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Virginia Journal of Education


“Now I'm Just a Teacher That I Used to Know”

By Lynnie Vessels

After spending twenty-nine days on my houseboat this summer, by mid-August, I still did not have the peace I sought. Something was wrong deep inside me and I decided to sit down and get to the bottom of it. The following essay is what I found:

I used to be a great teacher. Then I became a good teacher. Last year I wondered who I was as a teacher.

I used to create the most wonderful lesson plans that allowed me to teach my students developmentally, and by the end of the year they were synthesizing everything they learned. One parent told me if her daughter had lousy English teachers for the rest of her schooling, it wouldn't matter because her love for English was ignited.

Another parent, who was also a teacher, told me, "You understand the mind of a middle-schooler." I do. My own middle school years were painful, and I do everything I can to shake it up for my students, getting them laughing and loving the written word. I had an English teacher in middle school that did that and I learned from him a hundred tricks I've used my whole life.

I used to be a star in my classroom, more exciting than television, a comedian, and I made every kid a star. I created an atmosphere where students learned volumes without ever knowing it. I acted silly, even foolish, and taught them to do the same. I role modeled someone in her element. By the end of the year, the shyest child was able to perform like a pro on the stage with his peers.

I used to stand up every back-to-school night and say, "I love my job, I love the kids, I love my classroom, I love this school. I wake up every day happy and can't wait to get here."

Last year I could still say that, but just barely.

I still love my students but this multiple-choice testing feels like little bombs going off throughout my year. I prepare the kids. They take the tests. Then it feels like I spend weeks cleaning up the debris, collecting data I don't really need because I already know what they know and don't know.

I get that there are slacker teachers, but I've only met three in my 26 years of teaching. While standard multiple-choice tests are meant to lift "up" bad teachers, what about those of us that were soaring all along? We are forced to dumb ourselves and the students down.

The students I released from my care five years ago were far more knowledgeable and better prepared than the students I released this June. If I were a parent, I'd be livid that my children were being prepared for multiple-choice tests and a dumbed-down curriculum.

In early May I gave a 12-question, fill-in-the-blank test over material that I'd taught for weeks. The kids looked at me like they were waiting for another piece of paper. When it didn't come, all mouths opened, and one student said, "Where is the word bank?" I said there was not one, that they should be able to retrieve this from their brains. Over 20 percent failed. Parents called wanting to know what in tarnation happened to their child's grade. How could I tell each one, "Your child is being trained to always have the correct answer in front of him. He cannot retrieve the correct answer unless it is staring at him from the page."

Can anyone hear me? Students are getting so used to having the answer in at least A, B, C or D, that they are expecting a test to have the answer and that they can pick it - once they see it! Study? Please don't get me started on the fact that upon failing a test, students get to re-take it as many times as necessary to pass, thus eliminating the concept of deadlines for an entire generation.

This year my school is starting an IB Middle Years Program that is meant to create knowledgeable, principled, global, critical thinkers, but we are still expected to test students constantly, until the point of test exhaustion. Frankly, the two are diametrically opposed and it impossible to do both well. Most educators know this, but we have to "go along" with what we do not believe in. This is why good teachers are leaving in droves.
 
Do you know how long it takes to prepare a seventh-grader to pass material he'll likely never use? It wastes valuable teaching time when we could be reading, writing and discussing big ideas. I feel like a bird with rubber bands put around her wings, being placed on a moving sidewalk headed to the robotic-teacher factory. I'm flapping, but no one is hearing me. Or worse, I'm seen as a renegade. I cannot compromise my integrity in order to do what I know is wrong for the children in my charge.

I see teachers regularly on YouTube reading letters of resignation. They have given up and left. I haven't given up. I am writing this. I want to stay. But I want to go back to creating my own lessons and tests with my own brain. I want to be the teacher I used to be. I love my colleagues dearly, but none of us wants to be a clone of the other. I respect them enough to see how incredibly talented they are. And I see the young, bright teachers coming in wanting to fly.

I was recently sent to an "expert" on our new IB program. Before I sat down, she said, "Let me just tell you that after five years, I'm on my way out. I spent the whole year working to get a security clearance and I start working for the state department in July. I became a teacher because I loved kids and literature and couldn't wait to teach. I've gotten to do none of what I expected. I'm outta here." Another disrespected brain bites the dust.

And then I got to sit for 90 minutes listening to her talk about a program she's disappointed in to the point of changing careers. Great!
 
I have four more years until I retire. I have never been one of those teachers just putting in her time. I still love my job, my students, my school. But most of all, I love using my creative brain to energize and inspire my students. I teach kids that their brain is the best friend they will ever have, that they'll have more good times with it than with anyone or anything else.

I used to plan my year meticulously. I could see it. I mapped it out. I meditated on it all summer. I saw a white palette onto which I'd create a year so memorable that my students would remember it as a time when they formed a resolve that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. I still have a colorful vision of my upcoming school year, but the black ink splotches of data and tests already there are ones I must maneuver around, trying to muster a creativity that only reaches a certain level before it sputters and falls. And then I will try to muster it again.

For many of us, teaching is a calling. We are motivated by our love for children. Teaching has been the greatest spiritual journey of my life. I could not have chosen a better profession for my talent, creativity and intelligence. It is what I was put on earth to do, yet I feel like I am being asked to change something as fundamental as a religion is to some. I cannot help my sadness. I miss being excited for another school year.

Sending this essay took the edge off my anxiety. Somehow, I finally felt heard – whether it was printed or not. I then spent six days frolicking in NYC with my sister, and came home to take an expensive 42-hour personal growth class on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday before school started on Monday morning. I finally had my positive attitude back. But I had to work all summer to get it.

Vessels (www.lynnievessels.com) is a member of the Fairfax Education Association and the author of To Soften the Blow. She teaches at Robinson Secondary School.

 

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Angelou, Others Protest Excessive Testing

Lynnie Vessels is far from alone in her discomfort with the amount of standardized testing students face today. Recently, a group of more than 120 authors and illustrators for children’s books sent a letter to President Obama to express their concern. Among those who signed the letter were Maya Angelou and Judy Blume.

The letter read, in part, “We are alarmed at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates, including your Administration’s own initiatives, on children’s love of reading and literature. Recent policy changes by your Administration have not lowered the stakes. On the contrary, requirements to evaluate teachers based on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration.”

 

 


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