Our Opinion: Teachers need help, far less hindrance

Teaching is an art, and teaching a child produces the same kind of magical, unique product that a sculptor produces when they apply their own creativity to rough clay or stone. It isn't an exact, quantifiable science — not in the least because each teacher and student — and their relationships — are unique. It takes a special kind of dedication to take another person's child under one's wing, open the world to them and teach them how to absorb what they learn and make sense of it. And teaching today is a profession that has become more difficult and less satisfying for reasons both avoidable and unavoidable.

More than two dozen Pittsfield, Mass. teachers are finishing their careers at the end of this school year, representing hundreds of years of hands-on experience, maturity and understanding in shaping children and preparing them for the world. During the span of their careers, they have witnessed changes — like the rise of standardized testing — that, while well meaning in their original intent, have grown into major obstacles to the effective practice of their craft.

Other changes are the result of societal trends that, for teachers, have resulted in "mission creep." No longer merely educators, teachers today are often called upon to be social workers, psychologists and even surrogate parents for children from troubled, broken and economically stressed homes. As Kathy Voltoline, a retiring teacher at Reid Middle School in Pittsfield told The Eagle, "We're it; we might be the only people to smile at them or take them to task." (Eagle, Sunday)

In recent years, the pendulum of educational philosophy in Massachusetts and nationwide has swung toward results-oriented objective evaluation of effectiveness, and the best way to collect this objective data is through standardized testing. The swing began during the Bush administration and No Child Left Behind, when an effort began to assess bang for the school tax buck with the idea of spotlighting underperforming schools and teachers. But the original premise was distorted; student test results began to be used not as a diagnostic tool but to evaluate teachers and schools — a process patently unfair to those dedicated individuals struggling to make a difference in poorly-funded school districts populated by children from homes at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. School choice, rather than aiding problem schools, further robbed them of tax dollars making their mission even more difficult to fulfill. Out of self-preservation, teachers and districts began "teaching to the test," developing a narrow form of instruction that robbed teaching of all its nuance, creativity, ability to excite and adaptability to individual student needs.

As for remedies, those who complain about the job schools are doing are falling into the trap of presuming that the problems are all the schools', and teachers', fault. In fact, quality public education isn't just a concern of the schools and their administration — it's an issue for entire communities that must understand that effective teaching is the result of creating and maintaining an enduring environment conducive to learning. That includes guidance received in every aspect of students' out-of-school lives as well as active parental involvement in their children's education. Teachers, dedicated and creative as they may be, can't do it all by themselves.

— The Berkshire Eagle


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