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Dreading the Next Great Crisis

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As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

I'm tired. Would that surprise people outside of the teaching profession? Is it hard to believe that teaching is work that can be described as exhausting?

Let me begin by saying that I know professionals in other careers work hard and long. We live in exhausting times. Maybe the difference for teachers is this: We seem to be society's go-to guys when there's a social ill that needs fixing.

On top of the daily challenges of planning, instructing, assessing, remediating, and enriching to meet the individual needs of the 50-plus children that roll through my classroom each day, I wrestle with the constant mental pressure applied by a country caught in the grips of a "crisis mentality."

Each new week seems to bring headlines highlighting a major flaw that needs to be addressed by teachers immediately. In the past month alone, I've read articles about how schools are overlooking boys (or girls), how we're letting down our students and our nation in math and science instruction, neglecting to teach healthy living habits to an increasingly obese America, and failing to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students.

Reading scores are unacceptable, writing scores are unacceptable, and our country is falling behind the rest of the world on nearly every international measure of student success. Dropout rates are too high, numbers of students in advanced placement courses are too low, and there aren't enough after-school activities for kids.

My favorite crisis of the past year: A passionate plea from an Atlanta author for schools to begin emphasizing the basics of bathroom hygiene with our students. To do so, he argued, would be a simple and logical task for teachers, who already have access to and influence over our nation's youth. (This thought seems to occur, sooner or later, to just about every reformer in America.)

Each new dilemma sets off warning bells across our country. Activists demand a "renewed focus" on the part of educators and administrators. Elected officials campaign on promises to "reform education" and "restore America's competitive edge again." And parents fret over the fear that their child is being academically neglected.

And where does the responsibility for addressing each of these issues inevitably seem to end up falling? In the true spirit of the trickle-down theory, right on the shoulders of classroom teachers!

Now don't get me wrong. I can see the value in each of the areas of focus mentioned above. Who would argue against closing the achievement gap or teaching healthy living habits? Even I would love to see students gain a greater awareness of the importance of restroom hygiene!

What I am saying is that keeping up with the latest crisis is becoming more and more difficult for me each year. As a close friend once said, we're being asked to work towards goals that are "simultaneously important and impossible to reach."

Subtly, the message is being sent that if teachers would work harder, America's "educational crisis" could be solved. If only all teachers were "highly qualified," we'd lead the world again. If only all teachers held "advanced degrees in the subjects they were teaching," we wouldn't fall behind China, Japan and India in engineers and scientists. If only we could recruit "our best and our brightest" to our nation's classrooms, no child would be left behind.

Can classroom teachers do it? Can we meet or exceed all of society's expectations for children? Absolutely—but not by ourselves. As a society, we need to be willing to rethink how "school" is done in America.

What if we extended the school day or year to take into account the ever expanding curriculum that we expect students to master? What if we experimented with electronic learning to extend opportunities or to provide remediation? What if we emphasized critical thinking rather than standardized testing in our assessment programs? What if we lowered class sizes and increased access to technology for all students?

What if we provided more time for teachers to collaborate with one another or to master new instructional strategies and skills? What if we raised teaching salaries to compete with the private-sector jobs that lure accomplished educators away from our classrooms? What if we created a menu of compensation packages that appealed to teachers at different points in their careers or stratified the profession, providing opportunities to advance?

What if we renewed America's war on poverty and guaranteed economic opportunity for all of our citizens?

I believe in our public schools and their mission. I'm just afraid that teachers have reached the limit of what we can accomplish without significant change, and I just can't handle the next great crisis!

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