There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about teachers, especially about teachers who aren’t getting high enough standardized test scores and what to do with bad teachers. Blanket statements about the teaching profession are silly. The old adage that a few bad apples spoil the bushel should not be applicable to teachers anymore than to doctors, lawyers, or any other profession. Teachers deserve far, far more kudos than they get! To put some context around the news commentary, I turned to a college roommate and dear friend to answer my questions about her experiences teaching as a reading specialist and ESL teacher in an urban Title I school. I wanted to share some of her remarks because her experiences have shown me that teaching isn’t for the faint of heart and that loving what you do makes all the difference.
Rachel (my college roommate) has spent the last 8 years teaching in a Title I school as the Reading Specialist, ESL teacher, and ALP (Alternative Language Program) lead. She wears many hats, but loves both what she does and the students that she gets to spend her days with. The school that she works in is an urban middle school in the western part of the U.S. with 90% of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. According to Rachel, the school population is about 75% minority students with the majority being of Hispanic origin. Other minorities in the school include Polynesians, Asians, African refugees, and other refugees from Europe and Asia. The school was under sanctions 5 years ago and is in the midst of its second turnaround. The middle school is currently transitioning to a STEM based curriculum. Each student is given a placement test based on fluency when they enter the school. If they are in the lowest level of reading or two lowest levels of ESL, they end up in Rachel’s class.
Most students who are in Rachel’s class test into a 4th grade level or lower in reading comprehension/low fluency. Students with a reading comprehension of 5th or 6th grade level or higher are placed into another reading class. One of the first things that students say when they come to school is that they hate reading. And they especially hate reading at school. Finding ways to talk about the ways that reading is important is something that they do regularly in class. Rachel also works to create a safe and judgment-free classroom. She likes to start the year off with some fun activities that the kids often describe as “easy.” The goal is to get students to believe that they can be successful and the work gradually gets harder but not so much that the students push against it. One important aspect of getting the students to want to read is choosing texts that have high interest, but lower level readability. Rachel rarely uses chapter books for her students, instead choosing to focus on short stories and interesting articles. The class reads one chapter book during the year; there is a combination of the teacher reading chapters aloud, students reading to themselves, and using e-readers in read-aloud mode. Finding texts that the students are interested in creates good dialogue and gets the class engaged. Classes also play vocabulary games like Scattergories, Apples to Apples, and Bananagrams. Teaching students to develop successful reading strategies helps them as they enter high school and face more challenging texts.
While every day is different, Rachel says that she “thrives on the challenge of teaching the ‘hard’ students.” She says that the toughest part of the job is that for some students, reading and school just aren’t a priority. Many students don’t have access to technology or have Internet in their homes. Parents are often working two jobs or students are working to help make ends meet. While she loves teaching middle school, she said it’s hard to see the kids move on, sending “them to a place to figure it out without you there to remind them to stay on target.”
We didn’t discuss her student’s standardized test scores. But, as I pondered the energy, creativity, and love in her teaching I couldn’t help but feel proud and uplifted with an optimistic view towards other teachers raising the bar. In an increasingly politicized environment, critics of teachers would do well to remember and raise up those who love what they do, do it well, and work creatively to see their students succeed.