Guest post: my mom, a retired English teacher, reflects on recent changes in education

Here’s a guest post by my mom, a former Teacher of the Year, who laments the effects education “reform” is having on students, teachers, and education in general:  

I began teaching in 1973. I retired July 1, 2013.  I taught every grade and every level of secondary English (yes, we called it English, not language arts or LAL) during my career, which I loved with a passion.  I am so fortunate to have had a profession I felt so devoted to, one that allowed me to engage with everything I loved: literature, writing, and young people of diverse backgrounds, interests and abilities. I have often though that without my rich career and all I have learned from it, I might be a much different person, much poorer in my understanding of human nature, adolescence, history, sociology, the arts, the creative process, and the complexity surrounding every facet of learning and personal growth.

There was a time, a few short years ago, that I could not imagine retiring from this career I felt so devoted to.  How sad to say that now I am glad to be gone, relieved of the burden of trying to conform to the current climate of “education reform,” the current practice of misusing big data and standardized tests, relying on arbitrary evaluation procedures, and meting out punitive consequences to teachers, administrators, and schools, all of which are being held responsible for conditions and outcomes beyond their control.

When I look back over my career, there are moments that stand out to me. Not one of these moments can be measured by a standardized test.  And not one of these moments has been, or ever should have been, documented by an administrative evaluator.  Here are some of those moments.

I remember a 15-year-old 7th grader for whom school represented repeated failure telling me “Mrs. Jolley, I wish you were my mom”— just because one day I asked her why she seemed so sad. No metric for that.

I remember ELL students, not very proficient in English, writing with a longing that could break your heart about how much they missed their native countries.  Hmmm. Not the prescribed 5-paragraph “controversial issue” format. No formula there.

I remember an African American boy named Marcus who quietly came up to my desk after class to express his concern for me (a white teacher in a class of mostly black students) after we read a passage from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in which white characters cruelly persecuted the black protagonists. Marcus, who was 14, was showing empathy for ME. He didn’t want me to take it personally that white people were portrayed as villains. He knew I wasn’t like that.  I was so moved.  Does someone want to measure that? (By the way, we read the whole novel, not excerpts as the CCSS suggest.)

I remember 9th graders enthusiastically researching the law, writing scripts, dressing up, acting out, and filming a mock trial of the Friar from Romeo and Juliet.  They charged him in the deaths of the two young lovers.  At night they watched Law & Order to get some pointers.  So cute!

I remember inventing assignments and projects (I-Searches, multi-genre pieces) that gave students choices to investigate subjects they were interested in, giving them responsibility, accountability, and investment in their own learning. So exciting even five years ago; today there’s no time for such things. What’s the point? It’s not on a test, everyone says.

I remember a time when department meetings, faculty meetings, and in-service days revolved around reading, sharing ideas, learning about our subjects—and not around  the only topics that seem to matter today: lesson plan format, testing, rubrics, teacher evaluations and technological gimmicks.  Watch your back! If you don’t conform it will be held against you!

I remember AP students who told me their lives were changed after reading Hamlet, or Beloved, or Middlemarch. Is there a metric for that, or is a score on the AP exam the only thing that counts? Yes, we did lots of close reading, but is that what students will remember?

Mostly I remember a time when I could be creative, do lots of research, veer off in different but related directions, have discussions, allow students to talk about how they feel (yes, David Coleman), and even lecture occasionally, without worrying if I covered every one of the myriad points in the Danielson model in EVERY lesson.

I am so sad when I read that students, teachers, and schools are labeled “failures.” I am bewildered when I read statements from “reformers” with no background in child development writing standards, arbitrarily setting cut scores, misinterpreting  test results, making flawed comparisons with other countries, giving only lip service to parents, and blaming  teachers for every ill in society. I am angry when I think of people with no background in education (i.e. politicians from BOTH parties and businesspeople) condescending to, insulting, and even vilifying teachers, whose job is more difficult, challenging, and complex than anyone who has never tried it can imagine.

I worry that teachers coming into the profession will never know the joy I felt as an English teacher. I lament that a noble profession has been co-opted by profiteers and business interests, by privatizers and by many who pretend they know what’s best for children.  As teachers, and former teachers, administrators and former administrators, we must speak out, talk to each other, and talk to parents to turn this trend around.  We have to do it for our children and grandchildren, so they can know that school and learning can be joyful and enriching—and that it is more than test prep, testing, canned lessons, and conformity.

–Susan Jolley

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36 Comments

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36 responses to “Guest post: my mom, a retired English teacher, reflects on recent changes in education

  1. Steve Flemming

    SAY IT!!!!!!!! Thanks Ms. Jolley!!

  2. LG

    Fabulous post, Mrs. J.

  3. As an English teacher of 30 years who is considering retirement due to these same stated issues I could not of said it any better myself!

  4. Beautifully written. Many of my mentors and both of my parents who were educators would agree completely and pine for the good old days. They say they taught in the golden age of education (1970-2005). It is sad what has become of our profession

  5. Mrs Jolley continues to realize what is important. My daughter had her 5 years ago and is in last year of getting her Masters and to this very day says that Mrs Jolley was the best teacher she ever had in school. She says that every single day , she uses ofsomething Mrs Jolley taught her….and what better “metric” is there?

  6. Sadly…despite the uproar in several countries, that you have so eloquently expressed…Australia is NOT learning the lesson! We’re headed down down the same destructive path!

  7. Anita Cole

    Now if only the “right” people would read this!! Somebody has to put a stop to the craziness that is teaching for tests and not for learning.

  8. Susan

    I had to share your post! I was an urban teacher for 25 years, and a bilingual teacher for some of those years. I was a suburban teacher for my last ten years. I took joy in every one of my teaching years for many if the reasons you state, but I was exhausted at the end, and thankful that I have not had to deal with recent developments. I am sad for newer teachers, for whom there is little joy in the classroom. Hopefully, the pendulum will swing…

  9. Pilar P.

    Absolutely correct!! GREAT article!!

  10. Pingback: Call – Connection – Response | edifiedlistener

  11. Pontifikate

    Bravo! I was a high-school English teacher for approximately the same years and yes, I’m glad I retired, but sad that I had to. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Education as a business, students as data points. So sad.

  12. patriciahale

    I’ll be joining you in retirement in June, after a thirty year career, for all the same sad reasons. Other than the kids, its just not fun anymore.

  13. Reblogged this on kindergarteninterlude and commented:
    The situation has got to begin to reverse. It just has to! This retired teacher influenced hundreds, maybe thousands of children who were blessed to have had her as their teacher.

  14. Mrs. Jolley – Thank you for this beautiful reflection of your years as a teacher. You have expressed poignantly the most deeply meaningful moments in the lives of teachers and students – moments that can steer a student in the direction they are meant to go in life. Thank you for all you did for those kids, for how well you cared for and taught them. They were very blessed to have you as their teacher and I’m sure will never forget you and their learning experience with you. No, you certainly cannot measure that.

  15. Absolutely tragic. I am weeping as I read your words, Mrs. Jolley. “Reformers” are somehow trying to do the right thing…How could they be getting this so impossibly wrong? The teacher I remember most is my Freshman English teacher in college. She had of course a very defined syllabus with clear assignments. But she also said that if we had a burning story that we felt we had to write, we could do that instead of one of the prescribed assignments. I started as a psych major but added English. And now I’ve been a writer and editor for over 30 years. No metrics for that either.

  16. Becky Twigg

    Thank you, Mrs Jolly for your most candid and truthful letter. If teachers felt safe enough to post, I am sure that you’d hear much of the same sentiments. The below post was written by a new teacher whom will become a “former” teacher at the end of the year. In her letter you hear much the same desires but the difference is she never was given the chance to build fun memories. What a sad time period we are walking at this time…..when child will walk away much less enriched moments because of curricular policies and scripted teaching verse memory created moments of the past. I highly doubt any student will walk away with a warm “memory moment” created by or given to them by a standardized test. What a sad thought.

    http://m.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/12/31/i-would-love-to-teach-but/

  17. Pingback: English Teacher: Why I Had to Leave a Profession I Loved | Diane Ravitch's blog

  18. It’s important that we recent retirees give back by doing what this teacher did – stay in the battle.
    Our voices have to get even louder – for our grandchildren.
    We have one great advantage – we work for no one; we can’t be silenced, reprimanded, or fired.

    • Right there with your thinking, Peter Smyth!
      Thanks . Susan Jolley for your sharing. I will be retiring as an elementary reading specialist in June , about the same timeline of teaching as you. I will remain in the discussions because of my grandkids!

    • Colorado Teacher

      Agreed – also a retired classroom teacher and Reading Specialist trying to do my part!

  19. Mrs. Jolley, thank you for putting into perfect words what so many of us feel and know.

  20. My hope and prayer is that with many voices of wisdom and experience speaking out loudly, rationally and respectfully, leadership in our country will have what Diane Ravich had – a change of heart. They will stop establishing mandates and making policies based on erroneous premises (i.e. a business model can be applied to education where students are the product or learning through play in kindergarten is frivolous) and will instead seek out those who have years of experience and invaluable wisdom and KNOW what will really improve our schools. They have already DONE the research – the classroom is where they tried things out. We can stop experimenting with new this and that in education when it is not based on the realities of the educational environment. Successful, experienced, intelligent educators and former educators have experienced first hand what works and what doesn’t in the classroom, what makes a student come alive and what causes him shut down, how best to handle emotional parents who want what is best for their chlld but who have difficulty allowing them to fail. By not tapping into this resource, we are missing a brilliant opportunity to do things right! THESE are the people whose thinking is needed and who could contribute in a major way in leading this country to greatness through education.

  21. Maggie

    I still remember Mr. Greene, my Eng. teacher senior year, introducing us to Gulliver’s travels, and nursing us through Shakespeare…even as recent as 2007, my son had an amazing teacher who allowed students to choose from a menu of projects after they read a work of literature…I read with amazement the letter to “Simple” my son wrote (Langston Hughes) the alternate ending to The Great Gatsby he created…and of course, his original collection of poems…

  22. minnehanh

    I, too, am a retired teacher. 30 years teaching all grades K-7 and every year was rewarding and fun and I was always so glad that I had a job I loved to get up for each morning. In my community I still see so many of my former students. They remember the lessons that really “taught” them: constructing something using as many polygons as possible (one boy did an Empire State Building, a girl made a box of chocolates!–4th graders, by the way); the week-long field trip to Williamsburg, VA (we raised the $$ for it as a school project) where the kids lived like Colonists, and wore Colonial garb….kids from an inner-city school which today is labeled “low performing” and has more than 98% poverty) I have yet to see the test that measures the gains that experience gave them. I have never heard a parent or a student thank me for a standardized test grade. And I doubt any teacher ever will.

  23. As I happily approach retirement, I too look back with much love on my career. This post made me cry. It cuts to the heart of the matter. How sad that I can’t wait to get out.

  24. Pingback: Guest post: my mom, a retired English teacher, reflects on recent changes in education |

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  26. Ermelinda Contaldi

    I am touched by Mrs Jolly’s article. However I wish to express some sentiment in respect to DECORUM. Should there not be a METRIC System for those Inhumane teachers who become sexually involved with students? This is shameful. Students are Children! even in High School. May these so called “teachers” be forgiven by our Creator. Linda C. Texas

    • LG

      There is a system. It is called the law. However, due process is afforded to everyone accused of a crime. Protecting the rights of the public employee against punishment from false accusations is what any “creator” would want for his “creations.” You should want this, too.

  27. I have just stumbled upon this amazing post by your mother, a retired English teacher. I started teaching in 1973 as well, full of hope and inspiration! I loved my career and lasted 25 years, but eventually the endless staff meetings, tests, fundraising and other distractions took their toll, and I retired in 1998. I admire today’s teachers, and will read this blog with interest..

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