This isn’t the job I signed up for

When I started teaching, nearly 30 years ago, one of the first things I encountered was a generation gap. Well, that’s probably an exaggeration, but it I noticed that older teacher often carried a bit of bitterness. It wasn’t about kids; teachers really do like them. It wasn’t about teaching, either. Teachers love to teach, they define themselves as teachers. After a few decades on the job, teachers lament the changes. I’ve watched my colleagues over the years, and it’s still the same: many veteran teachers are disappointed to be doing a different job than the one they started.

Much of this can be dismissed as faulty memory and falling energy. When I was young, naïve and full of energy, my students were awesome, I was awesome, and there was hope for the world. As I age, experience and physically decline, my students are still awesome people, but they require so much more work, so much more of my time, and I am tired. So very tired.

I’ll talk about being tired another day. It’s important, but it’s not where I want to go right now. The reality is that the job of a k-12 teacher is changing; the job today isn’t what it was 30 years ago. I’m not going to make a stand about whether it’s improving or declining. But I do believe it’s changing in some very important ways.

For me, the biggest change in teaching is in the conception of instruction. Back in the 70s and 80s, teacher training focused on the importance developing compelling lessons. Teacher training was, at least in my experience, mainly about preparing lessons that covered the requisite material in a comprehensive and engaging manner. To develop a good lesson, we had to think about what the class knew already, what was to be learned today, and how it would tie to later learning. Shortly after I completed my teacher training, the focus seemed to shift to longer-term plans. Rather than scripting and perfecting the daily lesson; pre-service teachers were putting greater energy into planning the “units of study” that the daily lessons would serve, and into the subject plan for the entire year.

It was all right. But I think that the retiring teachers I got to know in the 80s were disappointed because we were moving into an era where teaching good lessons wasn’t enough to satisfy our school administrators. Standing in front of the class and doing what you’d been doing for decades no longer met the standard. “What is the big picture?” we were asked. How does this fit into the long term. Predictably, teachers responded that they knew what they were doing, they’d been doing it for a long time, and that if the Principal knew so much about teaching, why did (s)he vamoose from the classroom at the first opportunity?

This long-term thinking led to a startling question: Why is the teacher the star of the show? Lessons are good and fine, but education is about learning; it’s not about stage performance. It’s time, went the early 90s thinking, to give up being the “sage on the stage” and to start being the “guide on the side”. It’s cute jargon, and there’s more than a little sense to this shift. Maybe clever and engaging lessons weren’t enough after all; maybe teachers should be more like mentors and coaches and less like university lecturers. The senior teachers were less than impressed. They weren’t simply speaking to themselves, they insisted, these lessons are carefully crafted with the students’ learning in mind. Sure we lecture, but we also question; it’s a dialogue, not a one-actor play. After all, it’s not as though kids didn’t learn in my class; the evidence is clear that they did. Heck, even the young teachers leading this “guide on the side” reform learned when they were students in my classes. But the old retired, disappointed that their work was no longer valued, and the new took their places. More guides and few sages worked our classrooms.

The late 90s saw more change. Teachers were no longer guides, they were “co-constructing meaning” with students. Nobody really knows what this means, but it signaled a new way of talking about teachers and students. They became peers, exploring the world together, making meaning out of experiences. At least that’s what the theory was. In classrooms, teachers just did what they’d been doing, but reported it using the new jargon. Disappointed, another generation of teachers retired.

The 21st century saw a renewed focus on the student as an individual. Side issues and jargon aside, it became clear that the teacher’s job was not to teach or to guide a class, but rather to teach or guide each individual in the class, as an individual. This is a momentous shift, and the tremors are still shaking the halls of our schools. The first phase saw educators question student assessment—or, as the public calls it grades or marks. What is the point of assessing student work? There’s been vague talk about this for years, but the discussion started to get really serious about 10 years ago. We assess student work for two main reasons. The old reason was we wanted to find out what they learned so we could report on it. This still makes sense. But the more important reason is that we can use this information to target our teaching toward what a student knows or doesn’t know, and this will have an effect on the first kind of assessment. This is truly revolutionary. And it’s a lot more work for teachers.

We are living in the second phase of the assessment revolution. Teachers are increasingly expected to learn the details of a student’s learning to date, to guide that student to broaden her/his learning and to find ways to move them forward. The consequence of all this is that the student and teacher really are (in theory) in this together. They are developing together. They are accountable together. In a sense, the whole notions of passing and failing are being bypassed as learning is seen as a continuum, not as a series of discrete steps. And guess what, tired and dejected teachers are preparing to retire.

Now, I recommend that you take all this with a huge grain of salt. I have simplified. I have lumped ideas together. I have pretended that everyone has been on side with every change. But thread is there; the changes are in the air. And, overall, the changes have a good kind of sense to them. The devil, of course, still resides in the details. Stay tuned.

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2 thoughts on “This isn’t the job I signed up for

  1. “But the more important reason is that we can use this information to target our teaching toward what a student knows or doesn’t know, and this will have an effect on the first kind of assessment. This is truly revolutionary. And it’s a lot more work for teachers.”

    John, I think good teachers have always assessed their students. They listen to them, hear what kinds of questions they ask, see what kind of work they do. Yes, and given them tests. Teachers have plenty of information about their students.

    The current mania for standardized testing that we see here in the States, however, has very little to do with true assessment. That is all about sorting, tracking, and policing students, and de-professionalizing teachers by substituting a profit-making company’s judgment for a teacher’s. They are also, not incidentally, about gathering vast quantities of data on students for marketing purposes. I *think* Canada is not yet down the black hole that the US is now in, but if not careful is headed there. I have a cousin who used to work for Pearson, the test-making company, and the stories he used to tell about the creation and grading of these materials was hair-raising.

    Diane Ravitch, the respected education historian has written extensively on this. You can see her blog at Dianeravitch.net

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