Strings Attached Part II
This is a continuation of a previous post. Click here to read Part I
Part II Norms for Reading Our Blog
In Part II of the blog post, each author will have engaged with a reflective tool to analyze the powers at play in the situation. The purpose of reflection is to refine and redefine oneself, so that one can continue growing into a more disciplined self. Nepantla Teachers Community is using a reflection tool called Levels of Oppression (created by Mariame Kaba). This reflection tool is included below with the definitions of four types of oppressions. When we analyze the levels of oppression we are looking at, we are asking ourselves the questions “Who had the power?”, “Who had control?”, and “Who had access to what?”.
Part II Analysis and Resolution- (Written by Anonymous Teacher)
Levels of Oppression
-I believed that I wasn’t a good teacher because my test scores were low. I felt a negative vibe from staff/administration/parents regarding my low test scores and that the public’s judgement on me meant that I was a bad teacher. I felt that if I had better test scores, I wouldn’t be embarrassed, and I would be praised instead. I felt my own value was dependent on test scores. In my mind, receiving praise means that I did something right, which would mean that I am a “good teacher.” I believed that the tasks and instructions I created and implemented were good teaching. This belief was reinforced from what I learned through a variety of professional development experiences, specifically in mathematics. I felt conflicted because I was intentional with implementing questions that increased engagement and inquiry, but the test scores didn’t reflect that. I really had to ask the question “What makes a good teacher?”
-I felt devalued and thought my job would be at stake. I felt less than human because I felt like I was viewed as a machine that didn’t work properly. Machines that don’t work properly are discarded or “fixed.” I felt like I would be fired or that I would be put through a remediation plan. I had to remind myself that my value doesn’t come from just a test score or how my administrators value or see me. I wanted to feel respected and treated fairly. I wish I had been seen as a human being on a journey who is learning and growing.
-I felt disappointed that other teachers did not take extra time out of their day to create low floor-high ceiling, rich and meaningful tasks for students. I learned in professional development that that an effective teacher creates rich tasks that are meaningful and engaging. I remember pouring into Jo Boaler’s week of inspirational math, Graham Fletcher’s 3-acts tasks, Annie Fetter’s notice and wonders, as well as Math and number talks, that offered rich math tasks that I could use in my classroom. I felt like teachers who tracked students into various instructional levels (high, medium, low) did not differentiate equitably. I judged them as “bad teachers” who taught to the test. I felt that they weren’t teaching with integrity. I was surprised that teachers didn’t choose to spend their time this way. But they seemed to be narrowly focused on raising test scores through memorization and algorithms rather than engage students in more meaningful tasks. I ended up being disappointed in myself because my test scores were lower. I was also frustrated with a system that praised test scores above anything else.
-I was indirectly humiliated in front of the public as my test scores were used as an assessment of my teaching ability. I felt indirectly shamed by the public during the announcement of my test scores. I could feel their judgment on me. I found out for the first time how my test scores compared to other teacher until the Open House where it was announced to parents. I would have felt more respected if my administration had given me forewarning or any kind of support.
-I felt that my needs as a teacher were not chosen as a priority by fellow math teachers. I reached out to a few math teachers in my school, sharing that I am unsure if I am doing well and asked them if they can work and collaborate with me so I can make sure I am on the right track. Although I reached out, the math teachers did not show up to the vertical planning session that I initiated and as a result, I felt that I was not important to them and was probably seen as the “poor new teacher” that they do not have time to help. Their absence sent the underlying message that “every man fends for himself at this school.” I knew that vertical planning and collaboration was important but it seemed my schools did not share the same values.
-I was pressured by administration to “teach to the test.” The negativity that I felt seemed to coerce me to do the opposite of what I had been doing by applying direct instruction. But I felt that I knew this would only lead the most vulnerable students to dislike math through “drill-and-kill” exercises. I wanted students to enjoy and love math and should be seen as much more than a test score.
-In Chicago Public Schools, schools are graded with a metric system in which many schools with high ratings are rewarded with greater independence. Many of my friends and neighbors who are parents have talked to me about CPS schools. They often ask me about which schools are “good” or they tell me about what schools they would like to get their child into. They often refer to what level the schools are. Chicago Public Schools decided that these metric systems are the best indicator for how to measure their schools. When the public looks down on schools that are low in level, the students who go to those schools are often overlooked and devalued. This frustrates me because students are placed into hierarchies, chosen by their socioeconomic class and race.
-Our students are tracked in Reading and Math. They are categorized into High, Medium, Low groups for instruction, classwork, and homework. Our school prides itself in their form of differentiation, which is a form of tracking. I notice students side-eyeing others who are in the “low group” or feeling “not good enough” because they aren’t in the high group. I experience students who are in the low group continues to be in the low group year after year. Consequently, I see students who are in high groups continue to be high groups year after year. I have watched students’ pride swell unhealthily as they continue to get tracked in high groups, and watch their math identity crumble as they could be put into a lower group if they don’t “perform well” on next year’s test. I also see students devalue themselves as learners when they know they are in the low group. Students do come to my classroom at different levels, often due to an unfair playing ground. But placing students in these groups create fixed mindsets and can restrict students from seeing themselves as mathematicians. This is a tension I struggle with daily.
-Society expects teachers to be hard-working and successful. Teachers often hold themselves to the standard that they set for their own students: you must be hard-working and successful. Although “success” can be defined in many different ways, teachers are often expected to be “perfect” in everything they do. This is an unrealistic expectation.
-Society expects Asian teachers to be successful in teaching and doing mathematics. A cultural stereotype that pervades media and society is that Asians are good at math. This stereotype is embedded in what is called the “model minority myth.” This myth characterizes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group who have achieved a higher level of success than other minorities through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving. Because I am Asian-American, I am seen by others as “successful,” especially in subject areas such as math. Now to be a math teacher as an Asian-American seems to be a double-whammy! I get the feeling from administration/parents think that students I teach perform better at math compared to other non-Asian teachers who teach math.
So What Happened?
Immediately following this Open House presentation, I reached out to my administrator for help. I explained that I had truly tried my best to teach, and that I could use any advice that she could give. My administrator connected me with the teacher in the building who consistently had the best test scores and told me to mirror what she does. I took into consideration what this teacher advised, but because she taught upper grades, I felt that her methods were not age-appropriate for my second graders. I felt torn with my approach to math. For the first time, I had a large group of parents approach me about how their son/daughter loves math for the first time. These parents told me test scores don’t matter as much now that their child completes math homework/games first because it’s so fun. On the other hand, I also felt tension as a small group of parents admitted that my “Math Choice Board” required “too much creativity that we don’t have time for.”
That following year, I decided to try another approach: spiral my curriculum as fast as I could. I spiraled my curriculum from topic to topic, teaching breadth and not depth. I felt tension as I felt that I was “giving up” on my philosophy of teaching. But in my head, I justified my actions: “You can teach to the test just as long you pass under the radar,” I told myself. Unfortunately, I did not do much better on the test that year. Lo and behold, the Open House presentation came around again. For the second time, my scores were announced, I was again utterly embarrassed.
The next year after that, I decided that I would have to sacrifice my beliefs entirely about teaching, and truly teach to the test - with fidelity. I tried another approach: teach whole-group second grade curriculum with depth, but teach several rounds of small-group testing practice. I pulled small group after small group that year. I would find myself saying things like, “Today, we are going to practice adding and subtracting time.” Students would respond, “But, Mrs. X, we haven’t learned this yet!” And I would sharply say back, “Well, this is going to be on your test! Ok, add 1 hour and 53 minutes to 2:55 p.m.” That year, I actually did pretty well on the test and got a pat on the back. Yay.
Currently, I find myself lost more than ever as I plan for second grade math. I feel great tension as I find myself needing to “fly under the radar again,” yet believing that teaching to the test is not the best teaching practice. I am bogged down with questions such as, “What form of instruction should I take on this year?” “How much teaching to the test can I afford this year, while implementing meaningful and fun activities?” This is my fourth year of teaching second grade, and I am more frustrated, tired, and angry with teaching math than when I started my first year.
Thank you for reading our 5th blog post set of Nepantla Teachers Community. We will be posting a mathematics educator's story on the first Sat and following Wed of every month. Subscribe to get email notifications.
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