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Teaching Profession Opinion

I Followed My Parents Into Teaching. Here’s How the Profession Has Changed

We need to reclaim creativity and autonomy in a sterilized teaching profession
By George DeVita — June 14, 2023 5 min read
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Growing up in the 1980s as the son of two passionate educators, I had a childhood that was suffused with an immeasurable respect for the role of the teacher. My father, a seasoned high school teacher, and my mother, a dedicated curriculum director at a specialized private school for children with special needs, painted a tapestry full of educational dedication and student commitment. I wanted to be them.

Now an experienced educator myself, I have witnessed an unnerving transformation of the profession. Once brimming with passion, creativity, and innovation, the colorful canvas of teaching has been replaced by a sterile landscape of rigidity and disillusionment.

My parents’ work was a lesson in relationship building, human connection, and pedagogical expertise. Their interactions with students were a delicate balance between fostering curiosity and maintaining discipline.

One of the most memorable aspects of my upbringing was accompanying my father as he led students and teachers on multiple exchange programs to Denmark. Each trip was a cultural and educational revelation, but the behind-the-scenes view of my father’s teaching process stood out. His ability to bridge the gap between American and Danish cultures for his students demonstrated the power of a teacher not just as an academic guide but as a cultural navigator and life coach.

My mother’s job demanded the application of pedagogical techniques tailored to her students. I would watch in quiet admiration as she prepared for work, adapting the curriculum to make the teaching fit her students.

My parents’ approach to teaching was rooted in their autonomy. They taught me that education is not about shaping students but enabling students to shape themselves.

Unfortunately, the modern education landscape has suffered a seismic shift. Rigid top-down guidelines and a relentless focus on standardized tests, data points, and legislative demands have created an oppressive atmosphere for teachers. While well intentioned, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 put immense pressure on teachers to improve test scores, leading to a narrowing of the curriculum and a focus on “teaching to the test.” Even after the Every Student Succeeds Act returned the responsibility of setting academic standards to individual states in 2015, the law kept the annual testing requirements of NCLB.

Many educators feel unable to apply the methods that initially drew them to this profession. The impacts of this sterilization of teaching are profound.

As a teacher, erasing my autonomy in favor of a numbers-driven system has been a heart-wrenching transformation. I’ve felt the raw disconnect between the curriculum and my students’ needs. We’re cornered into treating our students as data points. This failure to see the whole student, to appreciate their unique struggles and triumphs, has rendered these data-focused meetings ineffective.

This metrics-driven shift in teaching has caused some of the best educators I know to abandon the profession they once loved.

One of my own teachers, whom I’ll call “Mr. H,” was a veteran science teacher with a passion for the subject. His innovative hands-on approach sparked an interest in the sciences. I hated math and science until my experience in his 12th grade chemistry class. When I decided to teach, his way of engaging learners was one I wanted to emulate.

As an adult, I ran into him in our town and learned that he had decided to resign, not because he had fallen out of love with teaching but because the system had fallen out of love with him. His eyes welled up with tears as he explained his decision to me. Mr. H lamented that he could no longer devote his energy to inspiring students. Instead, he was consumed by data entry and analysis. He was forced to adapt to a one-size-fits-all curriculum that left no room for creativity.

How do we return to the educational landscape my parents loved, the one that Mr. H. had loved?

The solution lies in trusting teachers to meet their students where they are, without the pressure to reduce students to numbers. This involves restoring creativity and personal connection in the classroom and, in turn, making students more valued.

My plea is this: Teachers, we must own the work of advocating for our students and ourselves, raising awareness about the realities we face in the classroom. Our insight as educators is invaluable and should be the cornerstone of any discussion about the future of education.

Administrators must own the work of supporting their teachers, understanding their challenges, and opposing policies that hinder effective teaching. They must facilitate environments that encourage creativity, innovation, and individuality rather than suppress them. It is their responsibility to champion their teachers’ needs and voices within the broader education system.

Educational policymakers need to engage in open dialogue with teachers, administrators, and students to understand the true impacts of their policies and adjust accordingly.

Finally, the general public must also own this work. Education policy, funding, and cultural attitudes toward teachers are all shaped by our broader social values. We all have a responsibility to value education not as a mere service but as a critical investment in our collective future.

Teachers deserve the freedom to use innovative approaches.

I am reminded of a conversation with my mother during my first days of student-teaching. When I voiced my apprehensions about managing a classroom, she told me, “Teaching isn’t about control; it’s about connection.”

Teachers deserve the freedom to use innovative approaches, like the captivating science experiments Mr. H once orchestrated or the customized learning plans my mother so adeptly crafted.

Assessment, too, must move beyond a singular focus on standardized testing. It must recognize a student’s growth and development, accounting for effort, creativity, and critical-thinking skills.

One promising example is New Hampshire’s trailblazing Performance Assessment of Competency Education program. Implemented in 2015, PACE has allowed schools to replace standardized testing with locally developed performance assessments. This approach grants teachers more flexibility in aligning assessments with their curriculum and pedagogy while still ensuring student competency in core academic areas.

States like California and New York have also made significant strides toward graduation pathways that include capstone projects and career-technical demonstrations. By doing so, they have acknowledged the diverse talents and career aspirations of students and the need for assessments that mirror real-world application of knowledge and skills.

In our pursuit of accountability, we have lost sight of that crucial connection, reducing teaching to a sterile, mechanical process. To reignite the joy, creativity, and vibrancy in education, we must restore that human connection. It is only then that we, as educators, can find our purpose and passion, just as my parents did all those years ago.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2023 edition of Education Week as How Teaching Has Changed Since My Parents’ Day

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