I’ve watched a generation of my peers…


Sometimes I worry that all the emphasis on direct instruction, comprehensive curriculum, and teacher-proof texts has beaten the last bit of initiative out of the latest generation of elementary school teachers. Here’s some background…

First, let me go into the way back machine to how things were in the old old days. When I attended school in the early 1970s, teachers were given text books, with lessons and workbooks. Some of my friends with parents of the hippie-dippy persuasion, went to alternative schools where the curriculum was both teacher, and student created. I was not greatly impressed with what they were learning, or how those schools were run at the time, but I imagine they were like a lot of charters of today, some fantastic, some mediocre, some awful. Now we move up to the old days. Some of those curriculum practices made their way to regular education. I can remember a principal musing about the difficulties of starting teaching in the 1980s when, as she put it, “We didn’t have textbooks, and were supposed to use Math Their Way to create our own curriculum,” she finished up with, “so these teachers today have no excuse for not teaching effectively, everything they need is provided for them with the curriculum we use.” She was wrong, and intuitively knew this because she later observed that there was no way our school would leave PI (Program Improvement) if we stuck to the scripted curriculum. She encouraged us to supplement, omit, and do our own thing, as long as the test scores went up.

I had a student teacher in my classroom for one semester, and will never have the opportunity again due to cuts in Elementary Education programs (who needs teachers when your cutting class-size), a change in demographics, and the fact I teach in an elementary specialty area, and all the candidates are working on a multiple subject credential.

I enjoyed the experience of being a master teacher, cooperating teacher, or whatever term of art they use in your neck of the woods. While I still feel I have a lot to learn about helping to develop the next generation of teachers, the experience did crystallize some concerns I have about the effects that Reading First, and other initiatives have had on teacher preparation and what is expected of people in this profession.

Where do I fall in that continuum? In my state I may have been in the last year of teacher candidates put out by the state university before the onslaught of scripted curriculum hit elementary education. I was expected to create my own study units that were not based on a text, even though the state was moving to a program where they would offer only two possible language arts text for school districts to adopt. It was not too difficult, but it wasn’t an easy task either. I was being prepared to create my own curriculum. This turned out to be a valuable lesson. My first year, we were in the middle of adopting a scripted language arts curriculum, but it was only being used in primary, and I was teaching fourth grade. I created a language arts based partly on the old basel, with workshops, and lit circles for the entire class. It was exceedingly ambitious for a first year teacher who had skipped doing student teaching. Later, when  I was asked to supplement, and change a scripted curriculum so that it better met the state standards, I could do that.

What about teacher who came after me? The student teacher I had was a really great teacher, and likely will exceed my abilities in a number of ways (her assessment skills,  informal and formal , were stronger) she did a great job of supplementing the curriculum to address standards, etc. But, I was frankly shocked when I requested that she create a science unit for the students as part of her work (we hadn’t yet adopted a science text in my district at that time), and she balked. She was fine with a text book, and she could add to it, but if she didn’t have that “structure” she didn’t think she could do it on her own. Eventually, she did a unit on science and did a great job, but if I hadn’t pushed that on her? I have seen other newer teachers since then. Some of them still read from the Teacher’s Edition script when they do direct instruction. They have had the initiative trained out of them. This is not good because while I believe you can be a good teacher with a scripted text, you have to do what Allington observed, and monitor and adjust your instruction (something my student teacher had very good instincts about, btw), otherwise, we might as well just train robots to teach. I also think that when we leave all the curriculum creation to others, we give up ownership of what we are teaching, and may lose our investment in it.

What do you think saps initiative in teachers?

3 Comments to

“I’ve watched a generation of my peers…”

  1. November 27th, 2009 at 6:35 pm      Reply LoriC Says:

    Ms.Mercer, I enjoyed your blog post and agree with your statement that you can be a good teacher with a scripted text. But here’s what I wonder — can you be a great one? I’d like to think that there are many of us out there who are not content to be good but who still seek to be great. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the present educational climate lends itself to great teaching. Great teaching, to me, is composed of all of the things that you’ll never find on a district evaluation. Great teaching involves smarts, creativity, honesty, emotional stability, patience, the ability to challenge and motivate, a good amount of novelty, a flexible nature, and a deep and abiding interest in students. How can any script provide for that?

    Great teaching means a teacher has enough knowledge of the discipline and how students learn to be able to make her own decisions about what to teach and what to omit based upon what student needs unfold around her. A script doesn’t allow for any of that.

    To me, perhaps one of the worst things that scripts do is remove the need for any true discourse about why and how we teach what we do. Scripted curriculum means that the most serious pedagogical talk that my colleagues and I engage in has to do with what page numbers we plan to cover and whether it’s feasible to get it all done in a week.

    You’ve asked in your post what saps the initiative in teaching, and I think that your final lines answer that question very well. Thanks for an engaging and reflective post.

  2. November 27th, 2009 at 9:48 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

    The secret I think that Allington found with successful teachers using scripted curriculum was…they didn’t follow the script, so I think you can be great, if you are willing to deviate from the script, and not let it rule your teaching.

  3. December 7th, 2009 at 6:42 pm      Reply RebeccaO Says:

    As a student in a teacher prep program, I’m here to attest that we are being taught to create units ourselves (I just finished one for a final project — whew!). We are taught about concept and inquiry models of instruction as well as direct instruction. We’re neither out to create an entire curriculum, nor would we fail if we were asked to create one. My generation of teachers-to-be (at least in my program) is eager to try anything, but looking forward to being a little hamstrung by individual district requirements, which range in their adherence to a curriculum.

    In answer to your question, I’m seeing teacher initiative being sapped by lack of support for teachers from the administration, including a lack of trust that teachers have the knowledge to create meaningful curriculum. Sure, some teachers would rather read the script, but those who are aiming to really make a difference do what you indicate: add to, delete from, and otherwise alter the curriculum to best serve their students’ learning.

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