Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Teachers: Accountable for What?

The true task of the teacher is to convince students to explore.

Monday morning, 7:31 a. m.; January 26: You are a public school teacher, already ensconced at your desk. Typically, you arrive early for work; but today you feel rejuvenated after a relaxing weekend with your family. You have your coffee and danish and soon you’ll be charged up and ready to go.

Unfortunately, you can’t shake a nagging doubt. 

You have heard the school reformers insist that if we expect to improve U. S. education we must “hold teachers accountable.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is an avid supporter of Common Core, with a tidal wave of standardized tests to follow. Test scores will be critical, he claims, when it comes to measuring accountability.

This past weekend you saw another report indicating that politicians in several states hope to revoke their decision to sign up for Common Core. At a meeting in Iowa Saturday, potential Republican presidential candidates for 2016 came out vehemently against what they now call “Obamacore.”

Sitting at your desk, you take a gulp of strong coffee and shake your head. You might be a Republican. You might be a Democrat. You might be a Whig. 

When it comes to understanding what teachers do, you feel school reformers, politicians and Secretary Duncan have no clue.

“Accountability for what?” you mutter.

If you’re approaching the end your career you have even greater cause for doubt. You remember how politicians promised to fix schools in the early 90s by implementing state proficiency tests. That plan didn’t work. 

In 2002 Congress stepped forward to pass No Child Left Behind, promising to fix everything by 2014. That didn’t work. 

Now Common Core is coming—or maybe not coming—and you wonder if politicians have revolving doors in their heads.

If you teach second grade, you think back to Friday. You know what Duncan never knows. You know no member of Congress ever sees, or even cares to see. You still feel sad about what happened, when you had to deal with an eight-year-old boy who wanted to wear his stocking cap all day in class. When you asked why, he started crying. So you led him gently to the hall to see what you might do. He wiped his tears and felt better because you cared. He said his mother got drunk Thursday night. (He told you two months ago that his father disappeared soon after he was born.)

Anyway, mom decided to give him a haircut, but ended up clipping only part of his head, leaving odd patches of hair sticking up in every direction. When you asked if you could see, he slowly removed his cap and you knew you had to do something to help him get through the day. You contacted the counselor and worked out a plan to have the school nurse trim off the last strands of hair.

(You were accountable to help. You were not accountable for what happened to the young man Thursday night.)

If you teach eighth grade American history, a fourteen-year-old will come to your room at the end of fourth bell today, just before lunch. “I’m pregnant,” she will tell you and together you will talk about choices she is going to have to make. 

A bell will ring again, thirty minutes later, signaling the end of your lunch and hers. Neither of you will have eaten, but you will tell the young lady you are more than happy to talk any time she feels the need.

You are accountable to give counsel to the teen. You are accountable for teaching about the Bill of Rights, the topic for the day.

(The girl, the young man who impregnated her, perhaps their parents, too, are accountable for everything else.)

If you teach Language Arts at the twelfth grade level your plan on this cold January day is to pass back a set of essays on Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other nineteenth century authors, students were assigned to write. These essays took fifteen hours to grade over the weekend. You earned nothing for your extra work. But you don’t begrudge the time.

You will discover, as the day goes by, that ten students have failed to complete the assignment. One boy is a pot smoker. (You don’t know that; but, he is.) Another will admit he stayed up till 4 a. m. twice last week—not to work on his essay—but to play video games. Three who will fail to turn in work have chronic absenteeism issues. After a recent stretch of two weeks’ absence you will learn today that one girl has dropped out. You will think back to a discussion you had in November—when you told her you could see she had college potential. She explained then that her father had lost his job, and her family was losing their home, and she had to look for full-time work to help out.

(You are not accountable for that.)

You don’t have time to worry about arrogant school reformers and idiot politicians. If you teach kindergarten, you will be putting out fires all day, trying to direct two dozen five- and six-year-olds toward a better future. You will be busy helping one boy who recognized neither letters nor numbers when you met him last August.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, if you are a high school football coach, you spent the fall trying to teach boys what it means to be men. Your season is over and your team went 6-6. This was better than expected, given the broken leg suffered by your first-string quarterback. You are proud to know that you plucked one young man out of gym class, because you saw he was a hard-nosed kid, and convinced him to try out for the squad. All season, he starred on defense and you think he might eventually be able to play at the college level. You know you change lives for the better, just as your colleague teaching kindergarten does.

In cavalier fashion you once heard a school reformer tell reporters, “We now know it is possible to teach every child, even the poorest kids, even from the toughest backgrounds.” 

You know what the reformer said was true. Yet, you understand that “possible” doesn’t mean “easy.” You know the kid with the drunken barber for a mother—or six million kids suffering through abusive situations every year—is going to be harder to reach than the child seated behind him who comes from a loving home.

Seated at your desk this morning, you shake your head. Then the bell rings and a wave of young people floods the room. You smile and another day begins. You are accountable only for doing the very best you can.

An art teacher is accountable for helping students find their own talents.
A Language Arts teacher fosters the love of books. 

A history teacher brings in a World War II veteran to talk about fighting at Okinawa and Leyte Gulf.


  1. That is a very accurate snap shot of the average day of a teacher at work. Depending on the socioeconomic level of most of the students teachers teach, the ratio of these types of challenges will go up and down. If the children you teach mostly live in poverty, the challenges will be way up. But if they mostly come from affluent, white famlies where the parents are college educated, there will be fewer challenges but there will still be challenges that no teacher is responsible for causing but most teachers will do all they can within their limited ability to fix the problem and always hope for the best..

    1. Totally agree. I worked in an affluent district, so the number of problems was lower. One or two of the examples above come from my experience.