By the Book
Longtime teachers say their job (and students and parents) has changed dramatically through the years.
In 1977, teacher Dianne Stevens stood with her class outside Rolling Ridge Elementary School in Sterling, Va., watching a Concorde fly by on one of its first trips to the United States.
“There were lots of oohs, aahs, wows and pointing fingers at the plane as it flew over,” says Stevens, an educator for 25 years who currently teaches eighth-grade algebra at Herbert Hoover Middle School in Potomac. “You could never do that [today]. God forbid you lose a half hour of instruction.”
Joanne Hessler, who retired in 2008 after 37 years of teaching in Montgomery County Public Schools, remembers when she used class time to let her students write and perform their own plays. Today, the MCPS curriculum is so packed with learning objectives that there is no time for creative projects not directly related to class objectives, Hessler says.
And that’s a shame, she says, because projects like producing a play gave all students a chance to shine. “That child [who] can’t read well, but is a fabulous artist got to design the cover of the program and receive the accolades they deserved,” says Hessler, who now works as a substitute teacher for MCPS schools in Rockville.
The loss of time for creativity, or the “fluff” as one teacher called it, is just one of many classroom changes over the past 25 years, according to more than a dozen veteran public school teachers who were interviewed. These teachers, who can remember the smell of the “ditto fluid” they used to pour into duplicating machines, recall a time when the curriculum wasn’t as jam-packed, and the school system wasn’t as driven by data used to assess student performance.
“If I heard the word ‘data’ one more time, I was either going to throw up or smash my fist against the table,” Hessler says.
Although these teachers still love teaching, they say today’s curriculum is so prescribed and packed with learning objectives—or indicators—that they can barely get through it, never mind take time to go off on a tangent. For the last decade, MCPS has been revamping the curriculum “to raise the level of student achievement to rigorous standards of academic performance,” according to its Web site.
“When you look at the curriculum guides and what you’re supposed to teach in one quarter, it’s nearly impossible,” says Shelley Johnson, a 35-year veteran who is the lead arts integration teacher for Potomac Elementary School and Dr. Charles Drew Elementary School in Silver Spring. “How do you make it work? That’s the big question.”
Trying to teach an increasingly rigorous curriculum that pushes some students beyond their academic and emotional development has taken some of the joy out of teaching, leaving educators with no time to be spontaneous and to flex their creative muscles, the teachers say.
Margy Hall, a sixth-grade science teacher at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, remembers when she taught about watersheds by having students make their own watershed drawings. They’d trace their hand on a piece of paper and write their family name on the palm. The names of family members were written on the fingers.
“It was a lot of fun because it was also cross-curriculum. But there’s not time for that now,” says Hall, who has been teaching for more than 20 years.
“I wouldn’t want to be a new teacher for anything,” says Neolia Parson, a fourth-grade reading teacher at Kemp Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring and an educator for about 30 years.
Veteran teachers also say they used to have more autonomy to teach a class any way they liked. There was time to be spontaneous or to shave a few minutes off a planned lesson if students needed help with something they hadn’t quite learned the day before. But now these teachers feel pressure to move through so many learning objectives that they can’t take the extra time. “I can remember when I first began teaching. If they didn’t get it, I worked with them. If they still didn’t get it, we just plugged along” until students did, Parson says.
“We had a curriculum guide and we knew what we had to get through, but it wasn’t nearly as jam-packed as now,” Stevens says. “We just had a lot more freedom to tailor lessons to the kids.”
Michael Doran, principal at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, disputes the notion that there’s no room or time for creativity in the classroom. “You still have a lot of flexibility in how you do the teaching,” he says. “The prescribed piece is what you have to teach and not how you do it. When I walk around, I don’t see the creativity taken out of teaching.”
Christopher Garran, the principal at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, still teaches a social studies class. He says the claim about lost creativity has become “a little cliché.”
“I don’t know where this creativity has been erased,” Garran says. “Now, there is greater consistency between what is taught [in individual classes], not how it’s taught.”
Too Much, Too Soon
One consequence of the school system’s emphasis on students taking advanced courses is that some of them are not learning the basics and are being pushed too fast, the teachers say.
In Stevens’ pre-algebra class, for example, she often has to review basic math facts that students should have absorbed in elementary school. “Kids are being pushed at a faster and faster pace. They are missing basic skills,” she says. “They don’t know what factors are, and they don’t know their times tables.”
“Just because you can pass an objective on a test doesn’t mean that you’re getting it,” adds Penny Keune, an educator for 26 years who teaches social studies and psychology at Quince Orchard High School in North Potomac.
Teachers complain that students aren’t receiving a proper foundation in elementary school, especially in math and critical thinking skills, to be successful in later grades. Also, teachers say, students are increasingly being accelerated into higher-level courses, such as honors and Advanced Placement classes, that they might not be emotionally or academically ready to tackle.
“We’ve always wanted success for every child, but that hasn’t meant you’re pushing them into classes they’re not ready for,” Parson says.
Vickie Adamson, who teaches English at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, recounts the experience of a student who had to sign up for an AP literature course, even though English was not his strongest subject, because his school didn’t offer a more suitable honors-level course. “The reality of being in that course, working toward a college-level exam,” can be too daunting for students who aren’t ready, says Adamson, who has taught for about 25 years.
Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School educator Debbie Lerman has taught math in county high schools since 1974. She says she sends her students to “math jail” by drawing a tiny jail cell on their papers when they make mistakes, like forgetting rules about square roots and multiplying positive and negative integers, concepts they should have mastered years ago.
“Personally, I think it’s pushing the kids too fast. We’re pushing the kids so fast that they don’t have a strong foundation in math,” she says. “It’s leaking all over the place, and I can’t plug them all up.”
Garran, the principal at Walter Johnson, says acceleration is succeeding at his school, where the number of students taking AP tests has increased each year over the past decade. Eighty-five percent of those students continue to score at least a passing grade of 3, Garran says. The percentage is “exactly where our passing rate was 10 years ago, when we had half as many students” taking the exams, he says.
“Acceleration, when done well, works,” Garran says. That includes “opening things up to more students, and supporting them when they get there.”