Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Students and Teachers: Worthy Investments

I recently read that one of the greatest determining factors of a student's success is the student's perception of whether or not the system believes he/she is a good investment.  What? I had never considered the idea that students might think that we - teachers, parents, administrators, even the general public - do not believe they are a worthy investment. Public education is an enormous machine.  Millions of dollars and thousands of hours are spent preparing curriculum and lessons for mastery of concepts.   How could these kids not know how much faith we have in them? How could they not see how hard we are working to help them prepare for success in life?

And then it hit me.  Of course they may question how much we believe in them.  For some time now, educators, parents, policy makers, and business leaders have been preoccupied with conversations surrounding standards, assessments, and evaluations.  Schools have been graded publicly, our own nation's failing scores have been emphasized, and the common denominator in all of this is, yes, the students themselves.  How often do we consider how the students are interpreting this debate?  Even a young child listening to his parents discuss the new assessments at the dinner table may receive a much different message than was intended.  When a parent opts out of the year-end assessments, what message might that send the child... We don't think you can pass these tests, so we don't want you to take them.  While a parent may have different reasons to remove the child from the testing experience, the child may come away thinking his parents did not believe he was ready for the challenge.

How do we let our students know how much we believe in them and their abilities?  Yes, new standards are challenging. Even though we know it is typical for test scores to dip the first few years after standards are raised, it can be discouraging to see those lower scores. It can be tempting to complain about unfairly published school grades and class test results that don't demonstrate an accurate picture of our students' life challenges. It is dangerously easy to feed the negative attitudes of many colleagues and parents.  We must, however, be sure to covey to our students a message of unwavering belief in their abilities.

As educators, in order to effectively communicate our confidence in our students' abilities, we must believe first in our own abilities.  Some 25 years years ago, I went to a job action protest at a park in downtown SLC. I was a second year teacher, and I have to admit I did not yet appreciate the concerns of the teachers who had assembled. I remember a teacher up on the stage with a guitar rallied the crowd while singing.  I can't remember the words to that song, but I will never forget what she said after her song: "I am a good teacher!" Her confidence inspired me.  I was so new at this, and I didn't know if I would ever be able to say that aloud.  That teacher, 1989 Utah Teacher of the Year Lily Eskelsen, moved on to inspire more educators as the UEA President. We appreciate her efforts now as our NEA President.
3 Utah STOYS: '14 Allison Riddle, '89 Lily Eskelsen, '09 Sharon Gallagher Fishbaugh
After 27 years in the classroom, I can now say the same, that no matter how the standards change, I know that I am a good teacher! I am a strong investment! My confidence in my understanding of best practices and my willingness to work hard are critical to each one of my student's self confidence and growth.  I also have support from colleagues, administrators, union leaders, and family.  In fact, my favorite two students - who were never in my own class - remind me every day of my teaching abilities. I believe in myself in part because my own two children, Charley and Abby, believe in me. As a parent I had no doubt of both of my kids' potential.  I taught them to work hard, and that I would work hard alongside them. Their determination and accomplishments now as adults inspire me.

We must communicate that message of tenacity and resiliency amidst change to our students and parents.  We do believe our students are a worthy investment, and we must let them know that our efforts each day are evidence of that belief.  No matter what the conversation among policy makers, educators, neighbors, or colleagues, we teach because we believe that each one of our students can learn and succeed.