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Advice to New and Student Teachers: Hold Fast to Dreams

There were really no wrong answers: just answers. I guess that's why I became an elementary school teacher: to look at the day's offerings with brand new eyes. How about you? Don't you long for those days, too? I hope you remember what it's like to be a kid because I think that's just what we need to "make a difference."

(remember you said that?)

Human Curiosity

Sometimes my three-year-old son, Max, complains about going to school. And I so passionately preach about how he needs to enjoy it while he can, while the scent of magic still lingers in the air. He creates without boundaries, he discovers without opinion, and he intrinsically cooperates. Most three-year-olds want to be in school. Damien Cooper, formative assessment guru, puts it like this: "Human beings come into this world innately wired to learn. We're curious. We are not innately wired to compete." But when kids advance through the grades something happens. Their natural curiosity about the world slowly shrinks and shrivels and is replaced with---


Budget and Shifting Priorities

Why? There are many reasons. But one big one -- a huge one in fact -- is the cutting and slashing of music and art. But it's going deeper now. The edge of the knife is on a direct course to core curriculum subjects like reading and writing. Math and science is all the rage nowadays. I'm sure you've heard. It seems like President Obama's pressure to improve science and math skills are outweighing language arts. Some states like New Jersey are going to extreme measures to make sure that math and science are top priority. Governor Chris Christie said he wants to prohibit seniority or graduate degree attainment in fields other than math and science from influencing salary increases for teachers. A Master's degree in English or perhaps becoming a reading specialist will mean nothing. I hope you are shaking your head -- it doesn't seem logical to me either. Can you have one without the other? I do believe Albert Einstein (I think he was a scientist or something) said: "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Where Does This Lead Us?

Here's a quick look at the science plan: Obama will work with governors and educators to ensure that state assessments measure test inquiry and higher-order thinking skills including inference, logic, data analysis and interpretation, forming questions, and communication. Improvements to assessments will also include developing tests that call for students to design and conduct investigations, analyze and present data, and write up and defend results.

I'm sure you figured out why I bolded most of those areas of improvement. Yes, you're catching on here. They are all constantly practiced and honed while reading and writing and imagining. Right?

Think about it. Do you think the President really wants our youth to think critically, analyze, and interpret or does he want to graduate more engineers than China? The latter will only promote the "How do I get the most points with doing the least amount of work" attitude. Is that how we're going to change the world? Is that going to keep kids in school? Will the true thinkers, the real reformers, value what school has to offer? Better yet, will anyone even have a chance to think? As for the magic I mentioned earlier--

(you might have to do what we all do--close the door and make some of your own.)

The New World

This is where it gets hairy. This is what you probably didn't learn in college. I'm not your boss, your teacher, or your mom so this is going to be sugarless. I want to stir your brains a bit. I don't mean to come at you at time of blissful joy. You are about to teach. But this burden you just inherited needs to be on your plate. Your dream of teaching will now be realized in a different world. The President means well. He wants the kids of America to succeed (I really do believe this). But maybe his idea of success is different from theirs

(personal betterment.)

and maybe his plan is one-sided. I don't know. This may seem like a cry for the creative soul, but then again looks are deceiving. What I'm really talking about is beyond creativity. What I'm talking about is divergent thinking. You see there's more than one way to play a note, paint a picture, and write a story. Max thinks (creatively) divergently in pre-school every day.

(does it have to stop?)

By the time a child is in third grade we've just about bashed divergent thinking out of their psyche. And now with music, art, reading, and creative writing waiting in the gallows, it will happen sooner. Yes, math and science makes the world go round, but art makes us human.


And if the President believes that divergent thinking will emerge in math and science without art . . . well, then I'm not sure about the future of our country. Author, Donald Murray, states that we look to art for a meaning. Not THE MEANING, but a meaning. Real learning needs time to simmer. I'm not talking about lowering our standards. We need solid standards and we do have them, but maybe too many? We need time to find meaning within the standards and use the one that works for us. But what we're really doing is cramming years of information into months, which only leads to one-answer-one-way-fill-in-the-bubble-educational-reform. It's mediocre at best. Testing pushes teachers into sprint-and-cover mode, which does exactly that: It sprints over the deeper understandings to cover what's on the test. Teacher and Author, Kelly Gallagher warns of the this poisonous mode in his article, "Why I Will Not Teach to the Test."

Reality Check

And here's the biggest kicker of them all. If all of the politicians, celebrities, and movie makers are so concerned about the United States being number one in the world of education, then why is the current reform movement speeding in the opposite direction of number one: Finland. Check this out. This slide is directly from the Finland Ministry of Education.

I don't think I need to explain this slide, do I? Yes, you will face resistance and feel the shackles of the standardization of American Education. There will be bouts of compromise, tears, and loads of questions. But when you finally chew through the crunchy, bitter crust, you'll find the magical stuff in the middle. That's the good stuff. Your students will always be waiting for you in the middle. You'll also find your dream: The one you might have had in Kindergarten where you proudly shouted, "I want to be a teacher!"

Now what? I've listed some resources that give me energy and inspiration to teach and suggestions on how to create change. There is hope. Well . . . it's you, really.



Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Parents need to take an active role in finding information as well as receiving it. Web based learning communities like this one makes it extremely easy to stay informed, but we also need avenues to co-create knowledge that will push for social change. The same goes for politicians. Co-creating knowledge is key to really participating in democracy. It's just not happening and the first step is be informed--to speak intelligently about subjects that will help promote change. Sadly, politicians have that subsonic agenda that really has nothing to do with helping children become "thinking beings".

Thanks for igniting the discussion.


Ashley Mattern's picture

This is an unfortunate trend that's sadly become common-place in our country...and in others, it seems. Gaetan, I really appreciated the tone of your article. Critical reflection and your passion are both evident. I concur with your understanding that "co-creating knowledge is key to really participating in democracy." People need to become empowered to take a stand, and work together for change. I have questioned for many years why it seems that politicians and the like make key decisions regarding education. There seems to be quite a disconnect between what SHOULD happen and what IS happening in regard to the educational expectations and trends of our society. We cannot let it continue. Thank you for your inspiring words and for sharing some new resources! I look forward to checking them out soon!

Kathryn Balsley's picture
Kathryn Balsley
Substitute Teacher

I am currently a substitute teacher looking to start my teaching career in either elementary or special education. I can particularly relate to your blog, Gaetan, as a professional entering the field. I feel the pressure from the government to teach to the test and have kids excel beyond those children of other countries. But my heart wants the children to become productive human beings, not necessarily the most successful human beings. This is especially true in Special Education. I want my special needs students to be productive, this may mean that when they graduate they volunteer at a preschool three days a week for no money. Are they contributing to society? Yes! Are they furthering our country's success through financial gain and earning educational degrees. No. But what I want for them is to be creative, critical thinkers who know how to live their lives to the fullest. They will never become this if I'm forced to teach them scripted (for scripted lessons are becoming more popular now) Math and Science and not allow them to open their minds and use their imagination.

EHerchek's picture
New Teacher from Cleveland, Ohio

I was blown away when I read this blog, because I am a brand new teacher who is taking a step into substituting while trying to find a job. Already, at this stage of the game I've realized that the reasons I've always wanted to teach are taking a beating under the hard reality of our educational system. This post was refreshing and inspiring to me, because it reminded me to always consider my overall dream when I get discouraged. I also aspire to be the type of teacher that encourages free thinking over one trained way of thought and this post reaffirmed that want.

Sallie Watkins's picture

I really enjoyed reading your blog. I started teaching last year and feel as though I am finally finding my footing in terms of teaching. One thing I have always struggled with is the "teaching to the test" mentality. I think this in part comes from what I think of as an empty struggle to reach the top. We can't reach the top without putting the work into it to make us worthy of the title. It's just interesting to me that politicians are the ones who are making the decisions and not educators. I appreciate your optimism towards new teachers. It is very nice to hear there are people who are on the side of the teachers in this situation. Thanks for your post!

Lisa Gustafson's picture

As a fairly new teacher, I really connected to your blog. I have just recently finished college with all the dreams of putting all of my ideas into action, only to be met with the reality that due to current state standards, my school district puts major emphasis on reading in math due to the fact that these are the only two subjects that are assessed. This leaves other subjects such as science and math often with little or no instructional time. Also, little time is given to enhancing students higher order thinking skills. Instead, we are conncentrating on simple memorization of test material and not connecting it to real-life situations. Your blog helped to remind me to stay positive and to continue to look for ways to incorporate new and motivating ideas into the lessons that I teach.

Josh Hendricks's picture

Really enjoyed the article. Very informative and you brought up some great points. However, I teach in TN and we of course where one of the ten states that received the race to the top money. Do you really fee that there is some "magical stuff in the middle?" I am not so sure myself. It just ssems like a lot of hoops that we are beig asked to jump through with unreal expectations at the end.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

"It just ssems like a lot of hoops that we are beig asked to jump through with unreal expectations at the end" You mention the crust, josh. The middle or the focus or the real teaching and learning. that's where your students lurk, that's where the magic can happen beyond mediocre. YES, I do believe that's where the magic resides. You might need to bring it yourself, but YES I do believe.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

This is from

"The hard truth," Secretary Duncan said at Tuesday's PISA announcement, "is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades...In a highly competitive knowledge economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America's students are effectively losing ground."

PISA's high-scorers include South Korea, Finland and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China, and Canada.

Hmmm, contradictory or not? Call me crazy, but if I want to learn how to write, I read good books. If I want to learn how to golf, I watch good golfers.

Hmmm, again.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

What PISA Is
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an internationally standardised assessment that was jointly developed by participating economies and administered to15-year-olds in schools.
Four assessments have so far been carried out (in 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009). Data for the assessment which took place in 2009 will be released on 7 December 2010.
Tests are typically administered to between 4,500 and 10,000 students in each country.

There going to base the US's ability and ranking on 5 to 10,000 kids? (shaking my head) How many 15-year-olds are in the US? Anybody know?

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