“They who work selfishly for results are miserable.” Bhagavad Gita
I actually taught before No Child Left Behind became law—I know this shows my age. It was my first couple of years teaching, but I remember the freedom. The district where I worked had a list of standards to teach each quarter, but those standards seemed manageable and appropriate for my ESL population. And while there were evaluations and visits in the classroom, the system provided pointers and suggestions, rather than punitive measures.
Back then—just like today—I worked with the low-level students, those who struggle to read and write at grade level, and I worked with newcomers, students who have just arrived to the United States and speak little to no English. They all struggled to reach their goal of proficiency, but, without all the pressure to be at grade level, I saw their small advances more clearly; I was able to celebrate those gains, allowing them to see little successes, even though we all knew they had a long way to go. None of us were under any illusion that they weren’t behind, but working as hard as they could to succeed. Somehow, these moments buoyed us to continue down the long path of learning a new language.
Now, even when my students make significant gains, it doesn’t seem to matter as much because in the big picture, they’re not proficient—some of them are 3-4 years behind, and it will take years and years to overcome the poverty, lack of exposure to education, and cycle of illiteracy in their families. Yet everything seems measured on being proficient on district-mandated and state standardized tests.
I feel like Gita’s quote above encapsulates how my students and I feel about all the constant testing: miserable. The problem is that if I work only for my own good—meaning, if my focus is on how well they do taking a test so that I don’t get ‘punished’—my work is selfish, instead of selfless. And if my concern during the day is myself, rather than the students, then being in the classroom doesn’t make nearly as much sense.
Most teachers I know have been trying hard not to focus on themselves, but with the new evaluations beginning—one that links our students’ performance from high-stakes testing to our own “teacher report card” at the end of the year—and the reminder that every few weeks someone is walking into your classroom ranking you by what you have on the classroom walls and what paperwork you have on your desk, rather than relationships and real learning in the classroom, it makes it hard to stay focused, to remain calm.
What do you think? Is selfish work miserable?