As the summer winds down and I am spending time preparing for the new school year, I find myself thinking about my own potential as a teacher. I feel blessed to be able to teach art in this 21st Century where politicians seem to think the only thing of value is math and science. It boggles my mind when I think about my own potential as a child. I have always felt that I had a deprived childhood because I didn’t have any art classes in my K-12 education. It is truly remarkable that I have spent much of my adult life as an art teacher. I would never have pursued art in college, if it hadn’t been for the student friends that happened to see my drawings. They kept asking me why I wasn’t taking any art classes. I remember drawing pictures and putting them up on my bulletin board. I had no training. I just liked to draw with a simple pencil and paper.
I grew up in a large family with 14 kids. I have always felt that when you grow up in large families with little money you learn to be creative. Maybe you have to find new ways to play because you don’t have that fancy toy your friend has or maybe you have to fix something because you don’t have the money to buy a new one. Regardless of the reasons, I feel my family circumstance contributed to my creativity. In addition to that is the fact that I had good parents. They both were teachers, but they also were devoted to their family. The family came first. My parents would go without many things to provide for the big brood they had. I can remember my mom coming home from teaching at the end of a long day. She would lie down on the couch with a cold compress on her head. She did this almost daily, but then she would always get up and make the family meal. Everything would be from scratch. We never went out to eat!
From very early on, I knew I was going to college. I’m not sure why I knew this as my two older sisters weren’t as fortunate. Maybe because I’m the youngest, I had a better opportunity as a girl to go on to college. My oldest brothers all went on to college. The four oldest each went on for their doctorates. The fact that both of my parents even had gone to college was quite remarkable. They didn’t come from wealthy families and they were born in 1909 and 1911. Education, obviously, has always been important in my family! This is one the reasons I find the current turmoil in education about standardized testing so ridiculous. As I grew up in a family of 14 children, we were as different as the day is long. We weren’t clones of each other. We all had remarkably different personalities and interests. Some of us were probably better “test takers” than others, but taking a test could never really determine who we became as adults! Some of us might have even been considered “late bloomers”. I don’t think any of us ever would want to remember our K-12 experience in school as being about testing! However, today students are spending much valuable time preparing for “important” tests. Much of the school day is designed and structured around that yearly test. Each school has to make adequate yearly progress. This test taking business is just going to get worse. Recently, here in Michigan, the governor signed a new bill into law that will eventually require 49% of a teacher’s evaluation to be tied to student test scores. As a parent there is no way I would want my child subjected to this kind of education.
My son is 27, so he isn’t part of this craziness. I look at my students much like my child. Since I had my son so many years ago, I have always felt that I should treat my students the way I would want my son to be treated by a teacher. I always wanted my child to dream big and be creative. I wanted him to see possibilities and use his imagination. I worry for the students of today. Are we doing everything we can to make them into compliant little test takers? Is that really what a teacher is supposed to be doing? As an art teacher, I know my job is a big one in this high stakes testing time. I have to give my students wings so they can access their creativity and play with their imagination. So much of time in school is spent with the constant pressure in the back of everyone’s mind to improve test scores. Now, it will even be elevated as teachers discover that their jobs may be on the line, if they can’t get their students to pass the state test! Now, most of you reading my blog probably have some reservations about all of this test taking and what it really means for the future. However, some of you may think teachers are just not doing their jobs today, because you keep hearing about how we have fallen behind in the world! Truthfully, politicians have chosen to go after teachers because many of us belong to the last strong union standing. Do you really think it’s the fault of the teacher if a student can’t pass a state test? There are a lot of reasons students don’t pass tests. One thing we know for sure is poverty plays a part in test taking. At our school and probably many others we make sure students have a snack before they take the “big” test! There are many factors that can affect test scores. These are everything from poor nutrition, to lack of sleep, to inadequate test taking strategies (Yes there is a strategy for this!), attention problems, distractions, to even daydreaming! Some days are also better than other days. Maybe you just had a bad day that day. Who knows what’s going on in a student’s head on any given day? I remember a young lady that came into my art room that seemed out of sorts to me. I asked her what was wrong. She first said nothing and then she told me that she had been in an accident that morning. The point I’m trying to make here is that teaching shouldn’t be about just taking a test and yet it seems like that is all the politicians care about.
If you think back to your favorite teacher, I bet you don’t think about the fact that he or she taught you how to take a great test! You probably think about the day when you felt special, like your teacher really cared about you! I hope I make students feel special when they come into my art room. I really do care about them. The other day I was at the Three Rivers’ Meijer store shopping and an older woman was so upset because of some “screaming brats” in the store. She thought she had an ally in me. She thought the parents were terrible that couldn’t control their children! She also thought they didn’t care that other people were annoyed by them. I told her I was a middle school teacher. It was obvious she wouldn’t want that job! She told me she likes dogs but not kids. She could tolerate her own children but even her grand children had better behave or she’d give them the boot! I let her know that I like all of my students even the ones that frustrate me. So many people that criticize teachers would not ever want to be stuck with thirty middle school students themselves. Most of the teachers I know really care about their students just like I do. We realize that at the middle school level students can bounce around with their behavior. They have good and bad days. They need adults around them that really care about them and can help them transition into adulthood. If teachers are left worrying about test taking it gives less time for teachers to really spend caring about their students’ individual needs. We are not all clones of each other and the students we teach are as different as my brothers and sisters were from me when I was growing up. At the middle school I always think it’s interesting because there is no one student that can show us what a middle school student is, as they come in all different shapes and sizes, and interests! So, I’m left asking myself the question why we have a government that insists on a test where one size fits all. Matt Damon gets it and I really hope you take the time to listen to his full speech from last weekend. It’s not that long but at one point he says, “None of these qualities that make me who I am can be tested.” Truthfully, none of the qualities that I bring to my art classroom as a teacher can be determined and evaluated by a student test score either.
I am so excited about this new school year, not because my students will be great test takers, but because I can’t wait to work with my students and push their imaginations and creativity. Just like any other year, I have a thousand things racing through my mind. I’m filled with ideas for lesson plans for the new school year. I can’t wait to share my ideas with my students, so they can take the seed of an idea that I begin and create something totally new and different from any other person. As the government has us all “race to the top”, I’ll have my students all chart a new path for their own creativity and learning. They will learn from each other. They won’t run over each other racing for some golden imaginary ring devoted to test taking. My students, for the brief time they are with me, will hopefully have an opportunity to access their imagination, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving skills. These are skills that will serve them well in this 21st Century!