The end of the school year is a reflective time for teachers. We think a lot about the things that we did well. We think more about the things that we could have done better.
There are a lot of good vibes floating around. The end of the year offers us teachers an opportunity to admire the fruit of all the care and work and thought and love that we poured into our students over the months that we spent with them. It’s a time when we can feel like we actually made a difference in their lives — a time when we can say things like “Wow! I taught them that” or, for the less egomaniacal/more pretentious among us, “Wow! I helped to facilitate that learning.”
I’ve got a long way to go in my professional development. I’m still in the very early stages of crafting my curriculum expertise and honing my pedagogical skills. Hell, I’m still discovering who I even am as an educator. Looking back on my 2015-16 school year, there is a lot that I would have done differently and a lot that I will look to change heading into next year. But what is disheartening to me is that while my own personal shortcomings surely played a role in curbing my effectiveness in the classroom, the most limiting situations that I encountered resulted not from a lack of knowledge or ability, but from the impossible task incumbent upon me as a public educator in the U.S. today.
There is no perfect teaching job — no perfect set of circumstances in which an educator can completely and totally enlighten every mind. Even if there were, the teacher occupying that perfect position would still teach like an imperfect teacher. But the problem with public education today is not that the teaching jobs aren’t perfect, it’s that they are so far away from perfect that they make the fulfillment of our professional responsibility — the responsibility to provide a high-quality education to all students — damn near impossible.
Class sizes are growing. I have colleagues who see more than 150 students every single day. That’s a lot of students for one person to educate. What’s more, many of those students have individualized educational plans that call for special adaptations and modifications in order to meet those students’ unique learning needs. In an ideal world, every student would have one of those plans. In the real world, those students are often the ones who fall through the cracks.
The deprofessionalization of teachers is at an all-time high. Between the federal government, the state, the school district and the school administration, there are so many standards and mandates and regulations that seek to control what and how you teach that it almost makes you wonder why you even went to teaching school in the first place.
Teacher-bashing is everywhere. Many parents see teachers as incompetent, a sentiment often emulated by their children. To be honest, they sometimes are right, but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of the educational system, a prophecy that is bound to come true in a job that has become so undervalued, a job in which disrespect is such an inherent norm. Even for those who feel tremendously appreciated, as a collective bunch, teachers are still a far cry from the days when they were viewed as public intellectuals.
All of these things work together to make my job very tough to do well. That doesn’t mean that I’m not doing my best. It just means that even my best is nowhere close to enough.
The decisions that I have to make on any given day reflect this dilemma. Do I spend my time trying to provide students constructive feedback on their latest exams, or do I put it into writing thoughtful lesson plans that will make for a richer in-class learning experience? Do I stay knelt next to the desk of Kid A and continue to provide that child with desperately needed guidance, or do I cut the interaction off early in hopes of addressing the raised hands of Kids B, C and D before the bell rings? Most of the time you can’t do both and, sometimes, you can’t do either.
It’s crazy how quickly you can get sucked into the trap. Fewer than two years ago, I was a spring chicken, an idealistic young whippersnapper hellbent on taking on the status quo, on transforming social studies education into something deep and meaningful — something beyond the boring memorization of the names and dates and facts so often associated with classes from my department. Yet here I am two years later, bulldozing through content in hopes of getting my U.S. history students through the end of the Vietnam War, in turn satisfying the requirements placed upon me by my state and school.
This is not a slight against my specific school district. The problems are much deeper and more systemic than that. Some teachers would kill to be in my situation, but I think that says a lot more about the undesirable circumstances of their jobs than it says about the desirable circumstances of mine.
You can’t always fix a problem by throwing money at it, and a lack of funding is hardly the only problem with public education today. That being said, some well-spent dollars could go a long way toward helping to address some of the things mentioned above, such as reducing class sizes and hiring more staff members who can help meet the needs of all of the unique learners who inhabit our schools. I know that spending like that would help me to do a better job and be a better teacher.
And at the end of the day, that’s all I’m really looking for. I don’t need perfect, just better. Better for me, better for my colleagues, better for the kids. I want to be able to do my job more successfully — to help kids think and learn and grow — to care for them and challenge them and help them to blossom into beautiful humans who will make this world a better place to be. If education is something that we truly value in this country, better is exactly what we’ll do. We’ll fund schools, rethink curricula and turn teachers back into the respected figures that they need to be if schools are going to work the way that we want them to. But until that happens, we teachers are stuck with no other choice than to just keep doing the best that we can.
Bill Boegeman, of Minneapolis, is a social-studies teacher.