Janet Sheridan: The merry-go-round of education
When I hear about the latest, greatest, sure-fire innovation to increase student learning, I feel weary.
During my first year of teaching in Cache County, Utah, families in small, farming communities were assured that consolidation of the rural high schools dotting the green mountain valley would save money and provide increased learning opportunities for students — students who sometimes missed school to help with the final haying and who felt a fierce loyalty to their local schools.
Next, came year-round schools, schools-without-walls, block scheduling, multi-age classrooms, back to the basics, new math, phonics versus whole language and the triple whammy of standards, state testing and teacher accountability, all accompanied by the rise of technology and charter schools.
Now, it’s time for a single-item, pop quiz. Though you’d probably prefer a true-false puzzler, you’re going to have to think because it’s an essay question: Describe the person, the place or the thing that had the most influence on your learning from kindergarten through high school.
I posed this question to adults for years, so, I predict, many of you thought of a teacher. I would also bet that school schedules, curriculums, supplies, buildings, class sizes, testing programs and state-issued rankings received scant attention.
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I worked for 40 years in a variety of capacities in public schools, and I believe the person smiling at the classroom door on the first day of school impacts student learning more than any other factor — other than parents who make education a family priority.
Too often, the trends that sweep through our schools on a regular basis do nothing to increase and support the skills of classroom teachers, the most critical component of student learning. Instead, they push teachers into different configurations, require them to adjust their teaching accordingly, and limit their ability to make decisions about how to best teach the lively individuals with multiple needs sitting in front of them.
Across the nation, we see the Titanic equivalent of rearranging the bell schedule while students sink and teachers, burdened by everybody’s baggage, struggle to save them.
As a former staff developer, I believe some innovations in instruction, curriculum and assessment can make a difference in student learning if accompanied by quality training built into a teacher’s day and supported by knowledgeable site administrators. Then, teachers need time to internalize the new approaches they learn and are expected to use before a change is made to the next best thing guaranteed to improve student learning.
Adopted innovations accompanied by mandated trainings bombard teachers without cease, making it difficult for them to practice, adapt and refine what they’re expected to implement. Education’s fast-paced approach to staff development on the latest trends makes as much sense as parents saying to a baby, “We think you’ve mastered walking; you navigate the living room pretty well and don’t fall down much anymore. So, tomorrow, we’ll start training you on a tricycle.”
Maybe, it’s time we send constant innovation to recess, so, teachers can catch their breath, solidify what they know and decide what they need to learn next, while we support them in doing so.
I spent some time in Cache County last fall. The county where I began teaching is now building small, local high schools in order to reduce busing expenses, decrease class sizes, allow students to attend schools closer to their homes and increase student learning.
And so it goes on the merry-go-round of education.
Sheridan’s book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns,” is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at http://www.auntbeulah.com on the 1st and 15th of every month.
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