We have all heard the idiom "the straw that broke the camel's back", describing the seemingly minor or routine action which causes an unpredictably large and sudden reaction, all due to the cumulative effect of the small actions. This proverb actually began with the saying ""It is the last feather that breaks the horse's back" (1677). Either way, the important concept is this -- a human/animal can only take on a certain amount before they can no longer handle the load. What seems to be a minor, almost insignificant, addition can make a huge and sometimes devastating effect due to the load already being managed.
For a moment consider the load our public schools already carry. What societal influences/necessities have increased the load placed on our schools? What resources have been given to meet those increased needs? At what point will we reach the "final straw"? In my twenty years of teaching in Wisconsin's public schools I have seen and felt the increased load placed on our schools. I believe that we need to recognize the load that has been placed on our schools and take the necessary steps to support those who serve in this public role. We must be very careful not to push to a point at which we find, or even get close to, "the final straw".
So what straws have been added?
Obsession With Numbers - With every passing year I hear more and more of the rhetoric: "raising the bar", "higher accountability", "test scores" and "data". Our obsession with competition versus collaboration and test scores versus the love of learning has hurt our schools and our students. I believe that we need to have high standards but we must not forget the students in this process. Our only goal as educators should not be to raise test scores, but rather to instill a love of learning within each child. If we can get kids to love learning than test scores will take care of themselves. In fact, Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience stated “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.” Moreover, Alfie Kohn wrote in his book The Homework Myth, "Any aspect of learning (or life) that appears in numerical form seems reassuringly scientific; if the numbers are getting larger over time, we must be making progress. Concepts such as intrinsic motivation and intellectual exploration are difficult for some minds to grasp, whereas test scores, like sales figures or votes, can be calculated and tracked and used to define success and failure. Broadly speaking, it is easier to measure efficiency than effectiveness, easier to rate how well we’re doing something than to ask whether what we’re doing makes sense. Not everyone realizes that the process of coming to understand ideas in a classroom is not always linear or quantifiable - or, in fact, that measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.” Data is an important tool in education but should not be the focus of education.
Mental Health - Our students are coming to school with higher ACE scores than ever before. What is ACE? Adverse Childhood Experiences or in other words, forms of trauma. The ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect, and other hallmarks of a rough childhood. "Five are personal — physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five are related to other family members: a parent who’s an alcoholic, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment. Each type of trauma counts as one. So a person who’s been physically abused, with one alcoholic parent, and a mother who was beaten up has an ACE score of three." (https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/)
In fact, a recent study found "more than half of adolescents have had at least one of these adverse childhood experiences, and nearly one in ten have experienced four or more. (Source: NSCH, 2011-2012)
Child psychologist Hilit Kletter, of Stanford University's School of Medicine, says that "to spot these children, she looks for visible signs of stress to understand what might have happened to them and how best to intervene. Kletter says reactions to trauma are sometimes misdiagnosed as symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, because kids dealing with adverse experiences may be impulsive — acting out with anger or other strong emotions." Kletter explains, "It's something that's very common in trauma: difficulty in regulating emotions and behavior. That's why a lot of these kids get in trouble with the classroom." (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean)
Studies show that kids who are dealing with high ACE scores are overloaded with stress hormones. In other words, they are in flight, fright, or freeze mode. These kids are simply not ready or able to learn in school. These students often have a hard time trusting adults or developing relationships with classmates. I see students displaying difficulty with…
We cannot just throw this on the backs of our teachers and expect them to make significant progress with students dealing with trauma while teaching twenty plus other students (dealing with normal adolescent challenges!) “It is not uncommon for school professionals who have a classroom with one or more students struggling from the effects of trauma to experience symptoms very much like those their students are exhibiting.” (The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resilience, and Academic Success - Wolpow)
Doing More With Less - Some say that money cannot fix our problems. I would argue to say that money is essential in order to allocate the resources necessary to educate our students. Schools are being asked to take on more and more to deal with societal challenges such as trauma but with fewer resources. We must fix the way we fund our schools. Governor Scott Walker has done long term damage to the schools in Wisconsin with his budget cuts and his attack on the teaching profession.
Teaching Profession - As a young child I remember tagging along with my father to do errands in our hometown of Arcadia, Wisconsin. No matter where we went, everyone knew my father. In fact, everyone knew all of the teachers in this small town. There was a certain amount of reverence for the teachers and the profession in general. I still see some of this today. I believe this is what makes Wisconsin so special and wonderful. Yet, much has been said and done in recent years causing damage to this noble profession. We are now facing one of the worst teacher shortages in history. We must realize the difficult work our teachers are doing each and every day. We must lift up the profession and encourage our students to consider becoming educators. What teacher made the biggest impact on your life? Imagine a world without that teacher in your life?
It is imperative that we reinvest in our teachers and education system. We need to end our obsession with numbers and put our focus back on the kids.
In the 1950's Toyota implemented the Andon Cord. It was a physical rope that followed the assembly line and could be pulled to stop the manufacturing line at any time. Just think, any worker had the autonomy to stop production at any time in order to fix a problem. Management understood that the workers who were on the line understood the products the best and gave them the ability to suggest changes.
Do educators have an Andon Cord? My concern in education is that the adults who are closest to the students often do not have their voices heard. I believe that successful schools not only listen to its teachers, but embrace teacher leadership in real ways. In fact, a recent study found that "students who go to schools where their teachers have a leadership role in decision making perform significantly better on state tests." (Will, Madeline. “Students Fare Better When Teachers Have a Say, Study Finds.” Education Week, 1 Nov. 2017)
I believe that Teacher Leaders are poised in the perfect position to do this work and here's how:
My plea for administrators, policy makers, and community members-- listen to your teachers! As Sir Ken Robinson stated, "There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools." Teacher voice is necessary. Teacher leadership is powerful. It is time to use this wisdom to combat the challenges that face our schools.