Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Times They Are A-Changing

I've always been a teacher who relishes change.  I have volunteered to have my grade changed four times, my room changed three times, and my district changed three times.  I changed while I watched others do the same thing year after year after year.

At first, I thought it was wrong.  I remember a teacher who worked in my school when I first started.  I walked into her room one day right before school started.  She reached into her desk, pulled out her plan book from the year before, opened to the first page and announced, "I'm ready."  Wow, I thought.  I can't wait until I am that good. I happened to mention my desire to my principal who told me, "You don't ever want to get that way.  Keep growing and keep learning."  I didn't really believe him at the time.  I believed that there was only so much to learn and once you learned it, you were done and ready to just keep doing what works.

Well, I obviously learned, over time, that this just isn't true.  The learning never stops.  I haven't hit my limit yet.  I am a good teacher...I'll even say I am a great teacher.  But each year brings more challenges I need to overcome.  Those darn kids keep changing on me. LOL

So here I am, 25 years into my career.  I have watched many ideas come and go.  I have embraced most of them, until I realized (usually long before the administration did) that things weren't working.  Whole Language, Lesson Study, Math Their Way, OrtonGillingham. While all of these ideas have great benefits, they also all have great detriments.  As an educator, I truly believe that it is my job to reach everyone.  And if the programs don't reach everyone, then something needs to change.  

Whole Language, for example, replaced a phonics based program which was boring and taught only decoding skills.  Whole Language made learning exciting and meaningful.  Comprehension was key.  The problem?  Kids with difficulties needed phonics, too.  In fact, most of the kids needed phonics, too.  But it wasn't built into the program.  So, while I continued presenting at conferences about Whole Language, while I continued teaching colleagues in district about Whole Language, I began to build a program incorporating phonics back into the reading program.  And every time I demonstrated my program at a conference, participants would breathe a sigh of relief.  They knew it too.

We are now learning about Teacher's College writing and reading in my district.  It is being fully embraced by the administration.  We have trainers coming in.  We are being sent to TC for workshops.  We are being given multiple materials, lots of in house support, and dicta to meet frequently with other members of the grade level to coordinate our work.

And, as usual, I see some great benefits to TC reading and writing.  The language used makes teaching the steps to crafting simple.  The kids are reading and writing much more than ever before.  At least that's what they say.  And it's very individualized, sort of.  (The initial lesson is whole class, the majority of work is partner work, and conferring with kids occurs as quickly as I can make it around the room.)  

But I also see detriments.  It took me too long to get to conferring with one child.  By the time I got to him, he had almost finished his book but couldn't tell me anything about it.  I was angry.  With the program and with myself for allowing this struggling reader to get by for so long reading alone or with a partner.

The whole class lessons, while short and sweet (8 minutes is the goal) still only reach about 50% of the kids.  So I am losing 8 minutes of valuable instructional time with 50% of my students.

There is a literacy block we were given to ensure that no pullouts were to occur during reading and writing.  My literacy block is one hour.  I come back from lunch, have one hour of literacy, and go home.  I need more than that.  One hour is too long for either reading or writing and too short for both.  So the timing doesn't really work for me.  Plus, that precious 2:00 - 3:00 time is the only time I am in school at the same time as our partners across the country.  We need that time to collaborate synchronously.

Okay.  In the past, once I saw detriments, I would change up the program.  Keep the good, get rid of the bad.  And I have ideas.  After all, language arts is something I have always been really good at teaching.  And I have the data to prove it.  So I want to keep the TC language, maintain the amount of time spent reading and writing each day (I always did that anyway), keep the celebrations, keep the partners.  But I want to step in often.  Small groups allow me to meet much more frequently than individually.  I want to group kids according to need and meet with them daily to help them jump the hurdle and move on.  I want my literacy block to be 1 1/2 hours and in the morning.  That gives me a good 45 minutes for both reading and writing.  I want to keep coordinating reading and writing.  We are writing fiction and reading historical fiction.  I like that.  Makes sense.  Can talk craft in both reading and writing.

The problem?  For the first time in 25 years, I am getting push back.  I am being told I cannot change my literacy block time, I must coordinate with the other fifth grade teachers, doing what they are doing, when they are doing it, and I must keep the format of mini-lesson, partner work, individual work with conferring, and ending mini lesson.  For the first time, I am being pushed into a lock step, spoon fed program.  I am not able to use my wisdom and knowledge of my students to change things at all.  I am not able to keep the good and get rid of the bad. The belief is that, once I really work with it and learn it, I will love it and see the benefits.  But I already do see the benefits.  I just see deficits, too.

For the first time, teachers in my district are told what to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it.  We were always told the what but had so much leeway with the how and when.  Not so anymore.  And it makes me not want to teach anymore.  The times are changing but I am not comfortable fitting into the mold.  Thanks, Barack Obama and Arnie Duncan for pushing Race to the Top.  Thanks, NY for buying into it.  Thanks, administration for accepting it.  Thanks, colleagues, for falling into it. Because of RttT and the fear of accountability, I am being held back from doing what I know will help my students.  Hold me accountable.  But let me do it my way, failing or succeeding on my own terms.  I will pay the consequences if my way fails.  But I will not accept the consequences if your way fails.

I am sad. Maybe it is time for me to go. I hope retirement age comes quickly.  

'X is for...340/365

'Lost on stairs

'Paris Clocks



Barbara Day said...

This post is so good, Lisa! I have been teaching about the same length of time as you have. I've been through the whole language phase, and everything that has come since. I have never understood why we lurch from extreme to extreme in education, but like you, I have adapted the latest push to meet students needs. I have always valued the opportunity for creativity and autonomy in teaching, but it is fast disappearing. I have seen the same pressure here, to be on the same page at the same time, but kids are not the same! It makes me want to retire, too, but don't quit. You are the only hope these kids have!

Lee Kolbert said...

As you and I both know, the pendulum swings. We had the same type of strict mandate last year and although the good teachers hated it (and the weak teachers loved it), ultimately it was the parents who joined together (using FB) and became the squeaky wheel that pushed the mandates to become more flexible. When differentiation goes out the window, parents will start to complain.

You are currently feeling deflated, but remember that you are strong and smart enough to know how to play the game; when your door closes, the classroom is still yours.

We're here for you.

Harold Shaw Jr. said...

Lisa you aptly put into words what many of us are feeling. That teachers are required to use lock-step programs is scary, especially when we can see obvious flaws in their premise and implementation.

Lisa you are a great teacher, we can tell by what you write and the passion you write with. This is going to be the nature of the beast for the next few years, until the managers find out that this too is not working.

I wonder what the next great educational reform will entail and if they will include actual teachers in producing it? Only time will tell.

Good luck and remember you have a lot of supporters out here.

Techyturner said...

Thank you Lisa. I was beginning to wonder if any of my Edtech PLN was feeling the same way I do about education. I like how you mentioned certain mandates which I too deal with; lock step curriculum, programs which seem to work but have "great detriments". I, too was told not to give up, but like you, I want to do it my way and be held accountable for my success or failure.
I don't when the time is, but I know education is changing and I wonder "should I stay or should I go".
Keep fighting and kicking and screaming. We're pulling for you.

Marla Huebner (huebner1 on twitter) said...

Wow! I am also a veteran of teaching for 29 years, and I am feeling the same pain! We have just adopted a new reading program that we are supposed to present exactly like the book reads. We have 90 minutes of instruction for whole group and small group reading. The novels have been taken out of the students' hands, and they have to read what we give them. I like the fact that the program puts all of the language arts and spelling in with the reading because it does give some continuity to that area, but the amount of worksheets has boggled my mind! When to we teach the love of reading? We have to get off of the "watch list" or we will be a "school in need of improvement" and that is driving our instruction. I feel the same, maybe it is time to retire? Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It makes me feel like I am not alone!

susanvg said...

Great post, Lisa. So sad that administrators want to teach programmes not children. You have a gift of reaching children. See how much you can close the door and do it.
Where I am we are facing different new mandates - all children from grade 1 up must be given a mark as a percentage and class average must appear on the report (IEP students are exempt). What is to be gained by this? We had a great educational programme based on competency not just skills. It is slowly being dismantled by the minister of education who is not an educator. Sound familiar?

Adam Dugger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ms. D said...

I have taught for over 20 years and have seen the same things you have seen. While it may be "easier" to follow lock step and read from a script, you have it correct when you say children are different. Some day I hope those in control realize we are working with children and not 'widgets' to be produced. It is disheartening, perhaps we should all email your post to those in power, and add our own voice whether they want to hear it or not.

Adam Dugger said...

Teachers all over the country are feeling this I'm sure..
We are perhaps at a pivotal time in education. Maybe we are at the foot of a pedagogical revolution (as Mark Weston speaks about). Whatever is happening, the uncertainty and sudden direction changes are tough to swallow if you are passionate and empowered about how you design your instruction.
I love my job, and I cannot even envision being anything else but a teacher. Having said that, I must acknowledge the trepidation that I feel as I look towards what the next few years may bring.
This is really a great post, Lisa. Stay the course and keep your passion. And remember, I have much longer than you to retirement!

sylvia martinez said...

Great post, Lisa.

Debbie said...

Hi Lisa. You're an observant, reactive, and seasoned teacher. We met at Educon and I participated in your workshop on UDL. I think the problem is that no matter what we see in our circle of caring, growing teachers there are still those teachers who do a minimal amount of work, just enough to get by, like the one described in your post. In all honesty, they need the imperatives. Their students will have a better learning experience than before, though nowhere near as positive as your students will ever have with or without the imperatives. Giving you the options to do your best, gives them an option out. It's demoralizing to not be able to do what you know is best.

Lisa Parisi said...

This post has really hit a nerve with quite a few of you. I'm sorry to see I am not the only one feeling the push but am relieved to have support from you all.

Debbie, I guess you found the reason I am so sad. We have decided to work toward the bottom instead of having higher expectations for us all. That's not what I do in my class, it's not what I expect of myself, and it's not what I want for my daughter. Why would the administration and government want that at all?

Anonymous said...

Don't even think of retiring! We have already lost too many gifted educators such as yourself due to decisions being made for what is best for our classrooms by people who have never stepped foot into our classrooms! This is just "another train pulling into the station" - this happens in our District all of the time, and we support each other by constantly repeating, "In 3 years when this is proven not to work and test scores are not through the roof (because you know the reason for all of these changes is to boost those test scores!), and when the current administration/Superintendent/Building Principal is no longer there, we as teachers will still be around"! We have learned in our District to smile, and yes them, and incorporate what they are telling us to do - but also not abandon those things that have been PROVEN to already work. When we were told at a staff meeting for special educators (my role in my collaborative classroom) that we were no longer to ever use "round robin reading" as part of our guided reading program, we yelled good and loud and commented with the fact that as educators we are bound and determined to use WHATEVER WORKS for each and every one of our students. Hang in there - this too shall pass as soon as the newest and best new ideas come out.

Tim Bray said...

First, as others stated, do not retire! We need you! Second, great post. Third, you are absolutely correct -- if you are going to be responsible for the test results, you have a right to be part of the decision making process. You aren't the problem in this situation, the system is the problem. Fight back! If you have to do what the other 5th grade teachers do, convince the other 5th grade teachers that you are right and all change together. Beat the admin at their own game. Finally, have you ever thought of teaching internationally? If you are interested,

Anonymous said...


I was so touched by your heartfelt desire to do what is RIGHT and not what is always popular. I'd like to invite you to be a guest blogger for us. You can reach me at

I feel inspired = thanks. Best wishes to you!

dkzody said...

That push-back is one of the reasons for my retirement from teaching. You WILL do it our way or no way. So, I figured it was time to push off into other adventures.

dkzody said...

That push-back is one of the reasons for my retirement from teaching. You WILL do it our way or no way. So, I figured it was time to push off into other adventures.

teachj said...

Most of these "programs" are trying to find that one golden teaching method - a shortcut to success. Really good teachers know already - it is an illusion there is no shortcut to success with all students. You must have a comprehensive program that incorporates many styles in many lessons. Teaching is as much an art form as a science. Sure data is great and helpful, but so is insight into what makes a child tick. That comes from caring and experience. Those things can't be taught and take time and money to invest in.

Mrs. Walls said...


This is a fabulous blog, and completely relevant. I am in my fourth year of teaching. What drew me to teaching was the love my teachers had for teaching. I now work with several teachers having 25+ years of experience. From speaking, candidly, with my co-workers your thoughts and feeling about this "new" trend are not unique. Even I, being relatively new to teaching, have similar sentiments as you. I wonder, what happened to best practices? How is Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind making our educational system stronger?