This week is National Teacher Appreciation Week. You can celebrate by reaching out to one of your teachers from childhood and telling her how much she meant to you, or by taking your teacher friends to a bar and buying them drinks till they can’t see. (As a teacher, I can assure you either would be equally appreciated.) On Web sites created in honor of the week, you can find lists of famous teachers throughout history, gift suggestions and even lesson plans for teachers.
My guess, though, is that not many teachers will have the time to offer their students lessons on appreciation. They are too busy preparing for the next round of state standardized tests.
Take a look at the New York City Department of Education’s calendar for May of this year, and you will see a test scheduled for nearly every day of the month. Granted, not every kid will take all of those tests, but from third grade on, every kid in the system has a full schedule this spring. From English Language Learners to children with special needs to Gifted and Talented students, the children are busy. And they are tired.
I teach drama at an after-school arts enrichment program at an elementary school in the Bronx. Our overall emphasis is on community building, and the sense of camaraderie among our students is generally incredible. In addition to offering drama, dance, poetry, and visual arts, homework and academic enrichment is a regular part of our program, and our students have reading test scores 55 percent higher than their non-after-school classmates (35 percent higher in math). Yet a few months ago, our collective, productive routine was undermined when large numbers of students were pulled out of our program to enroll in test prep courses instead.
We have one more week until we get our kids back from the test prep program, when the state tests are finally over. Unless you’ve been a teacher it may be difficult to imagine how disruptive this going and coming is to a class, but consider: I’m trying to produce an entirely student-written play and half of my students are gone – but will return and need to be engaged. Our sense of routine and community has been replaced by a revolving roster of overworked, overtired kids with half-finished art projects and weekly schedules more confusing than mine.
I recently asked a third-grader how he felt about the upcoming tests. “I pray to God,” he said, “because I study really hard, but I still don’t know if I’ll pass. So all I can do is pray.”
The night before the tests began in the last week of April, I waited with a fourth-grader at dismissal for her mom to pick her up. “I’m tired,” she said, and flopped herself on the cafeteria table. I told her to go to bed early that night. Sprawled out on the table, she laughed, “I could go to bed right now.” I reminded her to eat breakfast in the morning, but she told me she doesn’t eat breakfast.
This past week was even worse. One kid fell asleep in his chair, another fell asleep face down on the floor of the library. Kids who have never misbehaved were snapping at me and arguing with each other. At one point I asked a third-grader if something was bothering him, and he looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, I’m just tired.”
As a teacher, I feel appreciated when my students are taken care of, when they come to me in good condition and ready to learn. Since I’m an after-school teacher, though, I’ve never had to deal with the pressure of preparing my students for these tests while simultaneously planning lessons, adhering to benchmarks and state standards, and accommodating whatever special needs and English Language Learners are in my classroom, some of whom require additional, more complicated assessments. I have never been told that how my students do on the tests will serve as a public referendum on my ability and dedication as a teacher. I have never known that my student’s test scores may be used as an excuse by Mayor Bloomberg to shut down the entire school, depriving the generations of students and siblings and parents of the school community in which they have grown up.
These are the conditions under which we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, and the students are the collateral damage.
As after-school teachers, our responsibilities are to play, dance, act, draw, and write with the kids; to make them feel safe and valued, and to enrich their academics in the process. As basic as that sounds, what we offer is an essential and much needed part of the educational process, given the realities of many poor children’s lives. Yet under Bloomberg’s proposed budget, only about half -- 220 out of 420 -- of the city’s after-school programs will have their funding renewed next year, with additional cuts to childcare programs. These cuts primarily affect working parents, leaving both school-age students and their younger siblings with nowhere to go. (The mayor did, however, announce last week that, for the first time since 2009, the city will hire new teachers -- 2,570 of them, about half as many as have been cut in that time. He also managed to criticize the teacher’s union for the latest stalls in negotiations at the same presentation.)
Considering the onslaught of attacks on all fronts -- testing, budget cuts, increased class size, closing schools, and cuts to after-school and childcare -- it’s hard to take seriously the idea that anyone in a position of power actually cares about appreciating teachers. In my own case, as our school has come under immense pressure to improve its test scores, my after-school program’s funding has been threatened, arts enrichment has been replaced by test prep, and the children are falling asleep on the floor. And that’s just one elementary school. It’s too immense and too painful to imagine what’s happening all over New York City and all over the country, affecting the poorest communities.
If we truly want to celebrate teachers and show our appreciation for the work they do, we must stop shackling them and their students to over-testing. We must stop slashing their budgets and closing their community schools. These methods are both quantitatively ineffective and qualitatively heartbreaking. When you take your teacher friends out for drinks this week, they’ll be able to tell you that better than I ever could.