trying to create clones, increase our opportunities to see great teaching in action, give us time to share best practices and collaborate with other teachers, and put accomplished practitioners in leadership and mentor roles. We will use these opportunities to grow and problem solve in our own unique classrooms.

If you’re worried some of us won’t use these opportunities to improve, create an evaluation process that asks us to demonstrate what we’ve accomplished in a year’s time and how we did it. Just don’t limit our use of “evidence” to standardized test scores. Using these as absolute measures our effectiveness is another push towards uniformity, when test scores capture only a small percent of our work.

2. The physical aspect of a classroom environment is a lot more important than you might think. Schools compete with all the other environments—real and virtual—where children spend time. The values of school often conflict with the values students come to know at home, in their neighborhoods or on the Internet. Most kids will not easily buy into the notion that “school is good because it promises a good future later,” especially students who have experienced empty promises already in their short lifetimes. School needs to be a compelling environment for kids here and now.

To compel students, schools should be aesthetically pleasing and comfortable. Spacious classrooms, nice furniture, cushioned seating, rugs, pleasant lighting, and working equipment send a strong message to students that school is an exciting place. The usual dingy paint job, ugly uncomfortable furniture, outdated non-working or nonexistent equipment, hard surfaces that reverberate noise, fluorescent lighting all day long, and overcrowded classrooms do not make a very strong case to students that school is the key to a bright future. Teachers are hard-pressed to find ways to compensate for this widespread weakness, and they usually have to come out of their own pockets.

3. Stop threatening principals with termination based solely on test scores of students. A scared leader creates a negative climate for staff and students. Especially in schools that serve high-need populations, staff and students already work under some very difficult conditions. I do encourage policymakers to look closely at the work of principals–but look at the whole picture of what they are doing and find ways to help them lead effectively.

4. My middle school students need physical activity and time to socialize. They cannot and should not sit in chairs from 8am til 3pm. If we don’t provide a variety of physical and social activities during the day in an organized way, they will find their own ways—which we won’t like so much! The push for “more time on task” to counteract the low performance of middle school students nationwide is laughable, unless we open up our idea of just what a valuable task is. Supervised social time with opportunities to run around (a.k.a. recess) is valuable for children and should be considered time on task. In addition to developing the valuable skills and understandings of their disciplines, special subjects such as music, art, drama, physical education and shop class provide interesting opportunities for physical and social engagement that are invaluable for early adolescents. With more variety in the types of tasks middle school students are expected to engage in throughout their day, I have no doubt they will become more focused and cooperative, and achieve at higher levels.

5. I’ve worked exclusively in high needs schools in New York City. My students regularly experience or witness the effects of urban poverty, violence, lack of health care, unemployment, crime, drug addiction and trauma. A number of students each year enter school with high emotional needs that require a kind of attention most teachers are not equipped to give any one student. In my untrained opinion, many such students would benefit from a period of intensive counseling and limited time in the classroom, while they work on how to cope with the crises in their lives. But most middle school students with high emotional needs are in mainstream classrooms and receive voluntary counseling once a week—if they accept it. Meanwhile, such students commonly express their anger and frustration in classrooms and hallways, which disrupts the learning and sometimes safety of other students. Eventually, such a student usually builds up a disciplinary record, gets a long-term suspension (which may include a criminal record) and lands in an “alternative learning site” with other students with similar records. Usually, there is still no counseling. Upon return to my school, there is often no discernible change in behavior.

I worry a lot about students like this; I’ve literally lost sleep thinking about their situations. Sometimes I have a breakthrough with a particularly troublesome student, and I have the immense pleasure of knowing I’ve changed the course of that student’s life, at least to some degree. Other times, painfully, I have to let go of that student, because I have fifty others who need my attention, and I simply do not know what more I can do. Short of eliminating poverty and all its effects, I would like policy makers to recognize that most schools are not prepared to serve severely at risk students and begin to think seriously about how to put stronger systems in place to help them before its too late.

[“Attack of the Clones” image found at]