Heather Wolpert-Gawron

What is a Teacher’s Shelf Life?

By on October 2, 2010

My OBGYN was running about 45 minutes late. I had no cell phone reception at the hospital and I had already read through the latest Entertainment Weekly, so I got out some paper and pen and started planning out my lessons for the following week. And as I sat there on the table, swinging my legs with thought, my mind wandered to the questions I’ve been asking myself since learning I was pregnant 5 months ago…

OK, so I’m only teaching first semester this year, my testing period during the spring is in the hands of a sub that I have no control over in choosing, and I care deeply about my students’ achievement.

What do I give up and what is lost in the answer?

I’m going on maternity leave this year, leaving the students I am slowly growing to love to the random lottery that is the subfinder system. There’s a lot to be concerned about, not the least of which centers on my own child.

I believe that there is a gradual build up that should happen over the course of a school year. After all, a first semester 7th grader vastly differs from that same kid 10 months in their future, and there’s groundwork to be laid for that to happen. Not so this year.

I’ve started making a list of my beloved go-to lessons and units, the ones I have never lived without since learning or developing them, the ones that seem to catch more of them in the nets of learning. And I’ve started looking at this list critically and sadly.

* I teach them how to develop high level questions in order to create their own quizzes that, if done properly, are 10x more rigorous than a standardized test.

* I teach young authors how to think critically online, evaluating the validity of websites, linking their essays to richer resources so that their readers can dive deeper into the research it took to construct their reasoning. Despite my dedication to teaching this future skill, Internet Literacy isn’t tested. Is this the unit that goes?

* We work on community building so that the students are comfortable with each other, so that each student can feel pride in something they are academically good at and no shame in that which they still need to learn. This allows for deeper differentiation because giving students choice and students advising students (two very powerful tools of differentiation) can’t happen without building community.

Are these the lessons that I need to chuck out the window this year due to my own time constraints?

And what of my own district assessments? As it is, we give a fall benchmark writing test and a spring benchmark-writing test. We give a standardized reading test that mimics our state tests once a quarter. Do I want them to show growth or do well when I’m there? And what if they don’t show growth under the sub’s tutelage? As value-added assessments grow in popularity, will I be defending the scores of this year for years to come? Will I be accountable for a year of learning with only 5 months influence on these students’ progress?

I also started thinking about the duration of a teacher’s career in this Brave New World that so many are wishing our schools reflected. The world I mean is the one seen before, where the teacher’s sole priority was to her students, where on each paycheck, the stub read, “must be unmarried.” For despite my own dedication to the profession and to my students, I can’t deny that I committed far more time to other people’s children before having my own. Frankly, I think being able to see both sides of the teacher’s desk makes me a better teacher, but to many, they wonder why I can’t give more. My job has become to balance what once I never had to.

So that got me thinking about the issue of charter schools. Many clearly are getting a lot of press these days as being staffed with dedicated teachers willing to stay late, come early, work 6 days a week, etc..Despite the fact that many charters can’t boast any more success than a regular public school can, I wondered what that level of dedication meant in regards to a teacher’s shelf life. Recently, I spoke to a doctorate student about her study of 4 charter schools. Two were remarkable, she said. One was “fine,” and the other “not so good.” She shared some details of her research, but said that even the two best charters she studied, the ones with the teachers who spent the most time committed to working with the students, suffered when the teachers begin to reprioritize their lives.

So according to the charter system, to the media, and to those wanting this Brave New World of education, do they believe teachers are “over the hill” when work can’t be their primary focus? In their ideal world, save for a few veterans kept around to help the youngins’, should teachers’ careers be shorter than that of a professional athlete?

I mean, athletes can have a family and still play until their bodies play out, but in society’s ideal educational world are teachers done when their priorities shift? Can we be permitted lives and still retain the title of Superman? Or is Superman less super if he moves in with Lois and has a kid?

That being said, I am trying, as many in my case do, to make it all work. My first priority is my growing family, but I have a responsibility to setup this school year the best I can.

So what do I cross off? Do I go deeply hitting fewer standards? Or, do I cover as much as possible in a more shallow way? Do I pick the best of my lessons from each unit? Or do I progress as I do, trusting the system and hoping that my unknown counterpart for second semester will fill in the gaps that time would not allow me to fill?

My doctor enters, smiling, and I put down my lesson plans for now…

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