Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Schools Are More Than a Test

Two things happened in the first 17 days of January. On Jan. 1, one of the math teachers at my school lost her battle with cancer. On Jan. 17, I lost my mother. On Sunday they found a brain tumor, and on Thursday in the wee hours of the morning, she was gone.

To compound matters, that Saturday I'd gone down hard with the latest bronchitis virus and spent the week pumped up on antibiotics and with a nose coated with Vicks VapoRub. My mom's doctor said it wouldn't matter. I worked one day that week — Tuesday — so I could see my kids, tell them what was going on, and set up sub plans. My students rallied and stayed on task. They made me proud.

But this column isn't about me, as much as it's about the things that our students learn. My students watched me make sure to take care of them before I even took care of myself. They learned sacrifice.

As you can tell by now, I'm a firm believer that teachers shouldn't be judged and evaluated by using their students' test scores, even though my kids always score above average and I go through the data. Testing is a tool, just like an X-ray helped the doctor know I didn't have pneumonia. Thus, I support those teachers at Garfield High School in Washington State who have taken a stand against what has become stupidity in over testing. (Really the only one who benefits is the testing companies. Hello, capitalism and lobbyists.)

I do believe some testing has a place, just as a doctor needs to take an X-ray like I had to do, but we must remember that testing is not a measure of an entire kid or the tester. In fact, Diane Ravitch always says it better than I can, so be sure to check her out.

So, getting back to that "What do kids learn?" question and the insight I gained through this process. Here are the things schools teach, the things schools and teachers do that can never be addressed or assessed by fill-in-the-bubbles.

Schools teach compassion. I received email condolences from my students telling me they were thinking about me and wishing me better health and happy memories. The outpouring of support for my colleague who passed was immense. Students organized a trivia night. They put buckets on teacher desks to help raise funds for her children. They sent cards, attended memorials, and held moments of silence.

Schools teach charity. Students at my school have walked to raise all sorts of money for all sorts of causes. They have supported the United Way, sent peanut butter to Haiti, and stuffed envelopes for St. Jude's. This past November they collected over 5,000 cans for the local food pantry — an average of 2.7 cans per student. A penny war once had the prize of a pizza party — the winning class raised $500 for $25 in pizza. Students at my school show up for campus beautification day. The football team volunteers for an organization that feeds Thanksgiving meals to the less fortunate. Kids have sent clothes to New Orleans after Katrina. And I could go on.

Schools teach love, acceptance, and tolerance. While some schools do this better than others, and while some people think the school shouldn't address what they see as morality, when you put a diverse melting pot in one place, you either learn to get along or chaos ensues. Our special needs students are seen as one of the group and beloved, not ridiculed. They feel safe. We have programs to empower young women and to end bullying. Our classrooms are marked as GLB safe spaces and our GSA has both straight and gay members. We create a culture that doesn't tolerate violence or ignorance. We have the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and First Priority, a religious club. While not perfect, I'm in a school that works to teach respect for everyone, does this very well, and I know that where I teach cannot be an anomaly.

Schools teach citizenship. This past election really showed that students cared about the political process. At the inauguration, there were school groups from across the country that came to watch and participate. We register voters. We teach the difference between facts, bias and lies. We teach media literacy.

Schools teach thinking. Let me be honest. While you can claim test-taking involves thinking, real thinking is that which requires research, argumentation and debate. Real thinking is reading something and evaluating it, processing the information through the multiple lenses of personal belief systems and personal skepticism. Students must understand the other side's position thoroughly — as a general would understand the other side's forces. As I tell my students, "Not one of you in here is stupid, you just make poor choices that make you look that way." For examples, one simply has to look at the idiotic pictures people share on Facebook in regards to anything political, pictures with no real basis in fact. Kids must be able to cut through the rhetoric in order to think for themselves and make sound choices.

Last, schools are microcosms of the real world. We prepare our kids for a stereotypical "real world," pushing them on to the "college-college-college" track. My younger daughter is in tears over learning the mitosis of cells, something I'm sure will vanish from her head the day after the test, a test she will struggle to take. But she must, although her interests, talents and gifts lie in art and interior design, classes she must forego. So, in this world of testing, our kids learn that life isn't fair and that they must run the gauntlet until finally free of the system. And, because we've taught them to think, they can see the hypocrisy; yet as kids, they are powerless to do anything about it except fill in the bubbles lickety-split in an act of rebellion. 

Just as there are dozens of types of cookies (just go take a look in your supermarket or local bakery), there are dozens of types of kids in our schools. Education has become so political in its testing and its curriculum that we're trying to use one cookie cutter to turn our children into one type of cookie. The real world has many shapes and flavors, and effective schools must learn to manage and balance the political puffery and testing forced upon us by politicians with no clue. Our kids know this, but we are forced to suck it out of them by making them color between the lines. So while our schools teach many life lessons, more than I even addressed above, perhaps we need to remember this main one ourselves. Our kids need us to teach them, as in the words of Annie Sullivan in "The Miracle Worker," everything. After all, the intangibles we teach and the things we can't test will also help change the world. We can't forget that.


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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday January 24th 2013, 2:24 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
Right on Michele!
Teaching ducks to climb tress is too stupid, just as this extraordinary idea that nationwide standardised testing is a good thing????
Time to trust teachers & encourage learning...
Thursday January 24th 2013, 9:27 AM
Comment by: Kathy W.
Your third paragraph from the bottom speaks volumes to even broader problems we face today. When even journalists abandon the effort to research and understand all sides of an issue, how can we expect our kids to figure that out? It surely makes the teacher's job all that much harder. I'm guessing many/most of them don't learn it at home, either.
Thursday January 24th 2013, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Excellent piece, well-written, passionate, honest, and moving.
Thursday January 24th 2013, 12:18 PM
Comment by: ROGER H.
Great article. In our country, Guyana, the critical skills of thinking were never prioritized. In short, we learned through memorization, but this piece was honest and addressed huge problems with the way I was thought.
Thursday January 24th 2013, 8:41 PM
Comment by: Craig S.
I am proud of my colleagues at Garfield HS and Orca K-8 and support their efforts to push-back against limited assessment and bad testing. This article does a fine job of framing the issue and we thank you for that. Authentic evaluation, responsive teaching, and critical thinking must find their way into the mix if education reform is to flourish.
Saturday January 26th 2013, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Stuart C. (Brooklyn, NY)
Michele, I've long thought the "college at any cost" obsession should be replaced by the "what's best for my child, given how my child thinks and what his/her aptitudes are" idea. You are so right -- everyone comes into this world with a different set of strengths and gifts. Parents need to think far more deeply about this. "What are my child's aptitudes?" doesn't seem to be a simple question they are interested in asking. And schools don't have the money or time to find out. Ironically, the U. S. Armed Forces (think: ASVAB Test) knows more about high school students' aptitudes than parents. If we could just align individual aptitudes and intelligence types (think: Howard Gardener's work) with what jobs are, and will be, "out there", we'd know a lot more about what kind of higher education would be most appropriate for individual kids. Thank you for a wonderful article! Stu Cowan
Sunday January 27th 2013, 9:53 PM
Comment by: Meggin M.
I am so sorry about your mother. I lost my mother just over two years ago and I miss her every day. Your mother must have been proud of you.

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