Teaching in the 21st century is a lot more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Today's teachers are scrambling to adapt to constantly evolving expectations for how they teach and how their own work is graded. And as those demands grow, they're providing emotional support for students who aren't getting it at home.
Claire Rybarczyk is going into her sixth year teaching special education at Normal Community High School. She said she thinks the constant change overwhelms many educators.
“I think that is one thing that is consistent in our job, is that it’s always changing because we’re trying new things to see what is successful,” Rybarczyk said.
She said the administration often emphasizes one thing, and staff another, so teachers push back.
“We have to focus on the student, we have to meet their needs first, and we have to address the whole student,” Rybarczyk said.
One of those recent models is standards-based teaching, which expects all students in the same grade to get to the same level of mastery.
Nancy Latham, a professor at Illinois State University’s College of Education, said the most drastic changes to teaching models began 15 years ago.
“We kind of wanted to move to take a business model and lay it over the top of teaching and say, well, in the business model if you’re not making this many widgets per hour, and you’re not selling this many at this profit, then you’re not considered successful, so we’re going to close this store,” Latham said.
A problem, Latham explained, is the standards-based model does not take into account that not all children have the same background.
“That’s what teachers are dealing with, but the measuring stick only says if she can’t read her vowels by (this date), then you teacher are a failure, you, her school, is a failure,” she said.
Latham said putting the equivalent of standards-based teaching in any other profession is "ludicrous."
She compares standards-based teaching to dentistry: What if a dentist only kept his job based on the number of cavities his patients come in with?
Julie Riley is beginning her 26th year of teaching. Riley handles seventh grade at Bloomington Junior High School (BJHS).
“I think the counterpart to the standards approach is expecting a standardized outcome, and we’re not building widgets. We’re working with humans,” Riley said.
Riley said administrators sometimes think the way to align a curriculum is to make sure everyone is doing the same thing, though students have vastly different backgrounds.
“That does kind of tie educators' hands where they may not be able to make as many decisions for themselves as they would like because they do have to give this certain test or have that certain project or this amount of growth per kid," she said.
Losing Classroom Flexibility
Yet teachers have a job to do. Rybarczyk, the special education teacher, said educators cope with changing methods through partnerships with other teachers and by trial and error.
“Not everything is going to work the first time, and if someone has more experience in it, taking that knowledge and being vulnerable with one another and saying, ‘Yes I used this, it was successful,’ ‘No, don’t try that, that was a mess,’ and then saying, 'OK, I’m willing to try these new initiatives, but I’m still going to have to take time and it might not be on the same timeline that works for someone else or in a different classroom,’” she said.
Help can come from outside of the school as well. ISU's Latham said teaching universities can partner with local schools and teachers.
“We need to realize that the day they graduate, that relationship doesn’t end," she said. "We’ve gotta be there with them at the five-year and the 10-year mark, and we’ve gotta be with these buildings."
When she was teaching at the early childhood level, Latham said she remembers having much more flexibility with her classroom.
“I was much more, in my opinion, able to see a child, identify their individual needs, and meet them where they were and take them to the next place—with whatever learning we were talking about. I was able to kind of design that learning and do things in open-ended ways and I was able to assess that way, too,” Latham said.
Now, she said, teaching models are designed like a funnel.
“I can teach them if I want to in all these different ways, but there’s only one way that I’m allowed to say I know they know or assess them. And so I think that is very, very limiting,” Latham said.
And, when a student falls behind, Riley from BJHS said all eyes fall on the teacher and institution.
She said it feels like public school teachers have been “beaten up” for a long time.
“It often feels like every societal ill is laid at the feet of schools and teachers. So, anything that goes wrong with a kid is certainly the school’s fault. At the same time, we’re expected to do a lot more,” Riley said.
Often, that “a lot more” means a lot more hats.
Julie Hagler teaches at Normal Community and serves as the vice president for the Unit 5 teachers union, the Unit Five Education Association (UFEA). She said the role of a teacher has changed in some ways, but mostly it is how much time is devoted to nontraditional work.
“What I’ve seen over the last 20 years is that it has shifted in that I’m spending less time as an educator and more time as a parent. Filling in that role for students who don’t have the support at home, who need those kinds of social-emotional supports at school,” Hagler said.
She said it’s not easy to find the balance.
“It is a struggle to hit those curricular goals, but the reality is, if students don’t feel safe, if they don’t feel like their basic needs are being met, they can’t learn," Hagler said. "So those have to come first and the curriculum has to follow.”
But providing that support to students makes the role of a teacher even more taxing.
“And I think you’re gonna see that across the board, but specifically with my students who are in that at-risk population and maybe struggling to communicate, or just having some more traumatic experiences in their life, that social-emotional piece of instruction is so important,” Rybarczyk agreed.
She said the role of a teacher is everything.
“You are a friend, a mother, a counselor, a nurse. You have to play all those roles because we have students coming from all walks of life and you just have to do what you need to to get through the day,” Rybarczyk said.
She explained that for some students, that’s providing them with food or a care that can’t be met at home.
This has always been part of what teachers do, Rybarczyk said, but lately it is happening more.
“The students are coming to us with so many more individualized needs, and from so many different backgrounds that it is pulling us in lots of different directions and we have so many more students in each classroom that that just adds another layer to the demands on the teacher in the classroom,” Hagler said.
Grading The Teachers
But with all these needs, teachers must focus on standards-based teaching because that's how they themselves are graded.
Latham said she believes evaluating teachers is important, but rating teacher effectiveness solely by student test scores misses a lot.
“I’m not just concerned about teachers that we do need to probably remove. I’m really concerned about the wonderful teachers, the excellent teachers, the good teachers, the new but good teachers. Everybody needs to constantly be looking at how do they take it to the next level," Latham said.
She said the current evaluation model does not provide teachers with the security to take risks and explore, and the profession suffers as a result.
Some teachers burn out from constant change. Some become crabbed and rigid in the attempt to follow the rules and meet the goals. And some, like Riley, roll with the punches.
“The job is different, the job is heavy, but I’m going back for year 26. I still like kids, I still like words," Riley said. "This is what I’m meant to do.”
Riley is among many teaching pros who say despite the changes, they are still pretty happy campers.
Coming Friday: How today's student needs are changing, and why that's contributing to Illinois' crisis-level teacher shortage.
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