Janet Meckstroth Alessi has been an English teacher at John I. Leonard High School in Greenacres, Florida, for nearly 35 years. With more than 3,600 students, John I. Leonard is Palm Beach County’s largest high school.
Five years ago, my friend Sarah and I, who have been Palm Beach County teachers for decades, weren't even talking about retiring from teaching. Now, she's planning to retire at the end of this year, and I'm planning to retire within the next four years.
Why? As Sarah says, “The descent of teaching started with testing and the loss of teacher control over curriculum.”
I have been an English teacher at John I. Leonard High School since 1983 ... We have students from more than 20 countries, and there’s no other school at which I would have preferred to teach all these years.
Sarah, who asked that I not use her last name, has been a high school teacher for 31 years, 24 of which have been in Palm Beach County. We met in 1984 when we were taking a graduate course together. She is one of the most intelligent, assiduous people I know.
For most of my career, I’ve loved teaching. I don’t regret having dedicated 34 years of my life to teaching, and it still thrills me when I can make a difference in a student’s life.
However, if I were just starting my career, I'm not sure how long I'd last.
The simple reason: So much testing has diminished true learning.
Unless you are a teacher yourself or have a child in the school system, you’d be shocked by how much teaching-to-tests, practice testing, retake testing and make-up testing occurs.
On a regular basis, gym classes lose access to the gymnasium, and students lose access to the media center due to testing. Nearly every day, teachers receive lists of hundreds of students who need to be sent out for testing.
I find it difficult to even keep up with all of the testing acronyms: FSA (Florida Standards Assessment), EOC (End of Course), USA (United Statewide Assessment), PBPA (Palm Beach Performance Assessment), PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test), SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test), ACT (American College Testing), AICE (Advanced International Certificate of Education) and AP (Advanced Placement).
I used to teach magnificent novels such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” My students and I read these novels together, while listening to them on tape. We discussed and analyzed what we were reading. Charles Dickens is not easy to read, but most of my students thanked me for making them read “A Tale of Two Cities,” telling me they never would have read and understood it on their own.
Not only did they improve their reading comprehension, vocabulary and even their self-esteem by reading novels, but they also came to know and love memorable characters such as Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson, Madame Defarge and Sydney Carton. And they experienced literary devices such as foreshadowing and conflict in action.
More importantly, they were left with valuable life lessons and role models.
I also used to teach Shakespeare plays such as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth” and “Hamlet.” I sewed costumes for my students, who made wooden swords and shields so that they could act out the plays as we read them. They learned about love, hate, revenge, strength, ambition and more.
Sadly, there have been years when English teachers have been instructed to suspend the teaching of novels, Shakespeare and even vocabulary because of standardized testing.
What will students remember about practice SAT, ACT and FSA passages when they’re adults?
I, on the other hand, clearly remember numerous characters and themes from stories that I read in school. These stories have helped shape who I am.
For the first 25 years that I taught, before each grading period, I wrote out my lesson plans for the entire nine weeks. Now, I write them one week at a time, as I often have to “be flexible” and change them, mostly because of standardized testing.
I love to teach. I was hired to teach. Let me teach, damn it!
Another key reason good teachers quit, as my friend Sarah says: “The kids and their parents have increasingly less accountability, and we have more.”
I have 130 students this year. Only three of their parents came to open house. And last school year, the parents of one of my students, who had 51 absences second semester, hired a lawyer and threatened to sue the school board because their son wasn’t graduating.
Instead of teaching students to be responsible, we’re feeding their sense of entitlement.
A couple of years ago, I was assigned to proctor an AP test. Unbelievably, this was a make-up of a make-up of a make-up test, and when one of the two students didn’t show up, I was asked to call her.
We were paying for her to take the test. Did we have to wake her up as well? Where’s the accountability?
When she showed up, she didn’t have a pencil. Why would she? She knew from past experience that one would be provided for her.
When a student is suspended, he or she is now allowed to make up work. Where’s the punishment?
Students have to pass the FSA in order to graduate. However, if they fail it but receive a high enough score on the SAT or ACT, they can still graduate. Therefore, we spend an inordinate amount of class time trying to improve students’ SAT, ACT and FSA test scores.
Decades ago, following the first grading period of my career, my principal, Luke Thornton, called me into his office and pointed out how many of my students had earned an “F” in my class. He then asked if I thought they deserved an “F.”
“Yes, sir, I do,” I replied, and that was the end of that.
Not surprisingly, when my students discovered that I meant business, their grades improved.
However, today a school’s grade is partly determined by its graduation rate; and the evaluation of teachers, administrators and superintendents is partly based on the success of their students.
Sometimes, teachers are told that they must call the parents of students making a D or F in their class. Rather than do this, some teachers bump the D’s and F’s up to C’s.
Of course, when students learn that they can carry an F all nine weeks, and then it magically transforms into a C, this has a snowball effect and inflates GPAs.
I haven’t bumped grades up, but I do understand why some teachers have. We electronically post grades once a week and send out mid-term progress reports. Shouldn’t that be enough notification?
We’ve also had too many bad experiences. The first parent I called this year, for example, told me that surely there were other students whose behavior was worse than her daughter’s. She then demanded to know why I was picking on her daughter, berated me for bothering her, and hung up.
One father declared, “When my son’s in school, he’s your problem. Don’t ever call me again,” before hanging up on me.
Yes, there are some wonderful, supportive parents and students. Unfortunately, not all parents have taught their children to respect them, let alone respect their teachers. I also believe the blatant disrespect shown by some students in television shows and movies contributes to the problem.
I have always tried to treat my students with respect, and in return, I have usually earned their respect.
However, due to pressure to not suspend students, standards of behavior have been lowered over the years. The result has been that many teachers deal with brazen disrespect on a daily basis and aren’t consistently supported by their administration.
As Sarah points out, “Many students seem to have the attitude of, ‘You have to tolerate me.’ Too often, they’re right.”
A former student of mine, who is in her second year of teaching, laments that she “absolutely hated” her first year of teaching because her third-grade students were “too rude.”
If they’re “too rude” in third grade, imagine what they’re like in middle and high school.
A friend, who’s teaching third grade this year, has a student who has informed her of the different ways he’d like to kill her. He has threatened his classmates with a fork, scissors and belt, and he has told a classmate he wished the classmate had been in Las Vegas and died. My friend has to buzz the office daily and is documenting this student’s behavior, but the red tape involved in having him placed in a classroom for students with an “emotional behavior disorder” is tedious.
As John I. Leonard High’s Dwyer Award winner Jackie Burgess-Malone points out, “We don’t even have time to get to know our students anymore.”
We’re expected to attend Professional Development Days (PDDs), keep up with our Professional Growth Plan (PGP), the Education Data Warehouse (EDW), Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), Temporary Duty Elsewhere (TDE) forms, Wildly Important Goals (WIGs), Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and our Student Information System (SIS).
We must take attendance, check for dress code, check testing lists for our students’ names, check and respond to email, do our assigned “duty” during our planning period, watch videos and pass quizzes on the videos, earn points to renew our teaching certificate, provide make-up work, call parents, attend meetings, keep up with all of the standardized testing, write lesson plans, create worksheets, tests and quizzes and make copies.
That’s in addition to grading papers and entering grades, tardies and absences into the computer.
And, oh, yes, we teach.
When I am able to teach, I would like to be given credit for having a Master's degree in English, having 34 years of experience, and having some idea of what's best for my students, thank you very much.
Yet, almost every year, we’re introduced to a new teaching method. Many of us wonder if those deciding how we should teach were ever teachers themselves, and if so, how long it’s been since they were in a classroom.
(There are definitely some teachers who are stuck in their ways and refuse to change. I may not embrace change, but I am willing to change. When I’m presented with a new teaching method, I try it out, but if it’s not effective, I employ it only enough to keep my job.)
Class size is a problem as well. I thought having 34 students in one of my classes was a lot, but we have an anatomy and physiology class with 39. And I recently spoke to a physical education teacher who’s grateful that the class count for her classes is in the 50s, unlike in previous years, when it’s been in the 70s.
We also have so many people using the restroom between classes that we frequently struggle to have enough water pressure to flush the toilets and wash our hands, and the air conditioning breaks down too frequently — try taking all those tests in a 90-degree room.
What’s more, there are tests for teachers — and many are failing.
In addition to earning a bachelor’s degree, teachers must pass the Florida Teacher Certification Exam. Teachers who haven’t passed this exam can teach with a temporary teaching certificate for three years; however, the certificate is non-renewable.
Two years ago, the Florida Department of Education introduced more difficult teacher certification exams. Since then, the failure rates have increased by as much as 30 percent on some sections. Since 2015, only 69 percent of teachers have passed the essay, 65 percent have passed the English language skills exam, 60 percent have passed the reading exam and 57 percent have passed the math exam.
Could our teachers fresh out of college be struggling to pass this exam because they were given passing grades when they shouldn’t have been? Were they programmed to care more about their grades than learning? Were their teachers too busy teaching to the standardized test-of-the-day to teach general knowledge? Does the exam contain poorly worded, ambiguous and/or unnecessarily rigorous questions?
Or is the answer none of the above, some combination of the above, or all of the above?
On the first day of school each year, I ask my seniors if they can name the eight parts of speech. Only one or two students in the last decade have been able to do so.
I am writing this not to complain — but to plainly state what teachers have to go through each day. We teachers want our students to be excited about learning.
My hope is that our governor, superintendent, parents, teachers, students and our community will address these problems and that our new teachers will stay because they will see that improvements are being made.
Teaching can and should be one of the most rewarding careers a person can choose.
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