By Kelly Dwyer
I realize I am a tad bit late to the table for participating in the Michelle Rhee debate, but that is because I was actually working under her dominion in DC. While she had time for increasing her public image, I had no time nor energy for blogging, reading or being the life-long learner I had always hoped I was inspiring my students to be. I was hardly learning anything excepting the harsh realities of the change in a system, ultimately limiting my ability to work effectively with a student population which had changed drastically in the years I had been abroad.
Perusing the exquisite chronicle of Michelle Rhee by Mercedes Schneider, I realized the quintessential TFA legacy herself, was a contemporary of mine. Michelle Rhee was doing her first years, or I mean her only years of teaching in the same years I entered the profession in Washington D.C.
I went back to school for teaching credentials in my late twenties and felt like many of the original TFA recruits, “I was needed and could make a difference.”
When she was supposedly doing all the miraculous things with her student’s: their test scores, taping their mouths closed and forgetting emergency contact information for her students; I was also a beginning classroom teacher in the next city to the south. Ironically, I most recently received a score of developing, by the very system of teacher evaluation Rhee put in motion. (I’ll save that for another post!)
My first year teaching was not my best and this is to be expected. However, as the only white female teacher in my school, I was determined to prove I could do well by my students. After having been purposely given ALL of the most difficult students in the fourth grade, they soon became known for their respect and quietness when passing in the hallways (without tape on their mouths) and took several trips around DC on the public buses without incident.
A trip to Audobon’s Woodend was a turning point. At that time, securing a school bus or federally funded bus to take students anywhere was nearly impossible. In order to get to Woodend, less than 5 miles from the school, public transport provided options that took over 2 hours in travel time! However, I discovered if we walked 5 blocks to the Georgia Avenue bus, we would only have to make one transfer and walk through Rock Creek Park to get there. The trek, through the woods to get to Woodend turned out to be the best possible complement to the activities at Woodend. Screams of excitement over their discoveries mingled with the birds and rushing water sounds. All were trying to compete with one another for what they had discovered and what they were observing.
A couple of them found a tree gnawed away by beavers. We all stopped.
“What do you think happened here?” I asked. Eventually they arrived at the answer themselves.
The discovery for me was what they needed most, the closeness of nature, the opportunity to wonder and question, and more opportunities to run through the trees.
Now our resourceful teacher hands are tied. My teaching partner from this past year commented, “They think they have it down to a science and can account for what a teacher’s performance is only in data and charts. They have forgotten about the Art of Teaching.”
In one school I taught since the reforms, we were expected to teach entirely in test prep mode from beginning of year. This was criminal to the point of bumping lower achieving kids from support programs because they were not on the cusp of making the school’s test scores look better. The cluster chair (the overseer of several schools in an area) literally banned field trips until the test scores rose. This is in DC, the home of the world-renowned Smithsonian! While students come to DC from all over the U.S., students of DCPS are staying in their 5 block radius, searching for reasons to learn and pass a test.
Peru, on the other hand, is a mixed bag of perplexing ironies. There are aged people with plant knowledge that is unsurpassed by university Biology graduates, yet failing to have value to most or be passed down to younger generations.
We live in a virtual paradise. However mining, growing at leaps and bounds, offers many locals the only employment for economic gain. Huascaran National Park, just a stone’s throw away, is overrun with cattle herds, throwing the delicate ecosystem (where wildlife is exiguous) in a strikingly imbalanced state. And countless mining petitions are threatening it’s borders.
Children I have conversations with, are unaware of the animals that are dangerous or not and so the entire population learns, “kill it if it crawls,” mentality. The lack of humanity towards the even domesticated animals leaves my heart heavy.
The educational system, until recently has been militaristic in a sense of the teacher dictates, the students listen, write, memorize and respond without question. This creates citizens who question very little and accept the status quo.
However, with an emerging economy, the country’s top officials are realizing the need for an educated populous. How one begins that, is of course messy and slow. Some of the advice they are getting is coming from the very “reformers,” and educational leaders from developed nations that have squelched the critical thinking/ life-long learner curricula of literally yesterday.
At Teach a Teacher, we hope to begin with one region and help teachers realize the more tools they have, the more they will enjoy their profession and their students the learning process.
We hope to attract volunteer teachers that love teaching and we hope to add value to their practice by showing our volunteers how much they actually do know and have to give.
By making a difference in the quality of education in this one region of Peru, perhaps we can show, most all teachers do desire to teach well.
…stay tuned for Part III: How my class matched up against the Michelle Rhee’s data and teaching experience (thanks to G.F. Brandenburg’s findings) from 2011
Teach a Teacher and our Volunteers provide Professional Development and help teach basic teaching skills to Teachers in some of the poorest areas in Peru. Please visit us at www.teachateacher.org and www.teachateacher.wordpress.com and at teachateacher on Facebook.
Kelly Dwyer is Executive Director of Teach a Teacher nonprofit. She is a former teacher both in the U.S. and Internationally. A native of Great Falls, Montana.