Teachers suffering ill effects as severely as students are
25 Apr 2021 — Journal Gazette
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Trisha Sittler
Trisha Sittler

I am retiring in June after 32 years in education as a first and second grade teacher and reading interventionist. I truly have given my heart and soul to children over the years through teaching and loving the ones I have been blessed to know.

I just finished giving the ILEARN practice test for third through fifth grade to children who qualified for various reasons to be tested in a small-group setting. Some reasons are physical, such as vision and hearing issues, others have Individual Education Plans.

I can't begin to tell you the sorrow I feel as we year after year present a "test" to children that is so unbelievably developmentally inappropriate.

Even in a normal year without the threat and complications of COVID-19, the bar continues to be raised to the point that only the brightest, most advantaged children have a chance at success. I worry our state has made a mess of student assessment.

At the end of the practice tests, teachers shared the tears, meltdowns, frustrations and overall anxiety many, many of our 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds showed. Many of the test-givers felt the same way.

Some of the students are low ability and identified as such but are still required to take a test that quite simply drives home their own personal belief that they are dumb when their teachers have tirelessly encouraged them all year to do their best and learn as much as they can.

These kids don't fail ILEARN because they haven't been taught the skills; they are just not capable of grasping most of the concepts yet. A child just learning what multiplication means should never be expected to apply multiplication strategies within multi-step word problems.

Children struggling to read shouldn't have to comprehend text they can't even decipher.

Some of the anxious kids are quite bright, but the test is so far out of their capabilities or uses unfamiliar language that they cry or simply put their heads down in defeat.

The state has basically said, "Don't say anything to kids during the test, just repeat the directions."  If I can't look at a child and say, "An excerpt is like part of a story, read it and go on..." why am I a teacher at all?

I believe the exact tool the state is using to measure school success is having a negative effect on the mental health of students and teachers alike. In my small rural community, teachers are leaving education, saying, "I didn't get into education to test kids; I got into teaching because I love children and want to help them be successful."

Many of these are solid individuals with roots in the community where they have chosen to teach, but it is not enough anymore.

You can still hire people to teach, but the ones who are beaten down and seen as failures through test scores are getting tired. We are heading down a worrisome path if we think loving and caring for children is separate from educating them. And when we start putting teachers in classrooms simply to teach and not love, we will certainly fail.

There are "bad" teachers, just as there are "bad" doctors and "bad" dentists, and "bad" preachers and police officers and politicians. But it is rare when an employee is vilified like a teacher is when children don't fulfill expectations.

Mind you, no one cares that you taught the material over and over, it is assumed you didn't if the children don't master it.

School letter grades are in the paper; sometimes pay is determined by those grades. A teacher has about six or seven hours a day for 180 days to get children where they need to be. That is plenty for most kids if they come to school ready to learn, with no learning disability or dyslexic tendencies, and are entering kindergarten right on track.

Obviously the ones with disabilities are going to need more time. Most teachers know to celebrate each and every success, no matter how long it takes to get there. Unfortunately we see many children entering kindergarten without preschool, not potty trained, poor speech and language development, and simply no understanding of how to act in a school setting, or how to respond to a reasonable command from an adult (ex. sit down, line up, stop running, don't hit).

No blame is being placed here, but if children come to school two to three years behind, is it fair to expect them to be on an even playing field by the time they hit first grade? Many of those kids are indeed learning through patient teachers, parents and hard work, but accelerated progress is difficult with 23-29 other students in class where many others are in the same situation.

Additionally, if the standards are so far inflated and developmentally out of reach for so many, the only certain trend for these children is a downward spiral.

The state must look at the current test and stop raising the bar every year. Test at a reasonable level and heaven knows teachers will continue to push individuals and classes to exceed expectations time and again. We need to ask teachers in all types of schools across the state what a reasonable expectation is for these students.

Testing companies are certainly going to push the limits higher and higher so they can continue to design and sell ever-changing assessment programs year after year. How do we fall for this plan time and time again?

Please consider a heart to heart with educators from every corner of the state. Get representation from all types of schools with all types of children. Look at what the real issues are and fund public schools realistically and talk to people who have hearts for children.

We know school preparedness varies hugely from home to home. Try to find a representation of all students and work from there.

Students at the youngest ages need to feel successful, and it starts with reasonable expectations. Work with teachers of public education, not against us.

It is fact that most children will start and end their education in public school. Shouldn't we do our best to ensure that the education they receive truly does make them better people who are excited to keep learning?

And shouldn't we be fighting to keep those teachers who do want to love and educate students every day they come to school?

Current assessments in Indiana are not the answer to public education issues. We need to get back to families reading, limiting devices and preparing children to be successful. We need heavy attention paid to young families before children enroll in schools, starting in the hospital when those babies go home.

We need to talk to families about the importance of reading and talking with their children. If we don't pour into the families, there is no sense in expecting things to change.

Common sense has left the building and we desperately need it back.

Isn't it time we take a serious look at what is developmentally appropriate before we continue to make an entire generation of students hate school and see themselves as failures? Our children and their families deserve better.

Trisha Sittler, a reading interventionist with Whitley County Consolidated Schools, has been a public school educator for 32 years.

This story is provided free courtesy of The Fort Wayne Newspapers.
"Teachers suffering ill effects as severely as students are" Journal Gazette 25 Apr 2021: A9