Edward Udel: Exodus, Part 2

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DALTON — My son's graduate school roommate was enrolled in a Master of Teaching program at Brandeis University that consumed almost two years of his life and a substantial amount of money. He was enthusiastically preparing to become a public school teacher but his excitement was short-lived. His first job was in a school taken over by the state. He was one of the replacement teachers. That experience was a disaster. Students were not immediately provided with their class schedules and for several days, they roamed around the building uncertain of where to go. Things got worse and he left that job. His second assignment was no better. In just a few years, he exiled himself from the profession.

Only about 50 percent of those entering the teaching profession can be found in any classroom after 5 years. They quickly become disillusioned with the relentless emphasis on test preparation, the ridiculous number of hoops that they must jump through to satisfy the evaluation process and the criticism and suspicion directed at them by a society in denial of its responsibilities and in search of scapegoats.

Many struggle to pay their loans and find affordable housing. Most cannot live in the communities in which they teach. In the Berkshires, first year full time hospital nurses, long considered woefully underpaid and undervalued, earn about $20,000 more than first year teachers with two degrees and that disparity continues right up through retirement.

We ignore the growing teacher shortage just as we ignore climate change. By the time Florida is completely covered by sea water, thousands of teaching positions will have been filled by people lacking even the most rudimentary credentials. This is already happening in urban areas with wide and deep pockets of poverty.

The pressure to reach high stakes test targets is forcing many teachers to spend most if not all of their instructional time test prepping. This is especially true of schools identified as underperforming and typical of many charter schools that lure students on the strength of their MCAS scores. The high stakes testing obsession is made more palatable by the jargon that props it up — "data driven instruction." That's education speak for measure, practice, measure again, practice more and keep on keeping on. The relentless distribution of practice "sheets" or on-line exercises doesn't do much to enhance motivation. Trapped in a dry desert of test preparation, many teachers become exhausted chasing after data mirages while the state's mandates and threats hang directly over their heads.

VERBAL ABUSE

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Others leave because they have limited capacity to tolerate profanity from students and even some parents who insist that their First Amendment rights include the unrestricted use of four letter words. Some teachers receive more verbal abuse than the "human scum" who oppose our Narcissist-in-Chief. The 100,000 physical assaults on classroom teachers in the U.S each year do not incentivize the profession.

While the exodus from the teaching profession should not be confused with events described in the Book of Exodus, there are similarities. Many educators are also wandering, lurching from one "best practice" to another, attempting to reach the mandatory data goals set by the state. They are compelled to pay homage to the state's golden calf of accountability. The commandments issued to educators by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, better known as state mandates from on high, constitute a secular form of compulsory idol worship.

When a school is added to the underperformance (turn around) list, educators must close the gap between what is being taught and what is being tested. They are forced to double down on what has already become data-centric overkill. This is no way to motivate children and retain teachers.

Yet, despite these formidable obstacles, many teachers still step up to serve our children and communities with passionate commitment and skill. Some are able to push aside all of the negatives and they report to work each day, hoping to make either incremental or sometimes dramatic improvements in the lives of their students. Kevin Harrington was such a teacher. I am one of the privileged teachers who either taught him or taught with him and I was blessed to experience his extraordinary kindness and decency firsthand. I hope that the Taconic students who loved and respected him find ways to emulate him.

His sudden and unexpected death serves as a reminder that we can't take teachers for granted. We must work hard to remove some of the formidable obstacles that eviscerate their morale and shrink their numbers. Let us lift our teachers up and honor them. One Book of Exodus is enough.

A longtime educator, Edward Udel is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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