Blame. Blame blame blame. Get your finger out because it is time to put your finger toward the person whose fault it is. Who can be held responsible? These are the questions they are asking about schools, about students, about my own classroom. I am not really sure who the they is, or if they actually record the answers, or do anything about the conclusions. How they come to those conclusions is also sort of vague. But I do know this, there is blame to be had and someone is going to assign it.
Blame is the high stakes, in the high stakes testing.
I am lucky to be working at a school that does well and is generally succesful. The principal assumes that the teachers do our job and the students do their best, and mostly this all happens everyday. We score well on our tests and when the results are less than desired, the conversations about them have been positive and forward thinking. Everyone can always get better, and we want to.
But I haven’t always been so lucky. In schools with high poverty rates and low test scores, the blame cascades down the power structures, people passing it down, their hands dirty with the blame as everyone tries to avoid drowning in it.
This is the way educational policy is written in this country. Most of the laws have these insane consequences, potential school take overs, firing the principal and all the teachers, withholding pay. For the kids, failure to pass the test can mean failure to graduate. Whose fault is it? Who is there to blame?
A few months ago I stumbled upon this video.
And I couldn’t help thinking of my students and my classroom. Of how when testing season comes (and it is upon us) I have to work extra hard to keep my temper and remain kind. Because what if they do poorly? What if they have a bad day? What if the measurements are had and someone thinks I am a bad teacher?
This is what we call teacher PTSD. In past buildings I have sat in rooms where scores are projected onto a screen, names are named and teachers are shamed. There is no distinction between the teacher who teaches the remedial classes and those that teach the honors. Only the scores, only the verdicts. This teacher is good, this one is bad.
And when the teacher is doing everything she can? In her weaker moments she turns on the kids. Whose fault is this mess? Why can’t you learn it? Will you not try harder? My reputation is on the line.
There is a lot of research about what makes a good teacher and what makes a good principal, and mostly it is still a mystery. But the best principals and teachers have the same thing in common. They build strong relationships with the people they are in charge of, principals to teachers and teachers to students. And blame is hurting that.
My very favorite best teachers were in subjects I hated. I, with my chronic absences due to mysterious health problems, was not the ideal student. My sophomore and junior years I had math teachers who did right by me anyway. They gave me every chance, they were kind and gracious. I felt safe in their classroom despite the fact I was perpetually absent, confused, behind. Everyone has a favorite teacher, and everyone talks about the relationship they formed with those teachers.
This still happens, I still am forming bonds and believing in kids, as are my colleagues. But you need to know that this is in spite of the culture of testing in this country. This is in the face of the onslaught of high stakes tests and publicly published scores. The great teaching that is happening is in direct violation of the testing culture.
Blame is hurting kids, it is hurting relationships, it is shrinking the space and time and creativity that it takes to engage a kid’s brain. And it is written into our educational policies, the blame is in the baseline.
I was very proud to have graduated Magna Cum Laude, but my favorite moment was when my history teacher ran up and hugged me. She said, “I had no idea you did so well in other classes!” I laughed that off….”umm, thanks?” But I mostly laughed, because yeah, from her vantage point I was probably the stereotypical bumbling idiot student with no future in anything academic.
I struggle alot with history and she was a tough teacher, in requirements, but not in attitude. She was always encouraging and helpful, going above and beyond to help me as I struggled to understand what it seemed like all my classmates instinctively knew. I didn’t raise my hand to answer questions in her classes, because I couldn’t even comprehend the most basic material. Then I would bombard her with questions during office hours. I know I probably seemed like the annoying kid in the back that wouldn’t contribute in class participation. But she never belittled me for it. And I’m glad she didn’t just assume I was a slacker or “to blame” in some way when I was trying my hardest to figure it all out. She’ll always stick out in my mind because of that.
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