Read an Excerpt
IF A TREE FALLSPlanting the Seeds for Educational Reform
By Alison Scholl
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Alison Scholl
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat We Ignore Can't Hurt Us?
The worlds of science and philosophy often clash when it comes to the question "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" If a protective agency investigates a family for abuse and there is no visible evidence to further the investigation, does that mean there is no problem? If a person is abusive to another and the victim does not acknowledge being a victim, was it abuse? If a child says he is going to kill other students and no one listens, did he say it? Who decides what is heard in a school and what is not?
When I started teaching, I was in what is considered a really good district in our city, but I wanted to teach Montessori, and the district did not have that style of education available. I decided, when I finished my specialized training, that I would go to another district, with a poorer reputation, and teach the method I felt so passionately about. I was pleasantly surprised when I met the staff and found they were exceptionally talented and passionate about the children too. I thought I'd found where I would be forever.
Being a new and naive teacher, willing to do anything to have a job, I accepted at face value the offer of a position in a Montessori School at a higher grade level (ages nine through twelve/grades 4, 5, and 6) with the promise to move to a younger student assignment (ages three through six/ grades Pre-K and K) in Montessori special education as soon as it opened. This was a critical element in my acceptance of the position, because I still needed to student-teach at the age 3–6 level to get the teaching certificate in Montessori. I was taking additional training to work at the age 9–12 level, but could not student-teach at that level, because training for age 6–9 level was necessary for that teaching certificate. Without a teaching certificate, I would have a master's of education in Montessori but would not be able to teach in a Montessori classroom as a Highly Qualified Teacher (a state requirement school districts are graded on). I really had no reason to doubt this promise, and yet I never did have that opportunity.
Despite my having the required degrees and successfully interviewing for the position, my actual teaching experience was extremely discouraging. I felt my knowledge and experience were more detrimental than beneficial, because, based on those experiences, when I suspected a student with aggressive behaviors, social concerns, or academic concerns, my initial instinct was to intervene in some capacity. Working with previous supervisors had always been the best strategy for helping the children. At this particular school, that strategy was highly unsuccessful.
Two factors played a significant role in my misery that year. First, there was a boy who showed many signs of aggressive bullying behaviors. He chose two targets: one of the girls in the room and me. Second, the relationship with my administration ranged from nonexistent to hostile. It is unclear why this relationship started to decline. No specific event clearly stands out as a trigger, but the topic of elections became very sensitive. The candidates were much divided regarding education, and I was designated as a conservative, against the reforms that were being proposed for education. How this judgment came to be is still unclear to me.
I will begin with the bully, a boy who was intimidating a girl in the class to such an extreme that she finally wrote a suicide note. When the parents and I approached the administration about our concerns, we were brushed off. The administration told the parents that I would just keep an eye on the situation and keep the boy away from their daughter in the classroom.
Not surprisingly, just like restraining order recipients, most bullies don't follow directions very well. In a large open space with many people, it is easy to find opportunities to get near your victim. As a result, he was able to continue to harass and frighten her. I finally went to her family and suggested they say they did not feel I was doing my job and to get her out of the room. I felt the situation was very bad for her.
This action was not welcomed by the administration. Neither my partner teacher nor the administration would speak to me unless it was absolutely necessary. I was frequently reprimanded in staff meetings—to the point that other staff members actually asked me if I needed help or support in any way. Eventually, no decision I made in the classroom or regarding students was deemed acceptable by the administration.
Things finally reached the boiling point when the administration did agree to let the child move to another classroom, but they wanted to present her move as happening because she was needed as a leader in the other room. I told the parents that not a single child would believe that story. Everyone knew how badly she was bullied and who bullied her. Because I could not justify lying to the child and making her feel as if she had the responsibility to lead when she just deserved to feel safe, the remainder of my three years there presented me with some of the greatest personal challenges I have had to conquer.
Not limiting his options, the bully turned his attention to me. I caught him in the act of drawing a head with a hole in it, a gun to the side of the head and an arrow pointing to the head labeled with my name. I took the picture to the office, and the vice principal of discipline told me the bully was depicting a song and that I should not be so judgmental of his culture. The next week a bullet was standing up on my desk in front of the computer. The administration said it probably came in through an open window and landed on my desk, standing straight up.
The second issue impacting the classroom was quite surprising. I had never been targeted for my political beliefs. The administration assumed that I was a Republican because of my husband's job, and the platform was much divided about education issues. I say my political beliefs were the cause because my instructional assistant told me the principal offered her the opportunity to leave my room if she did not want to work with a Republican. Most of the attacks on me were subtle—turning around in the hall to walk in a different direction, closing a door if I began to enter a room, or not including me in meetings that affected me. Some were more obvious—I was refused a room assignment, and referrals for help with students were ignored. If my political beliefs were impacting my instructional ability, a formal evaluation should have addressed that. That never happened.
I tried to transfer schools, and a coworker from another school in the district informed me that her principal was told not to "touch [me] with a ten-foot pole." I remained in the position and those conditions until a new administrator came in.
My exclusion in the workplace may seem trivial, but what children observe in their lives is very powerful. If they are observing adults displaying bullying types of behavior, they are more likely to mimic those behaviors. It is clear that what a child sees in the home has a significant impact on their behaviors. If that is true, then it only makes sense that the behaviors they are seeing in a school are just as significant. For me, I had no one to eat lunch with, no one to speak to, and, most importantly, no colleagues to collaborate with in an effort to improve my work. The children not only observed the action of bullying but also reaped the effects. Ultimately, I began to question my value in the field and experienced a loss of self-esteem. More importantly, the children received a lesser-quality education that year, because my focus was not on the classroom.
As both the little bullied girl and I were "gasping for air," our cries for help were ignored. The administration suggested that all of my concerns were the overreactions and ranting of a bad teacher who just didn't have control. Even if that were true, if that little girl had killed herself, there would have been many questions about why no one intervened. It is a well-established fact that children and teens attempt and commit suicide. How many of those children made a call for help and were ignored because helping them was an "over-reaction"? Have the high-profile school shootings really been sudden, or had trees been falling all around the entire time?
So, if a tree falls in the woods, my experience indicates that it is just ignored and assumed unheard. What we ignore can't hurt us? I believe there is a population of teachers and students that would emphatically disagree! The question is, though, what are the root problems in our schools, and how deep and complex are they?
Chapter TwoSummers Off! What's the Problem?
Teaching has always been considered a very family-friendly, easy, and fun-loving career choice. It boasts of excellent hours, the ability of a mother or father to be home after school for her or his own children, the entire summer off, and playing with kids all day.
Though these are interesting observations, being a successful, well-paid professional in the teaching field doesn't always include those perks. As a career used to sustain a family and a future, the profession is much different. There are varying qualities of training programs, political/business elements within a district, varying motivational levels of teachers and administrators, and varying levels of innate teaching skills. Teachers may feel limited in what they can offer the students while trying to raise children of their own. Physical and psychological health issues can become factors due to family history, choices, or influences of the stress in the workplace. There are many aspects of the field in general that can impact the teacher's success, and therefore the success of the children.
My love of teaching and working with children started in the fourth grade, by which time I was already babysitting up to five children at once. We "played school" and I tutored. When it came time to choose a college major, my choice was obvious. I decided to become a teacher after being a lifeguard and swim team coach in the inner city and falling in love with the energy and excitement that came with seeing the children succeed. I wanted to help more students succeed, and I felt compelled to work with underprivileged students.
Not all who choose the career of teaching have the desire due to the same circumstances that I did. Some may recall struggling in school and want to help children overcome the same strife. Others may have had a wonderful school experience and think it will be fun and less stressful. There may be others, too, who are aware only of the stereotype of summers off and choose it for that reason. Certainly, a number of motivators may influence a person's decision to become a teacher, and the key point is that not all have the same one. Once a person makes that decision, though, the training looks basically the same across the United States.
To work as a teacher in any state, you must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited university or college in your field of instruction. When I first began teaching, a degree in education provided you with the opportunity to teach either kindergarten through eighth grade or ninth through twelfth grade. Some certifications allowed you to teach K-12. A K–8 certification certified you in all subject areas and developmental stages of children, allowing you to teach all grades and all subjects. At the high school level, the teacher typically specializes in a particular subject, because the instruction is so much more specific. Currently, high school teacher training remains basically unchanged. Teachers with less experience tend to teach the lower levels, and as they become more proficient they move to higher levels. For example, a first- year teacher may teach Algebra 1 and work toward teaching Advanced Placement calculus. Major changes, however, have occurred in the elementary level teacher training program since I began my career.
I graduated in 1998 with my undergraduate degree, in the last class to graduate with a degree that allowed us to teach all nine elementary grades. Starting the year after my graduation, the certifications were broken down into three-year grade bands (grades K, 1, and 2; grades 3, 4, and 5; and grades 6, 7, and 8). Now teachers are exceptionally specialized in the developmental needs and academic material of just their grade span. This new approach has positives and negatives, just as any approach would.
My greatest concern about this specialization is that focusing on the grade span can limit the skill set of the teacher. It implies that if a teacher had more specialized skills in a specific grade, he or she would teach better. Though many programs will include the general information about other developmental levels, it is my opinion that the development of the human from birth to death is the most critical aspect of teacher training. Without a solid foundation for understanding the social, emotional, physical, and spiritual developmental levels, we limit a teacher's ability to teach a child as a whole person.
Specializing in a particular area after achieving mastery in the developmental foundation will allow teachers to apply the knowledge of the subject to the art of instruction. Knowing the grade span in depth along with the foundational information for all other grade levels would be the ideal. Intelligence and specification of knowledge alone, however, do not equal quality teaching.
Realize teaching is an art enhanced by natural skill or intuition, training, and experience. The more knowledge a true teacher has, the more the teacher can accomplish. The greater the number of experiences he or she has, the more the teacher can improve and apply the knowledge. One would think that a teacher with both training and experience would be sought after and appreciated. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Despite the fact that we do not view our children as a product, the need for financial support to run the schools that educate them requires us to approach some aspects of education in a more businesslike manner. This includes having financial accountability and requiring a positive return on the investment to be measurable. These financial needs for the adult world do not necessarily support what is best for our children. In addition, having teachers focus on managerial and financial concerns distracts them from their primary role—educating the children!
In the financial web we weave, there is a secret that only teachers and districts are fully aware of: after five years' teaching experience, the chances of a teacher being hired by another major district are slim, because between training and experience he or she becomes too expensive. Add a master's degree to the five years of experience, and the chances are zero. I would not have believed this little secret had I not experienced it during an early private school teaching assignment.
When I began teaching in a private school, a former teacher suggested I go to a public school. My partner teacher and I both started looking. She had over twenty years experience and was brilliant. She didn't even get interviews. I had two years of experience, and no master's degree, and was getting calls daily. There was one interviewing principal who recognized my coworker's frustration and told her honestly that if she wanted to change schools, she needed to get a new degree and start all over. No one hires teachers after five years.
It is an excellent business strategy. There are always teachers graduating and looking for jobs. Schools are struggling financially and any savings makes an enormous difference in the bottom line. One of the big contract struggles is health care, so if salaries are staying at new-teacher level, the devastating blow that all American businesses are dealing with today is less harsh.
When trying to establish an organization, having new employees that are open-minded, not jaded by prior experiences, and willing to do what they can to get their first job is an excellent opportunity. It is the same for a school district. The fact that there are financial obligations that a district must meet and new, excited teachers graduating each year makes it easier to not hire teachers with more than five years of experience. Though this helps the bottom line financially, it may not always be the best decision for the children, because they could miss out on instruction from a great educator.
The environment created is one where teachers need to choose, in the first five years of their career, what they plan to do for the rest of the career. This not only is detrimental to the profession but directly impacts children in many districts. The ramifications impact children in many ways. First, a highly qualified and talented teacher is easily overlooked because of financial obligations. Secondly, a teacher who remains in the same assignment for an extended period of time may be less likely to update teaching methods or learn the newest methodologies. In addition, teachers who may have exceptional talent avoid taking on a more challenging assignment, because they are aware they cannot work at that level of stress for an entire career.
Excerpted from IF A TREE FALLS by Alison Scholl Copyright © 2013 by Alison Scholl. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.