The students are settled into their school routines, and for the first time in 37 years I am not there with them. I have retired. Let me share a few reflections on my career as an elementary teacher in Hillsborough County.
I remember when teachers were treated as professionals. We were given the standards and benchmarks that our students needed to hit but had the freedom to develop our own lessons.
I remember when educators weren’t told to follow a specific timeline of lessons to be completed in math, science, reading, writing or social studies. The teacher, not a set schedule, determined the pace of learning. Teachers knew their students and could adapt the lessons as needed.
I remember when promotion to the next grade was not determined by a specific standardized test score but the teacher’s observations and documentation of each learner. There were discussions between the teacher, administrators and special service teachers. My expertise as the child’s teacher was valued. We made the best decision for each child.
But teachers slowly lost control. It started with standardized tests, which would be used to determine school grades. These grades put pressure on administrators, and that flowed down to the teacher. Teachers were pressured to follow the district timeline for when each standard should be taught.
It wasn’t just students who were evaluated again and again. So were teachers. Over the years, they evolved; there were peer evaluations, principal and vice principal evaluations and unannounced pop-ins. Along with students’ test scores, these evaluations determined whether I was effective or not as an educator. Although I was rated highly effective, the whole process was stressful and exhausting.
During peer evaluations, a total stranger would observe a lesson and critique it. This total stranger doesn’t know my class, doesn’t know me and in many cases had considerably fewer years teaching. But this stranger was empowered to tell me what was effective in my instruction and what wasn’t.
When it came to principal and vice principal evaluations, we quickly learned that if you had a challenging student and asked for administration support, this could have a negative effect on your final evaluation.
Even before any of these evaluations, we had to complete a detailed form covering every step of my lesson, explaining why I was teaching it, how it connected to prior and future learning. There were more questions. What teaching materials did I choose and why? How was I going to differentiate instruction for challenge learners, develop concepts for my core students and support struggling learners? This entire form could take between four and five hours to complete. Then I got to return to my important regular paperwork: to plan all the other lessons needed that week and then grade papers to help me understand where my instruction needed to go, and posting test score on the school’s data spreadsheet.
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There were other evaluations, too. There were district walk-throughs looking for “best practice” in teaching. At times there could be five or six people walking around my classroom, noting on their clip boards if my objectives were on the board along with the final outcomes of success. Was I giving specific praise, asking high level questions, providing differential instruction, evaluating learning during and after each lesson, conferencing with each student on test results and documenting all progress? They would talk to students and note again on the clip board if the child understood the objectives for the lesson.
There were pop-in observations where I wouldn’t know when the principal or vice principal or peer evaluator would show up. The systems to evaluate teachers and students kept changing. As I retired, we were using yet another one — the Florida Progress Monitoring System (FPMS). The first two tests are used to provide intervention and the final test for accountability measure (school grade, teacher bonuses and student promotion). All of this meant more instruction time spent testing and gathering data, which left less time for actual teaching.
Teachers often work two to three hours past our work day and four to six hours on the weekend to complete observation forms, conference forms, grading and tracking trends, and, of course, planning lessons.
We survived the changes that the COVID pandemic and remote learning had on students’ attitudes about learning. If it was too hard, many students just gave up, while others decided to be the class clown. When teachers contacted parents, some would blame other students as the negative influence.
There have been a lot of changes in 37 years. But there is one thing that has stayed true. Teachers work extremely hard because it’s an avocation more than a mere vocation. Ask any teacher, and that teacher will say it is impossible to be prepared and ready to give students the best education within the scheduled day. But all teachers want to see their students succeed. Let’s spend more time helping teachers, not judging them, so they can accomplish that goal.
Mary Beth Laiti was an elementary school teacher in Hillsborough County.