Teacher Preparation

Award-Winning Educator Decries Current Teaching Climate

By Jordan Moeny — March 31, 2015 4 min read
Nancie Atwell, an acclaimed language arts teacher at a nonprofit independent K-8 school in Edgecomb, Maine, center, poses with former President Bill Clinton and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai, after she won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize in Dubai on March 15. The award was created to increase public recognition of the teaching profession.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

An influential language arts educator who recently won a high-profile international prize for teaching had some surprising advice for young people interested in becoming public school teachers today: Don’t do it.

The profession has been severely “constrained” by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and schools’ emphasis on standardized testing, Nancie Atwell, who won the first $1 million Global Teacher Prize on March 15, said in an interview on CNN.

The award, given by the Varkey Foundation in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, was created to improve the public image of the teaching profession by bringing recognition to the work of outstanding teachers. Boasting an illustrious panel of judges from across the education and business communities, the program has been lauded by the likes of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and former President Bill Clinton, who is the honorary chair of the Varkey Foundation.

Mr. Gates appeared in a congratulatory video for the award’s finalists in which he spoke of the “power of teachers to transform students’ lives.”

Upon receiving the award, Ms. Atwell, who teaches at the Center for Teaching and Learning, a nonprofit independent K-8 school in Edgecomb, Maine, said that teaching is a privileged and powerful profession and that she felt “validated every day just by the experiences I have with children in the classroom.” She also said she plans to donate the full amount of the prize money to her school, which she founded in 1990.

But since being honored, she has sounded less than enthusiastic about the current prospects for teachers. Following the award ceremony, Ms. Atwell appeared on CNN’s “New Day” program to discuss the honor. When asked what she would tell students considering a career in teaching, she said that she would try to dissuade them unless they were interested in working in a private school.

“Public school teachers are so constrained right now by the common-core standards and the tests that are developed to monitor what teachers are doing with them, …" she said. “If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.”

In an interview with HuffPost Live on March 17, Ms. Atwell reiterated her concerns about the common core, which Mr. Gates’ foundation has played a central role in supporting. (The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also helps support Education Week‘s coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards.)

“The new common-core curriculum and the tests that accompany it are tending to treat teachers as mere technicians,” she said. “They open the box, and they read the script, and that’s not what good teaching is about. It’s an intellectual enterprise, and that’s been stripped from it by the current climate.”

Strong Reactions

She compared the current accountability demands on teachers to “straitjackets when it comes to how [teachers] interact with kids. ...”

Ms. Atwell, who is the author of several prominent books on middle-grades language arts instruction and frequently speaks at professional conferences, added that schools’ emphasis on test preparation leaves little room for teachers to convey the true benefits of reading and writing.

“It’s just become a series of rig—not even rigorous—almost ridiculous exercises that don’t have any connection with the enjoyment of stories or the exercise of self-expression,” she said.

On the Internet, educators voiced strong reactions to Ms. Atwell’s comments. Many praised her for going public with hard truths about the profession that reflected their own experiences. Others argued that she had misinterpreted the intentions of the common core and that discouraging potential teachers is the wrong way to change education policy.

Dan Brown, a former teacher who is now the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Future Educators Association, agreed with the latter group.

“Nancie Atwell is an exceptional educator, but her statements discouraging creative, smart young people from pursuing careers in public schools are counterproductive,” Mr. Brown said in an email. “We can’t give up the ship in frustration; what happened to ‘Be the change’?”

In a subsequent emailed statement provided through the Varkey Foundation, Ms. Atwell walked back slightly on her position.

“Teaching has been my pride and pleasure for more than four decades. I encourage anyone anywhere who enjoys working with young people to consider it as a career,” she said. “The world needs all the smart, passionate educators it can get.”

But, she said, she had wanted to be honest about the challenges teachers face today.

“In U.S. public schools, these include a tight focus on standardized tests and methods, which I feel discourage autonomy and encourage teaching to the test...,” she wrote. “And I empathize with aspiring teachers and I strongly believe that they need to be aware of and prepared for the particular challenges of the current climate.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2015 edition of Education Week as Honored Educator Decries Current Climate for Teaching


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teacher Preparation First-Time Pass Rates on Teacher Licensure Exams Were Secret Until Now. See the Data
The National Council on Teacher Quality published first-time pass rate data on teacher licensing tests, which had been hidden for years.
8 min read
teacher 1276371740 stylized
Drazen Zigic/iStock/Getty
Teacher Preparation The Complicated, Divisive Work of Grading Teacher-Preparation Programs
As the two national accreditors for teacher-preparation programs evolve, the battle over market share heats up.
9 min read
Illustration of checkmark
Getty
Teacher Preparation Remote Learning Is Changing Schools. Teacher-Preparation Programs Have to Adjust
For schools to leverage lessons learned during the pandemic, new teachers need better training on how to work in online environments.
8 min read
A teacher tries to keep up with her technology training
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and iStock/Getty Images Plus
Teacher Preparation Opinion Far Too Many Educators Aren’t Prepared to Teach Black and Brown Students
Teacher-prep programs can help address that inadequacy, writes Sharif El-Mekki.
5 min read
A group of multicolored people stand together looking in both directions
Ada DaSilva/DigitalVision Vectors<br/>