Surprised to see the head high school guidance counselor walk into my classroom on a particular February morning, I was immediately puffed up when he explained the reason for his arrival, delivering, in hushed tones, a confidential message.
A young man who had not attended school for a year and one-half was being released from an adolescent drug and alcohol rehab facility and the counselor felt that mine would be the “most nurturing” environment to reintegrate him to the school environment.
Humbled and affirmed to be recognized as a nurturing teacher, and feeling privileged for having been chosen and entrusted with such a very special student, my mind raced, imagining all the ways I could help make him feel welcome and motivated–not just to learn social studies, but to stay drug free.
I couldn’t have been more elated! Imagine! I had just completed my psychology certification and was feeling drawn to become an alcohol abuse counselor, a desire I had shared with one of the other school counselors.
Now, unexpectedly, I was going to have the privilege of working with a student who was the kind of adolescent I was feeling particularly called to serve. I could not have felt more specially blessed.
Then, within moments, my puffed-up humbled elation turned to fear and resentment.
What a fool I had been. “Most nurturing” environment. Hogwash. I was the “newbie.” Nontenured. I was sure no one else in the department wanted the student assigned to their class. Of course not. The student hadn’t been in school for one and one-half years; the school year was more than half way through, and my mind flashed back to my job interview and forward to the end-of-year achievement test.
The department chair had shared with me at my job interview that the district had just instituted departmental testing programs. The end-of-year content test was written by him and none of the teachers were privy to the questions. I needed to take the achievement test seriously, he counseled and explained, because poor student performance would result in the district withholding any pay increase and my being put on probation—as had happened to one of the (nameless) department members.
When school started, I learned more from my new colleagues, including the previously nameless teacher. Turns out one student of her students scored a 33 on the end-of-year test, and that score, as one of those simply averaged–arithmetical mean scores, earned her probation and no pay increase…and a great deal of anxiety, to put it mildly. Her fright was readily palpable.
With that retrospect in mind, faced with the specter of having a student who hadn’t been in school—to say nothing of not having been in my class for half the year—determining my teaching fate made him the “enemy” of sorts—a threat to my entire career—if he did poorly on the test. I had just returned to the classroom following a long “raising our children” hiatus, and the thought of losing my job–maybe for good– was beyond frightening.
Empathy for the needy student became antipathy for him. Thanks to “high stakes testing,” frankly, sadly, embarrassingly, I simply did not want him in my classroom.
Okay. Maybe others would have remained altruistic. But I suspect that what I felt is not that uncommon. Evaluate teachers on test scores, and I think that teachers no longer can afford to focus on the whole student—on the student’s total development and needs. No. Teachers need to have “testing tunnel vision,” with their focus on–not their students, but on themselves in relation to the test. They need to make sure students achieve on the tests. Period. Despite any circumstances. At any cost. Teaching becomes for the test, about the test. Repeated poor student results, and whatever good a teacher might have done for the rest of a career–gone; ended.
Next post, I’ll continue this line of thought, with an experience I had as a mother in this regard. Meanwhile, years later, it did my heart good to see on the district website that the “nameless teacher” had become the department chair! Apparently, reason prevailed; student test scores did not end her career. Apparently someone realized: student test scores DO NOT tell the whole story about a teacher’s effectiveness!
Did you ever feel threatened in your life’s work by counterproductive evaluation criteria–by “test measurements” that handcuffed you from performing as well as you might have–as well as you wanted?