As educators try to find better ways to teach and assess children, change will always occur.
In the years that I taught, there were a number of changes in education. I entered the profession in the early 1980s largely because the profession I began my schooling for, psychology, was indicating a poor job market. I was not interested in spending a number of years in school only to take a job that had nothing to do with my education. I had taken a class in psychology, not sure why it was considered psychology, where we tutored children in reading. I enjoyed it a great deal; I liked working with young people, and I enjoyed writing the program that I implemented. Those would be staples for me in my career as well. Eventually, I changed my major and by 1983, I began my student teaching. I had already done some volunteer work in a private school and was given the task of managing high school aged students in their summer courses at that school. I was excited to take on teaching.
I worked in three different schools while I student taught over the course of a year and a half. I ended up teaching nearly all my career at two of those schools. I got my own classroom for the first time to finish out a school year in the spring of 1985. It was a trying quarter for me as I was working with kids who were much lower academically than the students I had worked with in student teaching. Still, I liked it a great deal, although I was working day and night to get the job done. I was a successful student teacher, and I thought that student teaching prepared me to take on my own classroom; oh boy was I wrong!
By the following fall, after the first quarter of the school year, I transferred to one of the schools at which I had student taught. I had to do some bridge burning to get there, and I had to stand up, literally, to a bit of a bully principal who had lied to me, but I got the class back that I had student taught the year before. It was a great start to a fun career.
In the 1980s, there were no standards in place. Teachers taught from their manuals for the most part, and that was the way we were to ensure no duplication of topics from year to year. However, I was never one to teach from a book. I modified the material, and I wrote my own units, something that would pay off well when I got into the Rapid Learner Program and had to write the curriculum that I taught. School was looser back then, and the stress that was in the schools when I finished my career was not there. I never felt the big push to cover material quickly, to make sure my students’ test scores were high and thus, the kids were not stressed out, nor were the teachers. It was, no doubt, a tiring, time consuming job, and I worked most of the weekend, probably due to a lack of efficiency and learning on the job. Later, I would work all weekend, but that was not because of a lack of efficiency; the job had changed so much. I still enjoyed it tremendously. I likened the job to educational entertainment, and that is what it was. I got along well with my students, and we had fun every day. There were some social issues in the beginning, but nothing like I had at the end of my career. The idea of students’ social and emotional health could be found nowhere in any discussions between colleagues or in meetings. It simply wasn’t a thing at that time.
Technology wise, which I knew nothing about when I began, consisted of an Apple IIe computer in the closet. The door of the closet opened up and kids could take a turn sitting in front of the computer and working on it. Software consisted of five inch floppy discs. I had no idea how to work a computer into the program. How could one kid work on the computer while the rest of us worked on something else? That kid would miss instruction. I had a lot to learn, which I did as I eventually was managing 9 iMacs in that classroom and students were making websites. Later, I had 26 laptops in my classroom, and kids were creating all kinds of media and conducting a great deal of research. My schools had computer labs, and in my first school, I learned how to manage the time in there. I enjoyed giving the kids MECC software as it created simulations that the kids could do. I thought those were great! When I got to my second school, I hardly ever went to the lab. I had been able to secure a number of outdated computers from a friend at a high school. They were updating and needing to give the computers away. I was more than happy to pick up those 60-pound each beasts and bring them to my school. I didn’t need the computer lab to cut time out of my week when I could rotate kids through the technology station while I taught the others. I had come a long way from that single computer in a closet to running a mini computer lab in my classroom. My students could work on computer projects while others got a little more personal attention as I worked to lower my teacher to student ratio.
The kids took standardized tests back in the day, but they were timed and utilized pencil and paper. In the 35 years of having my own classroom, we eventually got to computer testing and the tests were no longer timed. We took a lot of tests, and as much as I could, I avoided any that were optional. We were given diagnostic tests on computers to use with our classes. I saw no need for those as I was still from the days were we came to school, learned and had fun. I always felt that any teacher worth his or her salt could diagnose his or her own kids without some computer “spitout” telling the teacher what that child’s needs were. No thank you computer diagnostics, I can handle that myself, after all, I knew my kids and I had about 25 years of experience by that point. All the testing was simply stressing kids out. By the time I entered the Rapid Learner Program, not only were kids stressing out but so were families as those tests held their children’s future in their hands. Way too much emphasis ended up being placed on tests which represented a single session of work for a student. Me, I’d rather look at the long term, day to day progress, to see how a child was performing. But, there is no neat little number that the district can pin on that, push through their computer program and spit out an invitation to a high-level program for the next round of a child’s education. It even got to the point where we were inputting our judgments on our students about their social/emotional health and then the computer would tell us who was at risk. Are you kidding me? I could tell you who was at risk without inputting 20 scores per student and then waiting for a computer to tell me what I already knew. An emphasis on testing was one of the biggest changes to the field in my career, and in my opinion, it wasn’t always for the better. If a teacher truly knew his or her students, all those diagnostic tests were not needed. I was able to dodge many of them over the years, but not all.
The emphasis on academic testing was truly a result of the implementation of standards. By the turn of the century, states had outlined academic and citizenship standards for schools to follow. On paper, it made sense so that we all had the same topics and concepts to teach across grade levels. The curriculum built from year to year and so the idea of students being taught the same topics over and over was extinguished. Letter grades were gone, and students would now be scored on a scale of 1-4 against how closely they were to mastering the standards. The school subjects were broken down, and instead of giving just one math score on a report card, I had to give seven, one for each of the math standards. I used to give a reading score, language score and writing score on report cards, but now I had six scores to give in language arts. It was a lot of work to complete report cards. Add in the comments that explain the scores, and “report card weekend” became a nightmare that I dreaded three times a year. We went from handwritten report cards on NCR paper to typed out, computerized report cards that had unlimited space for comments. That was the hard part: writing comments that were thorough and meant something to the student, the parents and the future teachers of that child. Reporting grades had certainly changed. Likely, for parents it was better, but for teachers, it was horrible. Absolutely horrible. Had the district provided me with the 24 or so hours needed to sufficiently do the job, I might have had a different opinion. But, that didn’t happen.
After a number of years of state standards, the idea came that education should have national standards. Enter the controversial Common Core State Standards. The idea now was that as kids moved from state to state, what they learned should be the same, and thus, national standards were needed. This new set of standards were not as skill based and were more process based. Thinking skills were better emphasized. If kids learned how to think and process information, it shouldn’t matter the material that was presented; they should be able to manage that information successfully. It was new for so many people, but I had been in the Rapid Learner Program for so long, and that is the type of education my team was presenting already. It was like they put standards on the program in which I had been teaching for quite a while! I found it humorously sad that so many educators balked over these new standards. Who would protest teaching thinking skills and open ended investigation? It was harder. Kids were not passing tests like before. Thinking had to be taught. Teachers had to figure out how they wanted to get kids to master the standards. I loved it as the original state standards lead to scripted teacher’s manuals and the push for everything to be the same. There were schools that had a mandate for teachers in the same grade level to be on the same page of a book each day so that no class would be different from another. Really? Someone needed to inform the administration that no two classes of kids are the same and thus, maybe being on the same page on the same day is not good education. I could only scratch my head. Things were changing in education.
The Common Core standards took a lot of the “sameness” of classrooms away. Teachers were given the autonomy to build their own programs using whatever materials they wanted in order to meet the needs of their unique class of students. As long as the standards were taught, how we got our students there was up to us. That put a burden on teachers, especially the ones who had been trained in the days of scripted manuals. Across the country, the screams were heard by teachers and parents about these new standards. Students struggled while teachers caught up to the change. Test scores dropped as the tests were no longer just testing skills, but they were testing open ended thinking. Gone were the days of a single answer to bubble in on a standardized test. Kids had text boxes to type in now. Students who had not been taught that way had a very hard time, and so did special ed kids. I always felt bad for them. For me, it was the way I had been teaching for many years. It’s the way our gifted kids were learning, and I always knew that they were learning better than others, not because they were gifted, but because the style of teaching in our program was at a higher level. I had read that all kids should be taught like gifted programs teach. It’s not the material that mattered; it’s the style, strategies, techniques and expectations that mattered. If educators could utilize those techniques that teach kids how to think at a level that the students can access the information, school becomes more interesting for them. They become more engaged, and they learn more. In my career, I began with no standards and anything a teacher wanted to teach could be taught as no one was monitoring what was occurring academically. By the end of my career, there were standards that tried to create thinkers. It was quite a change; that change lead to an incredible time commitment if one wanted to be a good educator.
The Common Core standards took a lot of the “sameness” of classrooms away. Teachers were given the autonomy to build their own programs using whatever materials they wanted in order to meet the needs of their unique class of students. As long as the standards were taught, how we got our students there was up to us. That put a burden on teachers, especially the ones who had been trained in the days of scripted manuals. Across the country, the screams were heard by teachers and parents about these new standards. Students struggled while teachers caught up to the change. Test scores dropped as the tests were no longer just testing skills, but they were testing open ended thinking. Gone were the days of a single answer to bubble in on a standardized test. Kids had text boxes to type in now. Students who had not been taught that way had a very hard time, and so did special ed kids. I always felt bad for them. For me, it was the way I had been teaching for many years. It’s the way our gifted kids were learning, and I always knew that they were learning better than others, not because they were gifted, but because the style of teaching in our program was at a higher level. I had read that all kids should be taught like gifted programs teach. It’s not the material that mattered; it’s the style, strategies, techniques and expectations that mattered. If educators could utilize those techniques that teach kids how to think at a level that the students can access the information, school becomes more interesting for them. They become more engaged, and they learn more. In my career, I began with no standards and anything a teacher wanted to teach could be taught as no one was monitoring what was occurring academically. By the end of my career, there were standards that tried to create thinkers.
One huge change that came into schools originated with the start of the new century. The business industry indicated that young people coming into the workforce were not prepared to successfully perform the jobs of the 21st century without extensive training in some of the more basic skills. That lead to the creation of 21st Century Skills. As the world continued to diversify, largely due to the technological advances that created a shrinking world, new skills were needed to successfully navigate the demands of this changed world. Since cultures from around the globe were coming to everyone on their desktop computers, the way business was being conducted changed. Students needed to be able to communicate with others clearly, they needed the skills of collaboration, they needed to think critically and creatively, and the need for innovation had increased. This was all to keep America and its businesses competitive in the global market. Therefore, a push was made to begin training children in these skills so that by the time they graduated from college, they would be ready to compete in the world in which they would live.
Enter 21st Century Skills. The initial list of 21st Century Skills was long, but I embraced them as they seemed to be good life skills to have no matter the century. I tried to educate my peers on these skills, but people were resistant; it was a large ask of people with no curriculum provided. Over time, making a point of teaching the four Cs of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity became the 21st Century Skills focus. Once I saw those skills, they became the emphasis in my classroom. Students collaborated constantly throughout the school day and of course, as one collaborates, he or she must communicate. My kids communicated to the world via our blogs, and we attempted to share ideas to the global society; we have data that shows our worldwide audience. I set up activities to enhance creativity, and critical thinking was a staple of the school day anyway. The emphasis on those skills was nowhere around at the start of my career. In fact, collaboration was referred to as cheating back in the 80s. I remember a day early in my career where the local newspaper published activities on critical thinking, and the day became known as “critical thinking day.” A colleague asked me if we were thinking critically that day, and my response was, “We think critically every day.” That should have been the norm in schools, and it should not have taken until the calendar changed to a new century to create that focus. Yet, it did take that long, and it took businesses telling schools that we were not producing employees capable of doing their jobs fresh out of college. The 21st Century Skills coupled with the Common Core Standards were definitely a combination that would lead to stronger students and create people who could keep America competitive in the global economy. However, for teachers, there were no guidelines as to how to put this all together. We had to create that curriculum. The changes, while good, lead to an incredible time commitment if one wanted to be a good educator.
In the end, one of the huge reasons as to why I called it a career, one year before I planned to do so, was the staggering amount of time it took to do the job well. I have never been afraid of hard work. In fact, I pride myself on my work ethic. I always put in long hours, and I gave up weekends long ago. I worked and worked hoping to get an hour or two off on a Sunday to rest up for the upcoming week. Truly, it was the Rapid Learner Program which began to eat my time at an exponential pace. The work we assigned in the program had so much depth to it, and the students wrote a great deal on their assignments. That all had to be read and commented upon. I spent an inordinate amount of time processing student work. Every paper had writing on it from me as those comments were my personal prescription for a child to improve. At times, I tried not to write so much, but I couldn’t do it. In addition to processing student work, I had to write my program. There was no Rapid Learner curriculum in the district, and had there been, I probably would have rejected it anyway and written my own. I love writing program, and getting to implement my own plans and watch it take off was a joy to me. However, it took a lot of time to write it. Writing program also meant writing the homework that I was giving. Again, the hands on the clock went round and round very quickly as that task was accomplished. Each year the program had to be tweaked as each class had its own needs.
For the final years of my career, I ran a classroom website. That had to be updated weekly as I posted a newsletter, homework links, and important dates. Each topic of my curriculum had its own page on the site, and as we changed units, those pages all had to be changed. Once they were built, they simply needed updating, but even that took a large investment of time. Little by little, year by year, I became increasingly tired of the drain on me. I loved the job, and I loved teaching children, but, there had to be more to life than the field of education. I became a grandfather, and I wanted to spend time with my grandson. If I continued to teach, that time would not be available. I turned 60 years old, and the thought of being 61 in my final year and working 60+ hour weeks just didn’t have any appeal. Therefore, I called it a career. I did not want people saying, “He should have left a year or two ago; he’s not what he once was.” The amount of time I spent in 1985 compared to the amount of time I spent in 2020 was vastly different. The job had changed. The demands on educators changed. The expectations on kids, parents, teachers and schools changed. Students’ behaviors changed. It just got to be more than I could continue if I wanted to stay in good health. So, in the spring of 2020, amid a pandemic, I closed my career by clicking a button on Zoom that ended the session. What a way to end a career. That little red “End Session” button certainly had a great deal of symbolism.
The question is, would I have done it all again? That’s a tough one. Had I known that I would work so hard for the pay I got, I am not sure. When I started teaching, I was making only $3,000 more a year than I was making sweeping a mall on swing shift. There was much less stress sweeping that mall! However, the satisfaction wasn’t the same. Yes, a nice clean mall certainly had its appeal, but helping students do things that they didn’t even know they could do was incredible. I wanted to bring the joy of learning to my students. I wanted them to see things that they wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t been their teacher. That is why field trips were so crucial to my program. I was fortunate as every year of my career, we took an extended field trip for four days. What a responsibility they were, but the benefits of those trips were unmatched by anything I could have done in the classroom. We had so much fun on those trips, and the kids have often said that they were the best trips of their schooling. I hoped that when my students left my classroom, they would look back and think, “That was fun, and I learned a ton from that guy.” I wanted to challenge my students, and I did. I had the reputation of being a task master; I expected a lot and I was not an easy grader. But, my kids delivered. If expectations are high, people will strive to reach them, and that was my philosophy. To see kids accept and work toward mastering a challenge was inspiring to me and to them as well. If they accomplished a challenge, then they were better prepared for the next one. It was hard work, but it was work that I found to be worth the effort. To develop America’s children, our greatest resource, is to contribute to the future of our country. I did not take that lightly. I wanted my students to be successful, sometimes more than they wanted to be successful, and I dedicated my life to them. The rewards I got from working with young people helped to make up for the time I lost in my personal life. I loved my job, and I loved my students. The effort that we put in together made for such a great team, and the feel of the classroom was often one of family. What could be better? Learning with one’s family in a fun setting and doing things one never thought could be accomplished is the ultimate. I was able to live that life for 35 years. What a great way to spend one’s time.
For further reading:
10 Ways Teaching has Changed in the Last 10 Years, by teachthought
Educational Change, by 2020 Web Solutions, LLC
Change: What Causes Change in Education, by Ed 100
How Will Education Change in the Next 10 Years? by International Policy Digest
Framework for 21st Century Skills from Partnership for 21st Century Learning