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My Public School Beat-Down

As a girl, I saw my mom fight for her classroom. In my short time teaching, I learned how dangerous that could be.

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Teachers everywhere oppose the No Child Left Behind culture of standardized testing, yet where is the unified uprising against it? Instead of refusing to administer the exams en masse, teachers nationwide have gone as far as erasing wrong answers under orders from principals, fearing firing if they balk, cheating their students in the process. A Save Our Schools convention held in Washington, D.C., this August attracted just 150 people. Teachers, the people who should be showing kids how to stand up and make their case, bravely, have lost their courage. It is not entirely their fault.

But I also know something about teachers, and always have. They are compassionate people, drawn to the profession because helping kids learn is a basic and moral thing to do, not because it will buy them convertibles or plane tickets to Paris. Most truly love spending seven hours a day in a room with other people’s kids. Most worry about them. Most try really hard to reach them. Most take enormous pride in their work when they do.

Since 2001, when, for the first time in the history of federal education policy, George Bush’s No Child Left Behind linked school and teacher assessment — and cash rewards — directly to children’s standardized test performance, teachers have been, too often, nothing more than the getters of the scores. What matters in this calculation isn’t the person in front of the class, what his expertise is, what he thinks, about anything. Teachers are no longer the scholars. They are not wise or trusted. They are not valued for their knowledge or ingenuity, but for their ability to abide, to “buy in,” to “manage” a classroom, punch the biometric clock and agree to all things. They are the middlemen, only, the vehicle through which pre-set processed information is handed along. The vehicle that would rarely question an administrator, let alone carry a sign. The vehicle that can be replaced, as I was, when my principal “released me from my assignment.”

I had grand plans that first day in Room 1464, and a feeling that I could accomplish them, despite the poverty, the shaky lives at home. Mom came to visit during the winter and she, too, saw promise, taking over the classroom like she was putting on skates. No lesson plans, no scripts — just stories, questions, connections. Learning, the way it happens best, without knowing it’s happening.

My room was at the end of a row of similar buildings, next to an enormous playing field. At the final bell before summer, I drove out of the parking lot and made a left at the corner. From the distance, my painted yellow door screamed goodbye.


Pamela Gwyn Kripke's essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, Redbook, and in newspapers nationwide as a columnist for Creators Syndicate. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and covers breaking news in Texas for The New York Times.