If you haven’t been under a rock in the last week and a half, you have probably read this letter from a teacher in Florida who quit her job and shared her letter of resignation publicly. If you’re not familiar, Abcnews.com paraphrases Wendy Bradshaw’s letter in which “she described in detail how her disappointment with her state’s public school system’s current curriculum has overpowered her love for teaching.”
Thousands of Americans, many of them teachers, have shared, commented, and favorited Wendy Bradshaw’s letter in respect and admiration for her courage. I, however, find the public excitement for this letter a bit disturbing.
Like many other teachers, I see how detrimental an obsession with tests, results, data, and increasing standardization can be for kids. Bradshaw writes how she is tired of watching young children cry from the pressure, of watching them misbehave as a means of coping. As a high school and former middle school teacher, I see this pressure creating and exacerbating anxiety, depression, anger, resentment, and apathy in my students. And I’ve seen my share of overburdened students cry too.
In a ten year career, watching what this standardization has done to my students, my colleagues, and the system itself has made me so angry and so deeply sad that I have found myself in many heated exchanges over it. If you want to see my hands start flying, my voice raise an octave, and my Kentucky accent get just a little thicker, bring up standardized testing in schools. I’ve written plenty of my own resignation letters in my head myself.
And like Bradshaw, I am also a mother. She writes, “I remember cradling [my daughter] in the hospital bed on our first night together and thinking, ‘In five years you will be in kindergarten and will go to school with me.’ That thought should have brought me joy, but instead it brought dread.” I know exactly how she feels. I fear that my daughters’ natural curiosity, playfulness, and creative spirit will be squashed the minute they step into a public school. I carry that worry every single day.
But here is where I fundamentally disagree with Wendy Bradshaw: She implies that the system is hopeless, that it’s better to walk away, that anyone who chooses to stay is a victim of the system. I think this attitude is anything but courageous.
Bradshaw writes, “[the system] bars teachers from differentiating instruction meaningfully, which threatens disciplinary action if they decide their students need a five minute break from a difficult concept, or to extend a lesson which is exceptionally engaging.” I don’t know anything about teaching in Florida schools or Bradshaw’s specific experience, and I know from my own experience how bad it can be to teach in a school with a toxic culture, but in Kentucky, these actions–extending engaging lessons, being patient with forming conceptual understanding– are considered best practice.
Any teacher who claims the system bars her from differentiating instruction, knowing her students well enough to know when they need to rest briefly after rigorous work, or prevents her from extending an engaging lesson, is only allowing the system to make her a victim.
Teachers are not victims of the system; teachers are the catalysts for change within the system.
I’ve felt the pressure of standardization for a decade, and I’ve fought back with project based learning, hands-on learning opportunities, and discussions about meaningful ideas that my students care about. I’ve been questioned about these practices, and I’ve presented reflective, research-based responses to any jury I’ve had to face. And most skeptics shut right up when you show you know your stuff.
I’m not saying fighting this fight has been easy. Teaching is the hardest job in the world. I’ve wanted to quit many times. I have taught in school environments that sucked the life out of me, making me feel so defeated and worthless that it was hard to pull myself out of bed in the morning. But I got back up, and I went to work, just like millions of other teachers in America do every day.
I don’t know what Bradshaw’s exact experience was like, but just like every other teacher’s has been, I’m sure it was tough. I’m sure she did feel like a victim sometimes. I’m sure it did seem hopeless sometimes. I’ve been there.
Abcnews.com reduced Bradshaw’s letter to her disappointment with the system overpowering her love of teaching. If this is in fact the case for her, it is time for her to go. There is no room in our system for teachers who do not love to teach, no matter how talented they may be.
I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t also share frustration and disappointment in the system; I remember having these fired-up discussions even while in my teacher induction program. We all get frustrated with the system. We know it is flawed. But we refuse to lose hope in why we teach.
Here is the beauty and beast that is public education: It belongs to everyone and everyone is responsible for it. This means that some will manipulate it for their own agendas. It means it will always be under the microscope. It means that people will try to systematize it, no matter how clear it is that there is no one size fits all solution for developing the minds and hearts of our future citizens.
It also means that although Wendy Bradshaw may think she is walking away from it, she can’t. Even if she home schools her daughter or sends her to private schools, one day her daughter will interact and work with other people who have been educated in public schools. And so much of our daily life is directly impacted by societal issues–the traffic jam due to ineffective infrastructure, the insurance claim that can’t be processed due to inefficiency, the colleague whose work ethic is questionable but gets a raise anyway, or the fear felt when walking to a car alone in the dark.
The bottom line is even if you think it’s not your problem anymore, the majority of people in our culture are educated in public schools, so the public school system essentially determines the quality of life for us all. You can either choose to lay claim to the responsibility we have for our schools, or you can pretend to wash your hands of it.
I don’t fault Bradshaw for quitting her job. It is difficult to be a good teacher and it is really difficult to be a good mother, but we should not cheer on the attitude that walking away is the same as standing up. Standing up calls for hope and courage, which are both necessary for real change.