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Letter to Students from a Torn Teacher

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To my students,

I greet you at the door with a smile, but I feel uneasy. I see your bright faces and hear your cheerful words with an inadvertent cringe. I am caught in a struggle between what I have been told to do and what you deserve. In my mind, I am clawing and scraping for solid ground, but I cannot find it.

I obey and trust the wisdom of an unknown authority whose face I cannot see but believe to be honorable. I follow, with your hand in mine, and ignore a call beckoning to me from my gut—this isn’t the right way. You come along without resistance, a partnership of blind trust and good will.

For a while I am able to maintain the integrity of our space. Academic rigor coexists with preparation for judgment day, and I meet your needs as individuals. But the crescendo of fear plays in my mind as the test steadily marches toward us. While I am proud of your achievement, I know it is too complex to be represented so simply.

Inevitably, I surrender to the pressure. I cannot serve two masters. I panic and reluctantly declare allegiance to that which holds the most power.

I proceed with infamous rituals of submission. I have you read lengthy irrelevant passages, practice strategies for multiple-choice items, and make marks that are suitably heavy and dark. You barely maintain attention, but I give you the you-can-do-it song and dance and promise fun times will follow. We suffer through this ridiculous charade, squeeze in a lesson of value with any remaining time, dismiss, and repeat in the morning. Caught in a trap I cannot define, I steal your time and give it away. I am afraid, but I continue on a mission to higher scores with determination and focus in the name of success for my school, for me, and for you, yet you do not look at me as though you feel successful.

I realize you are silent. It occurs to me that I barely recognize you. I feel uneasy again. Finally, I stop and look in the mirror. I choose to acknowledge my shame while I can still feel it. I must consider my character and decide to what extent I will participate. I sort through this confusion in search of resolve. Though the nation will applaud when your numbers rise, the cost is high. At my core, I am uncomfortable with the sacrifice required.

I am here with you and must make it my responsibility to speak your truth. You are not products to be homogeneously assessed and used as bragging rights. You are much more. Each of you is intricate, a contradiction to the implications of standardization. When given opportunities for curiosity, fascination, and discovery, your insights amaze me. When I offer you occasions to be brave in thought and expression, I am impressed by your abilities. You are smart, and you know that you could never tell the world who you are with a No. 2 pencil within the tight constraints of an itty-bitty bubble.

So as I look at my tired face in the mirror, I make my choice. I do not want to contribute to a system that limits you and expects so little, but if my only alternative is to abandon you, I will stay by your sides. I will steady my frustration and find a balance. I will prepare you for the test, but I will not forfeit your education. I will whisper as loudly as I can to you.

You possess unique qualities that are immeasurable. You are minds and voices unexplored, hotbeds of potential, a gift to your community.

You are more than a number.

And so am I.

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