Sunday, February 24, 2013

School Trouble

When I decided to get my master’s in library science back in 1998, I was both excited and scared of the journey.  I knew I needed to further my education to “get ahead” in the teaching profession…whether that meant becoming better equipped to work in a classroom setting or moving into a different arena of school business.  A couple of my principals talked with me about moving into administration, and I was quite decisive in believing that was not my path.  While I could handle the administrivia and I thought I might be able to handle the administrials, I knew that it would put me too far away from kids. 

So I earned my master’s at an ALA-accredited university and got myself headed in a new direction as a librarian, enjoying the challenges of working in my school’s largest classroom.  I opened a new school library, then another one, and continued to hone my skills as a teacher-librarian.  When I moved to Bryan ISD and found out librarians were being deleted from the teaching roster at each and every school at the end of my first year here, I was really in a quandary over what to do next. I felt lucky to stay in Bryan, but believed that some dangerous undercurrents were at work, dismantling our libraries and turning vibrant literacy centers into nothing more than book rooms.  I was rehired to supervise  five of Bryan ISD’s libraries and that has given me some unique challenges. I'm no longer a teacher-librarian, I'm a supervising librarian, and those roles are very different. Despite the discouraging aspects of the job,  I have discovered what others had told me is true:  the meaning of work, whatever we choose to do, is that what we do must be in service to others in order for it to have meaning to us. It’s been said that genuine, relevant service to others can heal the world.

That probably sounds like a really grandiose and arrogant idea…healing the world?  Really?  Right now, my world is libraries.  And I have always believed that change happens one child at a time.  Our kids are changing, but not in the direction I’d envisioned.  For the most part, our kids are being tested into apathy. It is hard to find a classroom where “the joy of learning” is clearly embraced. It’s rare to enter a classroom to find kids enthusiastically engaged in what they’re learning. Gone are the days when learning was supposed to be fun.  Most of our kids are motivated by fear, or they’re not motivated at all.  You might find a few kids who just flat want to do well and excel but for the most part, most of our students seem determined to meet our low expectations. The students who come into our libraries today are in a hurry.  They’ve been told…hurry, get a book.  And they don’t get to pick out just any book.  It’s hurry, get a book that you can take a test on.  They aren’t allowed to browse, to imagine, to dream, to choose.  God forbid they lose a moment of classroom time.  God forbid we characterize searching for the right book as a “learning activity.” There’s no librarian in the room to help them.  We have some great aides, but they are asked to manage thousands of dollars in assets for nearly nothing, and there are not enough hours in their day. They’re on their own for the most part.   And they still have to do all the things aides traditionally do- lunchroom duty, car duty, recess duty, classroom coverage.  It's not unusual to see a closed sign on the library doors every single day. Forget about the information literacy curriculum taught in the library.  Those days are gone.  In most schools in our district, the library has turned into a book room with a circulation desk. Our library assistants do their best to help students, but they’re asked to do a thousand things, and are paid well-below the poverty line to do it.

When I first went to teacher’s college, we were warned against “self-fulfilling prophecies” and were taught that our students would reflect our expectations.  If we expected the best, the highest, the brightest, the most creative, the most artistic, the most unique, the most respectful, the most well-read, the happiest kids…then that is what we’d see manifested in our classrooms.  “Adequate yearly progress” has given us just that…students who are adequate instead of inspired; teachers who conspire to be adequate versus exemplary.  If you want to see a beat-down profession, just walk into a few classrooms across the state today.  You will see teachers trying to wrangle learning out of restless children who are convinced that if they can just pass the test, that’s all that is really required of them.  Are there eager learners out there?  A few.  Are there exemplary teachers out there?  A few.  But most are in a kind of limbo…trying to wait out the “test” frenzy so that they can return to doing what they love and loving what they do.

We’re in trouble, folks.  If we want to heal what’s wrong, we have to recognize the malady, read the thermometer, check the culture, identify the brokenness.  We don’t need doctors in the classroom; we need educators.  We don’t need parental support, we need parent involvement.  We don’t need “adequate yearly progress”…we need inspiration…to produce eager, excited learners who aren’t afraid to fail, because it’s through trial and error that we truly achieve. 

It’s time to throw away the test.  Just get rid of the damn thing. It’s time to throw away all the obstacles to student success.  If we believe our kids will achieve, and achieve high, they will do it. If we don’t get rid of the test, the test will get rid of us.  I don’t believe public schools can survive this dogmatic approach to learning. It’s antithetical to how we all learn well and learn best.  If I thought the only way to succeed at school was to drill for a test every Friday, so I could pass a test every two weeks, so I could take a test every six weeks, so I could take a test every semester, so I could take a test every year, so someone could tell me I’d made adequate yearly progress, I would burn out and get a job as the Wal-Mart greeter. We have fourth graders who once hid gum in their pockets where they now hide Tums. We can’t defend this process because it makes no sense.  Let’s embrace sense and sensibility and sensitivity.

Teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Teachers who burned out after twenty years are burning out after two.  Kids are leaving public schools.  Just look at the home-schooling numbers, private school enrollment, charter school rosters, to see that folks are unhappy with what schools are doing. But because the mandates come from our state legislature, there is a sense of “powerlessness” in our midst. The thing is, the same representatives that we elected can be deselected. We have a voice.  We have a chance to voice our concerns every time the polls are open.  The only reason we still have the STAAR test is because we have not voted it out of operation. We can get rid of it.  Never underestimate what a group of concerned people can do.  Every worthwhile reform in schools today has occurred because committed workers implemented change where change was needed.  Do I believe in standards?  Absolutely.  Set them high; anything else is inadequate. 

Let’s get back to meaningful work, loving our days at a place called school, a place where all the magic happens. 


  1. I loved going to the library. I loved our librarian, Mrs. Hooten. I have been guilty of setting the timer for kids to go to the library, but as you mentioned - teachers have many more obligations and a limited time to do them in. I remember when my colleague and I could have read-a-thons. Those days are long gone. AND to top it off, my new clientele (alternative school students) are completely uninterested in reading anything other than Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants (those books do have their place), but when I tried to get a kid excited in a different style of book they snub the idea. It makes me sad. (Oh and yes, our library often has a closed sign.)

  2. I'm lucky to see my boys come home with all kinds of books, for the most part, but even here in VA they will tell me of days where the library is closed. It was the same with the Dodds schools in Germany... I remember when I hit middle school and reading really took off for me. I would read anything I could get my hands on, never understood a favorite author, just put a book in my hands and I was happy. Now everything is going digital, which can make for ease, but for kids who need to wind down after staring at a screen for most of the day I am loathe to rely on apps and tablets to get the book in their hands. School needs to return to simply school again and not a place for fear of failing a test or students not achieving the state standards. You said it right when you said they switched from gum to Tums and we need to fix it.


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