Friday, April 20, 2018

Today a Student Broke My Heart

I retired from teaching in 2008 but I like to keep my finger on the pulse of education today.

Ugh, that cliché: “finger on the pulse.” 

If I was still working with students, I’d challenge any who used it to come up with something more original if they could.

And I know they could.

Even now, I enjoy looking at the posts and comments and seeing the passion for the job displayed by so many young educators on various Facebook pages. Today, I spotted this comment by Felicia Swanger on the Middle School Social Studies Teachers page. I asked to copy it to my blog and she gave the okay. 

Here is what she wrote:

Today a student broke my heart. My fifth period class was rowdy while I dealt with a personal problem in the hallway. This isn’t something I do often, but today was that day.

When I came back in, I read them the riot act. I was lecturing them on responsibility and taking things seriously and stopping the nonsense and foolishness, when I looked at those kids and changed tactics.

I told them we were going to gain some focus and I started with a random kid and told him what I saw in him, all of the good things. Then I went to the next one, and so on. When I got to the fifth kid, his head was down and I said, “And you sell yourself short. You have told me several times that you want to quit school as soon as you can and have it behind you. You would rather be outside than sitting in this room, and that’s fine. Academic learning isn’t for everyone. But I want you to know that there are plenty of things you can do that you enjoy that can make you very successful”. We discussed his love of mechanics and I tried to show him that he did in fact have a functioning brain because he was good at things that the rest of us weren’t.

I went on with my discussions and told one little girl that she made the world better just by being in it, that her smile and happiness made people feel better and that she would be great with scared kids because she could put them at ease. 

The previous kid speaks up and says, “I wish I had had a teacher like that in 3rd grade when I moved schools. I was scared and lonely, and no one made me feel better.” That’s when this child’s light was extinguished. One careless teacher made him feel worthless for the next five years. I hope I lit his spark again today.

We have to be so careful with our actions and words. Our students are so important. They begin their journey 100% good and 100% curious and 100% accepting of others, and then the adults in their lives shape them. We let our stresses over testing mandates steal the joy from them.

We have let school become a place of worksheets and assessments at the elementary level where kids need to be fostering a love of discovery. The end result of a child’s education is not to score well on a test; it’s to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in life. Every child is capable of success. We just need to change our definition of what success looks like.

First, I wanted to copy her words because I love the way she addressed the children in her room, finding the good in each. I had served with the Marines before I became a teacher, myself, and I trust my old students would tell you, I could chastise the recalcitrant with the greatest of skill. Yet, my purpose was always the same as hers. I always wanted to put my teens on the right path, if they weren’t—and most were—and spent all my years in a classroom trying to do what she was doing this day. She was set on finding the good in her students, showing them it was there, if they didn’t realize, and bringing it out.

When I asked if I could post her words, I got a second, powerful but negative jolt.

She had this to say about her original post:

I think I have humpty-dumptied this week and decided that things need to change in education. I haven’t slept but one night this week because I decided to launch a crusade. Lol. I have sent a deeply heartfelt email to legislators in my state asking them to change our education practices and structure. I got generic responses, so I am taking it to social media next. It’s an awesome platform.

Sorry, for the long response, but even after seventeen years I remain passionate about this cause.

To be honest, after recovering from the jolt, I was almost relieved to read what she said. When I retired, I wondered if I was losing my mind. I already thought standardized testing was a curse. I told my last principal in my mind I felt teaching to the test was a form of “educational malpractice.”

She neither had a good response to offer, nor did she have a choice. She had to push us to teach to the test or risk losing her job.

I taught American history, myself, but I had a passion for books and tried to pass that on to my classes. I couldn’t work miracles with every student, of course. But I had more than enough success to make the effort worthwhile and convince me I was doing the Lord’s library work in getting teens to read more and read better books. Not long ago, I had lunch with one of my old students and she presented me three books she has come to love. The inscription in the first captures what I believe education is truly about, exactly what Ms. Swanger was trying to achieve with her kind words.

We all reach young people in our own meaningful and different ways. I taught with a great band instructor who turned teens into musicians who made music a career. Two colleagues took decent runners and transformed them into cross country stars. I taught with several English teachers who taught teens to find pure joy in writing and words. There’s no way to measure what these people did—but I believe they were doing something great. You can’t “measure” the solace Ms. Swanger provided to her students on just this one day; but that solace, that shot of well-timed kindness, may resonate down all the years of their lives. I could cite a hundred examples more from my career, of educators who made their marks in ways that will never show up on any standardized test.

I feel confident in saying Ms. Swanger could too. The more I believe that, the more I worry about what is happening in education today.

Last Friday, I was reading with Ellora, my four-year-old granddaughter. She’s just figuring out how to decode words, and I was giving pointers, when I remarked, “You know Papa used to be a teacher, right?”

“Papaukulele,” she replied, using a nonsense word she has coined, that never fails to spark my “outrage,” and provide her a laugh in turn.

Then it struck me.

Would I tell Ellora to go into teaching someday? I loved teaching every day of my career. But I don’t know if I would.

I took her to the park that afternoon and she had fun on the teeter-totters, balance ropes and Astroturf sliding hills. At one point we sat down on a large swing to rest. (She might not have needed the rest but I definitely did.)

A young mother made room for us both. She was watching her youngest scamper about and I started talking to her about raising kids and grandkids. She turned out to have been a teacher herself, I think she said for twelve years. Terry Hurt was her name and she said she’d taught in Texas, before leaving the classroom in 2005.

So I asked her the same question I ask every educator I meet. I’m like Rain Man, always posing the same query, always in a flat tone, hoping not to tip my opinion from the start. “Do you think all the standardized testing and focus on scores has helped education, hurt education, or had more or less a neutral effect?”

“Hurt,” Ms. Hurt answered almost as soon as the question was posed. “Does anyone ever say anything else?”

“Not really,” I laughed.

But what if this is no laughing matter? What if this is the existential question in U.S. education today?

If testing is hurting—as Ms. Hurt, Ms. Swanger and this old codger agree—what should we do?

Ms. Hurt told me her youngest would soon be going to school all day so she’s substituting and thinking about returning to the classroom full time.

“I went in to observe at my daughter’s school recently,” she told me, “but I’m not sure I could do what they’re asking young teachers to do today. It’s sad, too, because teaching was always my passion.”


Thinks about that word. Can we measure passion for learning—and for imparting that passion to the young? I read what Ms. Swanger said. I thought about my response when reading with Ellora. I heard what Ms. Hurt thought. I’ve been asking the same question for more than a decade. I’ve heard hundreds of educators reply in the same way, in grocery stores, on the sidelines of soccer fields and seated at wedding receptions, too.

What if we’re doing real harm with our tunnel vision focus on testing? What if we’re selling our soul in return for transient scores? What if we’re ripping the heart out of our children’s educations? What if we’re all playing a small part in a tragedy not of our making—but a tragedy, nonetheless?


I think this might be the most profound statement about standardized testing I’ve seen in some time. It comes from a veteran educator, Jennifer Ballard Pinkowski, who taught Secondary English for several years. She has spent the last seven years working in Special Education:

Want to hate these tests even more? Watch students with Specific Learning Disabilities take them.

You see, these students still have to take the grade level tests their age indicates, not what the content they are learning on their IEP indicates. So they sit, hour after hour, frustrated, angry, discouraged, bitter, frightened, but sometimes, occasionally, still trying to do their best. It’s exhausting and heartbreaking and I hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. I hate the politicians who jam it down our throats every stinking year and claim it’s for the greater good. I hate the state education officials who buy into that garbage.

And I HATE having to inflict this pain on my students.

I wonder. How long is it going to be until teachers, administrators and support personnel all band together and say, “Enough is enough. We’re not doing this to young people anymore. Enough.”

I think if people like Ms. Swanger and Ms. Pinkowski—who clearly put children first—have had their fill, something is seriously, seriously, seriously wrong.

I pray Ellora's kindergarten teacher next year will try to do what Ms. Swanger did.
I don't believe my granddaughter's success in life will boil down to a few test scores at all.


  1. When I posted this on my own Facebook page, former student and now teacher, Cathy Nye, posted this comment about a lesson that goes beyond what "standardized tests" can ever measure:

    "I just had my students put President Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon on trial for Vietnam. They had to develop their own cases, decide on their own set of witnesses, research what they could and couldn’t blame each president for concerning Vietnam, etc. It turned out amazing! I had opening statements that would rival the real thing and the best part was that they did the whole thing on their own. I just provided direction on the flow of the trial and some brainstorming on who they could call as witnesses."

    That strikes me as a great lesson plan.

  2. Joey Caylor Spencer, also a former student, had a great comment about one of our music teachers, Marge Henderson, now deceased but definitely not forgotten in the hearts of her students:

    "Mrs. Henderson taught me to be proud of myself. I know that may sound odd. I have a natural talent for singing but was always afraid to sing in front of people. She taught me to embrace my talent and use it. It served me well in a few ways...I was able to use what she taught me to make money as an adult as well as giving me the confidence to deal with the public while working for 20 years. But honestly I have taken what she taught me to be a better parent. I have always stressed to my kids to just be who they are. To be proud of what they are good at and work hard at the things they aren't. I also taught my then non verbal autistic son to count and the alphabet by singing scales."

    1. Carol King, a friend of mine and mother of a great Loveland City Schools teacher, Cheri King, seconded Joey's comment: "Mrs. Henderson was an inspiration to many! Thank you for honoring her memory."

  3. J. Selden Napier Mtr., also a Loveland graduate, had another example of how teachers shape lives, but in ways that never shows up on any test:

    "You are welcome to use this. I remember being in shop class in learning to rewire an electrical outlet. Later in life, lived in the house when I rented a room in Nashville for $250 per month. It worked out great and the man who owned it was very kind and a mentor to me. The house still stands & it gave the air-conditioning in my room to a home that did not have central air conditioning. I learned that back in 7TH or 8th grade."

  4. Gary Ruther, one of my old star students (like Jay Napier above) and now a teacher in California had a great lesson idea, I thought...and one that clearly goes beyond anything that the standardized tests will cover:

    "I don't have the lesson with me but my students are doing a project where they have to find the area of regular polygons inscribed inside a circle. We go from a triangle to a dodecagon and then extrapolate this to n sides and determine the area formula of a circle. Limits are part of the project. But what is best is that history of Archimedes is important. I discuss the second Punic War, Archimedes discovery of pulleys, levers, and displaced volume. Also, he derived the answers to Zenos paradox. We still have more to go."

  5. Donna Heald, on Facebook, replied: "No, it doesn’t work. But it put money in Neil Bush’s pockets when JEB was FL Gov, and supports many other hedge fundees who contribute large to Greedy Old Party candidates. See what they did there?"

  6. Kristen Kae Wise commented on Badass Teachers' Association's Facebook page:

    I was scoring the first round of SBAC testing here in Oregon a few years back. Many students wrote comments on their tests about how stupid they felt...what failures they wrote a page worth about how he had once been good at math and then how he wasn't and how his life felt like it was falling apart as he got moved to the "slow" classes and lost all his friends. I was crying by the end of the day.

  7. Jan Wuenker Everett, the mother of two of my former students, checked in with kind words--again on something an ordinary teacher (me) did that won't show up on any standardized test:

    "You taught my children Scott Everett and Laura Everett Bowling how to look at both sides of an issue or two events in history. You had your students involved in many debates where they learned to respect one another. I’m so proud of how my kids turned out and you had a big part in it. I always knew how much you cared for your students. They respected you. God bless you."

    I'll take that no matter what the test scores from my class.

  8. Jeri Nowlin Shaffer shared this great lesson plan on a teachers' Facebook page:

    "I recently did a lesson on the Potato Famine. I was showing students that Ireland continued to export food during the famine (it is a lesson from Zinn Education Project). I asked students if they thought that would happen if there had been news cameras in the 1840s. I then asked if there are people in the US who don’t get enough to eat everyday & pointed out that America exports food and donates food to foreign regions hit by famine or natural disasters. A student raised his hand and asked if we could start a collection at our school to make sure every student is provided a lunch daily. He said it bothers him when a cafeteria employee takes a student’s tray because their account is empty. I had never had a kid bring the issue all the way down to a school level. We are working with admin to make it happen.
    I apologize for the length of the post, but I am incredibly proud of these kids."

  9. Kaity Coleman gave me another great example of what teachers do that will never be measured:

    "I had a student from my student teaching in 2005, reach out to me in 2016. She emailed me and sent me a copy of the letter I wrote her (I wrote all 70 of my students on my last day). She had said what I wrote was something that stuck with her and inspired her to teach and then go on to take her bar exam later on. It was a heartwarming moment (definitely made me cry since I was 9 months pregnant)."

  10. Doris Amanda Dugan had a great analogy to add on Facebook:

    "I have had students come back to me to tell me that I am one of the only teachers that required them to work hard, which prepared them for high school. I have had many complaints about giving too much homework. I also give hard tests, but they are only twenty percent of their grade. Analogy: You can know how to build a house, but unless you do the work, you don't get paid."

  11. Tammy Lane Kaleta commented on testing: "In five school days my eight year olds took seven and a half hours of standardized tests. We have to do it again in two weeks."

    In my opinion that would be indefensible for the states to ask.

  12. Susan Weinmen replied via Facebook, too:

    "My sister was a great teacher. Then she became a great principal, but the pressure on her from the district to raise test scores was damaging to her health. Mentally and physically. She was so stressed out. She is happily retired, but i will never be an administrator, the pay is not enough. BTW, assistant principal in a mid size to large LAUSD IS 143,000. (That includes benefits and retirement). NOT ENOUGH."

  13. Mari Garza used to teach--but testing broke her heart. Think about what these kinds of comments mean for the profession so many of us love or loved:

    "We need to eliminate high stakes testing! I wish I could have taken pictures of my students as they tested last year, but that is strictly forbidden. Their looks of absolute bewilderment and frustration as they tried to decipher these trick questions broke my heart 💔 It reaffirmed my decision to quit. I could no longer sell the importance of these tests to my students; I could no longer lie to them."

  14. Shirley Durr remembers when testing still made sense--as some of us older educators do. (I'm sure she, herself, is a veritable youth.

    "We had standardized tests back in the dark ages too when I went through grades 1-12. They were diagnostic, one among several indicators of what was learned and what still needed to be taught. Students' promotions and graduation were not at stake. Teachers and admins jobs were not at stake. Schools' reputations were not at stake. Tests were a tool for teaching and did not decide the failure or success of people's lives. And they took place in one or two days of a school year. We -- teachers and students -- did not "prep" for them. and the results were not linked to grades. The tests' content reflected what was in the curriculum but not everything in the curriculum was on the test -- and vice versa. Some of my friends did not test well but there was no shame because of it."

  15. After adding Jennifer Ballard Pinkowski's comment to the end of my main post, we traded additional comments about testing.

    I said her comment made me want to cry and "grab my metaphorical pitchfork and go after the idiots who foist these tests on kids and ruin education when they do."

    She responded:

    "I’ve had my trunk loaded with metaphorical baseball bats for years. One teacher alone is a crackpot. Additionally, the pubic has been brainwashed to believe we are all that’s wrong with the world. We need a movement. It feels like it’s starting. This is absolutely an area I’m ready to fight."

    Then, being a Gandhi-type individual, she noted:

    "I never want actual violence. But I also seek a way to convey how viscerally angry I am over how my students are treated all while making Pearson and their ilk richer. I can feel my head literally throb while I type this."

    1. Again, if anyone who doesn't teach is reading the comments, think about what this means. Teachers are absolutely disgusted with what they are now asked to do.

      And they feel testing is hurting your kids.

  16. My old high school friend, Harry Hillegas, who taught for many years (now retired), talks about another lesson that goes ten steps beyond anything that will ever end up on a standardized test.

    Students weren't filling in A, B, C or D. They were enthralled:

    "My 7th grade reading curriculum included a line about exposing students to Nobel authors. I discovered that the play "Cats" was based on the poems of T S Elliot. I had seen the play in NYC and had a cassestte which included the libreto. Each "cat" had its own song based on a poem. I played the tape in order of the play, one song a day. After that I handed out the original poem, only it was missing words. I then played the song again with the students filling in the missing words. We then discussed why some parts of the poem - such as tense - were changed for the play. The students loved it, especially attempting to decide which "cat" would go to the 'heavy side layer." Grisibella's song always made for a silent classroom. The students loved this. I even was able to take the class to Akron to see the play. I had the star athlete a bit upset that his family had made him go. At intermission, he told me he wanted to go into acting!. I did that for almost 5 years, then switched to "Phantom of the Opera." What a joy to teach without textbooks and with 99% of the class enthralled."

  17. I appreciate your sentiments here, but you need to understand the full picture before we can start to create a humane alternative. Please take a few minutes to read this. All of it is happening at a very rapid pace. Everyone is still bogged down in Ed Reform 1.0. There are too few people who truly understand what is about to hit and they are using the disaster created by HST to drive forward their plans.

  18. Simone Ryals summed up the problem with standardized testing in two words, near the end of her comment:

    "My position teaching gifted 5th grade next year has been threatened if I don't get higher test scores than last year. I explained that every day of testing included computers crashing in the middle of the test, 15 on the last day of testing. A child who should have gotten a 5 got a 1, as though one of my best math students in a gifted class spent two days taking tests and didn't get any answers correct. It was seen as an excuse, an anomaly, maybe she was nervous. The middle school she was going to tested her independently, and she wound up in the highest math class. They ALL did. That's irrelevant. My ELA scores were good, but math scores were bad. The year before, it was the exact opposite. It's a complete farce, with real ramifications."

    Those two words: "complete farce," of course.

  19. Guin Geyer also nails the problem in her response:

    "Our state testing book had 246 pages a couple years ago... it was like a phone book for a 10 year old torture section for a couple of weeks. We never get the test scores back (Special Ed) so we can’t make recommendations to the next year teacher... most of my students have anxiety attacks because some teacher somewhere lied and told them they will be held back if they fail... the results don’t even come into the school until the next school year to admin. Our students are often times 1-3 grade levels behind on reading so this is a year after year torture test that reinforces that they are never going to measure up. Just disgusts me... this is my least favorite time of the year."

    Think about it: a "year after year torture test." Are we nuts to allow this to go on???