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'Before we can better educate our kids, we need to first educate our politicians'

We often hear that the most influential element in a student’s life is the teacher. As an educator this can be both an honor and a daunting responsibility. It elevates the status of a position, often viewed by some as public service, to that of a valued mentor.

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This would all be well and good if education could truly be defined as it was for centuries in the past. Students were empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge of their teachers. If this were in any way true today, and a teacher was able to pour all of the knowledge contained in his or her head into the empty vessels seated in rows before him or her, the teacher would still not be imparting enough information for an adequate education in today’s world. Our world, as well as information itself, changes and evolves at too fast a pace. Teaching and learning are evolving and many of the old concepts no longer apply.

Unfortunately however, many politicians and some educators buy into this traditional model of what an educator should be, and base teacher evaluations on it. In many states a teacher’s evaluation will be predominantly based on how well his or her students perform on a standardized test. That test performance has de facto become the goal of education.

What makes all of this so complicated is that kids are not widgets. They are complicated. It may be true that a teacher may at times be the most influential factor in the classroom for some kids, but not for all kids, and not every time. Kids do not leave everything at the door of the classroom so they can have their vessels filled. All of their problems travel with them. The difference between kid problems and adult problems is that, hopefully, adults have learned coping mechanisms, but kids have not.

Kids are traveling through warzones

Teachers do not just address that part of a kid that is in school to learn. The whole child with all of his or her problems must be addressed. Learning, no matter who is the teacher takes a back seat to safety, hunger, health, and emotional stability. When it comes to kids we need to first address Maslow’s Hierarchy before we can get to Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is never a consideration in a teacher’s evaluation.

Kids today are entering schools after traveling through neighborhoods that might be considered war zones in some countries. Kids are coming from homes where education is not a priority at all. English in many homes is a second language at best. Kids are coming to school not from homes, but cars or shelters. Beyond the complications of urban poverty, we have large regions of the country experiencing rural poverty with different problems for kids, but the same results. Their problems and needs take precedence over learning in school.

How can we possibly assess and evaluate a teacher’s performance without assessing and evaluating each of his or her students? The tests that students are forced to take may be standardized, but the students themselves are not. Each student is different with problems that affect their ability to learn each and every day with varying intensity. That is what complicates learning and teaching. How can there be simple solutions with so many complicated variables?

To complicate things further for teachers, they must also deal with the red tape of shortsighted policies. Policies often put in place to address issues that have little to do with educating a child. Teaching involves dealing with the whole child and all of the complications that come with it; yet, we are told that a standardized test for all is the answer. It is the golden measure. It will tell us how much each student has learned and how effective each teacher was in teaching without regard for any other factors beyond the grade on the test.

With standardized testing and all of the curriculum materials and extras that go along with that making a billion dollars a year for a few companies, I fear it will be with us longer, but we have already lived with it for longer than we should have.

We cannot however allow politicians to use these tests to decimate the teaching profession and public education beyond repair. Yes, we need to evaluate a teacher’s performance, but it must be done fairly and in consideration of what the job really requires. It can’t be done in a way that simply ignores what it is that teachers are being required to do every day they report to work. Teaching and learning have nothing to do with empty vessels. Politics and politicians however might better fit that description. Maybe before we can better educate our kids, we need to first better educate our politicians.

Tom Whitby is an author, teacher and blogger.

This article first appeared on Tom Whitby's website My Island View.

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