Think Your Job Is Hard? Here's What It's Like to Be a Teacher Today

It was an innocent question: "How’s your school year going?" She’s an experienced educator, teaching third grade this year in a highly regarded suburban district. So why did her eyes well up with tears during a casual conversation at a party? Did she have a tough class? Was she upset about a challenging child?

This woman used to love being a teacher, but the joy she felt in finding creative ways to reach her students has given way to sadness and stress. She is so upset about the direction her profession has taken that she is advising her teenage daughter not to go into education. She is so disillusioned she may quit after this school year.

This woman is not alone. In her school and many others throughout our country, teachers cry every day. They feel overworked, underappreciated, demeaned, and exhausted. They are often teaching scripted lessons and cannot determine their own schedules or create their own tests to measure how well students have learned the material they have presented. They know it is not good educational practice to teach only those things that will appear on standardized tests, but their students’ scores will determine their worth as teachers.

Just to be clear, this teacher does not object to the concept of Common Core Standards. She appreciates the need for teaching children higher-level thinking and analytic skills. She even accepts that the focus on non-fiction in third grade may be necessary for children to become critical readers. But the lack of time to provide differentiated instruction to her students nags at her. She knows that best teaching practice indicates that she should match her teaching methods to each child’s ability and learning style. But her hands are tied by what her school district expects her to accomplish.                                     

For example, because the standards are heavily reading- and text-based, children who have reading challenges now have challenges across all other subjects. They now struggle with math, science, and social studies as well. She finds it difficult to come up with reasonable accommodations and finds the pace of instruction too fast for some of her students.

Like all good teachers, this one loves to take advantage of the teachable moment -- the thing that happens in the classroom that day, or the news event, or the comment a child makes that leads to a genuine learning experience in which the children are truly engaged. The kind of moments that drive further inquiry and make learning relevant and exciting. But few of those moments are allowed these days. Instead, this teacher says she feels like a robot; she must always stick to her script and schedule. Spontaneity and creativity have largely vanished from her teaching.

She also profoundly worried about what she sees as developmentally inappropriate curricula and expectations for the 8-year-olds she is teaching. Morning recess is gone so more time can be devoted to instruction. There is no time to read quality fiction or do creative writing or learn to read and write cursive. The analysis of non-fiction passages requires skills the kids don’t yet have. The math can be unnecessarily confusing. Here are a few of the third-grade standards she wonders about:

  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from non-literal language.
  • Distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of the characters.
  • Compare and contrast the themes, settings, and plots of stories written by the same author about the same or similar characters (e.g., in books from a series)
  • Describe the relationship between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text, using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect.
  • Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings

Can she really get all of her 8-year-olds to learn these things?

A child told her recently that the day a sub came was fun because the sub allowed seven minutes of free writing time. It breaks her heart that a child would see this as an unexpected treat. She fears that her students will learn to hate reading from the curriculum she must use. She finds it painful to watch tired and confused children struggle, day after day, as they prepare to take the (many, many) tests that accompany these learning standards.

Because high-stakes standardized testing has taken on such outsized importance in modern education, her students — like millions of others around the country—are missing out on developmentally appropriate instruction, as well as the joy of learning. And because how well her children perform on these tests is the most important part of her evaluation as a teacher, she laments that she and her colleagues are now missing out on the joy of teaching. In other words, the current educational emphasis on accountability and data driven decision-making is not only bad for children, it is also bad for teachers. Their pay, and even their jobs, depend on the results.

Is There a Fair Way to Evaluate Teachers?

Time Magazine’s recent cover story, The War on Teacher Tenure, featured a gavel poised to smash an apple. In the article, author Haley Sweetland Edwards describes the California court decision (Vergara v. California) that struck down teacher tenure on the basis that it violated students’ civil rights. Driven by the mentality of billionaire businessmen in Silicon Valley (who funded the court case), the prevailing argument suggested that bad teachers deprive children of their right to a good education. School systems, in their evaluation, need an easier way to get rid of the bad apples.

The tougher challenge, however, is how to determine who those bad apples are. For the businessmen from data-driven industries pushing tenure out the door, the answer is simple: use the Value Added Model or Measure or Growth (VAM or VAG) scores. In a post published over a year ago, Good Teaching is an Art, Not a Mathematical Formula, I expressed concern about the formula my community was using to calculate VAG scores for teachers. In that piece I mentioned some of the pitfalls of using what I view as fuzzy math, student test scores, and "value added growth" to identify good and weak teachers. In particular, I cited the research of education experts Linda Darling-Hammond, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, Edward Haertel, and Jesse Rothstein, published in Education Week: "Evaluating Teacher Evaluation: Popular modes of evaluating teachers are fraught with inaccuracies and inconsistencies." The authors write:

“Using VAMs for individual teacher evaluation is based on the belief that measured achievement gains for a specific teacher’s students reflect that teacher’s 'effectiveness.' This attribution, however, assumes that student learning is measured well by a given test, is influenced by the teacher alone, and is independent from the growth of classmates and other aspects of the classroom context. None of these assumptions is well supported by current evidence.”

They list other important factors that impact students’ test scores, among them class size, curriculum materials, availability of specialists and tutors, student attendance, outside challenges in students’ lives, educational experiences prior to that year, and learning loss due to summer break. They also feel VAM scores fail to take into account factors like English language learners or special education students in the teacher’s class. VAM scores for a given teacher tend to be inconsistent from year to year, depending on the student mix assigned to that teacher in a given year. And yet, they continue to be used to evaluate teachers and make decisions regarding pay and retention. 

In another piece of mine, written some time ago, I asked, Is There a Fair Way to Evaluate Teachers? My answer was, and still is, no— and by that I mean there is no fair way being used these days. I shared a utopian vision of what I thought would be the way to go:

“Teachers could be asked to document their plans and teaching for a unit of instruction linked to the district, state, or federal standards, and to adapt these plans for special education students and English language learners. Lessons could be observed several times a year by qualified supervisors or mentoring teachers. Teaching sessions could be videotaped and critiqued. Samples of student learning could be examined. Parent (elementary school) or student (middle/high school) surveys could also be taken into account as part of a teacher’s evaluation.

In this perfect world with unlimited time and resources, evaluating teachers would be a much richer and more meaningful process.  In the meantime, we have to find a better way to enable teachers to reach their full potential, to recognize the good work they do, and to weed out those who are not suited to the work.”

Diane Ravitch is an outspoken critic of the way Common Core standards were created and are implemented, as well as an opponent of the overuse of high-stakes standardized tests. She believes No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have demoralized teachers. Ravitch recently wrote a piece called, “A New Paradigm for Accountability: The Joy of Learning.” In it, she suggests the adoption of “a new accountability system that relies on different metrics. We begin by dropping standardized test scores as measures of quality or effectiveness. We stop labeling, ranking, and rating children, teachers, and schools. We use tests only when needed for diagnostic purposes, not for comparing children to their peers, not to find winners and losers. We rely on teachers to test their students, not corporations.”

I know the educator I spoke with would love to be trusted to teach and test her own students. She would love to be praised for her creativity and for inspiring her students to learn. She would love to be trusted and respected by her principal for being the wonderful teacher she is. She would welcome being evaluated in a fair and meaningful way that gives her the opportunity to grow and improve. And most all of, she would love to restore the joy of learning to her classroom.

Maybe if those things happened, she could encourage her daughter to become a teacher. Maybe she would feel again like teaching is an honorable profession. Maybe she would not quit.


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