Chicago, late 1990s. Right before Duncan, during the Vallas years. Pre-No Child Left Behind. Esme's principal was a know-nothing nincompoop; nowadays, he'd be a New Leaders for New Schools-type pushing scripted nonsense and proudly acting as a CEO driving test scores. Times have changed since Esme's time in the classroom. Below is a pertinent question posed to Esme:
Question: Do you think the profession has changed since you wrote this diary?
Esme's answer: The extreme to which educators “teach to the test” feels different today. Teachers seem to be held to a new level of stringency in terms of content, and the climate is more fearful due to the punitive responses when schools don’t perform up to standards. Who wants to work in a setting where the children and the teachers feel they can’t make mistakes or where they can’t use their imaginations? Contrary to the belief of many third graders and public figures, most people don’t become teachers because they want to give tests. When the No Child Left Behind Act and all of the ensuing manian over high-stakes standardized testing come along, I sincerely tried to ignore it, to shut my door on it, but it has really intruded on the culture of education. If I were just starting out now, with things the way they are…well, I think I might have been discouraged from the career path altogether. It saddens me to see teachers I knew to be joyous and effective worn down like the nub of a number two pencil.
The diary reminds us that teaching can be highly creative, engaging, and humanistic, not simply based on canned curriculum, computer-based programs, and teach-to-the-test pedagogical approaches. Esme's sassy charm - she insisted on going by Madame for much of her first year - was a way of keeping herself steady even during the most difficult times, and as a way of really connecting with the children on a level they deeply appreciated. She dressed up, allowed students to fully occupy her classroom, tried her hardest to support every child, and made literacy the center of the world. She was innovative in a way that captured student's imaginations and attention spans - not through testing nor technology, but through real literacy. This innovation wasn't left to the charter management organizations and edupreneurs - Esme reminds us all that real innovation comes from our teachers. Arne Duncan, sadly, cannot fathom this seemingly simplistic concept; after all, the man was never a teacher.
But the diary also reminds us that teachers choosing this path are no longer valued by an education system hell-bent on driving test scores to the detriment of nearly everything else. We'll burn out teachers by forcing them to work longer hours; we'll also drive out many of those seeking a profession focused creativity, compassion, and community by implementing "no excuses" policies and high-stakes testing.
Just a few years after the book's publication, Esme left teaching to advocate for real literacy in America's public schools and spread her passion for reading (including her website, Planet Esme).
I'll close with another snippet from a Q&A with Esme, again reflecting on how the profession has changed since her time in the classroom:
One blogger offhandedly referred to our national policy alternatively as "No Teacher Left Teaching." Even with our new president, there's a lot of holdover in that attitude. I, for one, am happy to be accountable the day we decide accountability is not a synonym for success on standardized tests. Accountability means "that which can be explained." In my own mind, then, accountability is a synonym for documentation. In other professions, like science, people are allowed to make mistakes, to have outcomes they don't expect, to be creative in finding solutions...they just have to describe what happened. Without this kind of leeway, the teacher corps will attract a very different kind of educator and our students will suffer. I also think it's worthwhile to remember that most remarkable individuals in American history never took a standardized test, and there have been and will be many people who contribute positively who aren't that good at filling in blanks. Instead they color outside the lines. But I am hopeful, because necessity is the mother in invention. More teachers are starting to say, "Hey, you're trying to make me work in a way that's not allowing me to be effective with children." And people are listening. I believe we'll hit a tipping point, and something positive will come of this.