From the age of nine to seventeen I played the clarinet. I wasn’t particularly great at it but OK enough to eventually become first chair. But my poor music teachers, first Mr. Kingston and then Mr. Corliagno, they would push and push for me to practice and while I loved and continue to love the feel of music, I would grit my teeth when it came to sitting down each evening for one hour. They said I had potential so I went with it anyway.
Then there was my ninth grade honors global studies teacher. Mr. Renaud. The one who failed me one quarter during the school year. At the end of the year when I came to him to request classes for my sophomore year he recommended that I take Advanced Placement (AP) European History. He wrote a long message the spilled over the allotted space to make a note about ‘the student’. Something to the effect of him believing that I would do very well in the class. He also used that ‘p’ word: Potential. I ended up getting a four on the AP exam that year. Actually I received a four on every AP exam I took in high school.
I graduated from high school with 18 college credits that would transfer directly from my Upstate New York public high school to the university – my first choice – that I would attend in Washington, DC. A domino effect you see. One that would lead me out of college into a semester abroad to jobs across the District of Columbia to the office where I sit and type this post. One domino piece pushed over by a teacher who saw something in a student and a school system that honed in on what that student could be not what that student should be.
I was never a good test taker because I believed that there is not always an absolute. I flourished in essay portions of social studies exams but did terribly in math. When a teacher sent me to the Dean of students for skipping yet another math class he would just sigh. You can only push a student so far and the rest they have to figure out for themselves. I figured out that I could sight read and speak Spanish fluently and that names of all 100 United States Senators and the length of the longest filibuster. And I was surrounded by people – teachers – who accepted that.
This was in the late 90’s – 2001. Just months before the passage of No Child Left Behind. Months before standardized tests and measures of adequately yearly progress would be the determining factor of not only a child’s fate but also their teacher’s. I often think of how different middle and high school would have been for me had current restrictions been placed on my educators. There was no ‘adequate yearly progress’ and multiple measures were used to see how well children do in many areas not simply in front of a scantron sheet. That terrible test anxiety precluded me from doing well on the Chemistry Regents Exam didn’t mean a pox on my college readiness or on my teachers.
I hate to say “these days” as if I’m in my sixties talking about how I walked to school, uphill, barefoot and in the snow but these days education isn’t what it used to be. AP classes, music, the arts and foreign languages are a thing of the past. A combination of long expired education laws, partisan politics, budget cuts, executive orders, grant competitions, high-stakes tests and punitive measures against local education agencies who don’t measure up have formed a perfect storm where public school educators are continually fighting for a breath. I’m not a teacher and have long passed the age of being a student but I interact with teachers across New York State every single day. They’re unhappy and frustrated. Not because of their jobs or because of their pay or because there are people who think that their day ends at 2:30 PM but because whatever potential they do see in their students can no longer be nourished. Instead of producing individuals, critical thinkers and passionate graduates they have been relegated to a position of simply churning out products from a machine. And it’s sad.
So, when the 10,000 public school teachers, their students, parents and community members rallied in Albany, New York on June 8th, they weren’t out there rallying against anything but for something. For their jobs, the profession, the simple act of being able to provide exemplary education – free of charge – for all children across the state.
It’s too early to know if the rally on June 8th made a difference. Too early to know what will happen with new regulations, standards, congressional action, STEM education and whether testing companies will continue to profit off of student data. But it was the start of a longer, much needed conversation on the state of public education and where we go from here.