Waiting for the Jeff Fesslers of the World

By Deborah Mersino

One of my favorite aspects of social media today is the real-time dialogue taking place between educators, parents, advocates, and influencers of education. Over the course of the past 24 hours, a conversation thread on my personal Facebook page blew me away. What started out as a debate about whether or not Waiting for Superman deserved a place on this “Must-Read Books on Education” list quickly morphed into a detailed and impassioned discussion about the state of public schools in the United States.

The Facebook entry most recently posted by Jeff Fessler*, a public school educator and teacher of the year in the 10th largest district in the country, prompted me to write this Ingeniosus Blog post. Fessler, who is nationally board certified and has trained hundreds of teachers in schools across the country, offered his portrayal of the current state of public education. *Full disclosure: Jeff Fessler is my cousin; however, given his credentials, I would have likely responded with a post like this regardless. His testimony is well worth reading:

It’s impossible to find solutions to our educational challenges by demonizing public schools, championing their privatization, or leaving the voice of educators out of the dialogue–all of which has happened through movies like Waiting for Superman, and through the reprehensible actions of our politicians.

I’ve worked in more than 100 schools across the country either as a trainer or teacher, and I can honestly say that the teachers are NOT the root of the problem. Sure, there were weak teachers (just like there are weak doctors, lawyers, and police officers) but they were certainly in the minority. The root of the problem was, and still is, the NCLB effect (so beautifully described in Kelly Gallagher’s book “Readicide”): (1) Measure student progress levels on high stakes tests every year supposedly to ensure proficiency (2) Rather than test for depth, the high-stakes test value narrow thinking, using multiple choice questions (3) Since an educators’ worth is determined by these tests, teachers are forced to narrow the curriculum to raise scores, usually with intense pressure from administrators and their school district (4) Subjects that aren’t tested disappear (social studies, foreign languages, the arts), worksheets replace novels, lectures replace meaningful projects and field trips, and test prep dominates the schedule (5) struggling students are overwhelmed and unmotivated, average students have no reason to rise above, and high achieving students are bored. Students begin to hate school. (6) Students take the test. Low performing students do poorly. Most average and high achieving students pass, although they’ve missed out on a rich, deep curriculum–like the ones used by countries such as Finland (7) Schools with mostly high income students and without minorities generally do well, schools with mostly low income students or minority students generally receive low test results, are threatened with sanctions, and may be given money…for test prep. These schools are under the gun to produce higher results, so more focus is put on test prep and a narrow curriculum. They basically intensify the failed approach they used the first time, expecting better results.

This is the world we live in as educators. And yet it’s public school teachers who take the blame for the ills of education. Do you realize that for me to use the out-of-the-box approaches I used in my classroom, I had to do so covertly? My research-based approach–arts integrated instruction, service learning, cooperative learning, using novels–was directly at odds with what my district and administrators required! I took a huge risk doing what my educational background and training told me was best for my students. Even more telling: I polled the other 60 teacher of the year winners from the other Florida school districts, and 75% said they also defied their district and administrators’ requirements. Isn’t it ironic that the teachers selected as the very best from their district didn’t follow district protocol? Not many teachers are willing to take that risk, and I can’t blame them. It’s what our legislators have forced us to do, and we are trapped.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many politicians and corporations use NCLB in an attempt to weaken public schools and bolster their case for privatization. Much money is made by the companies who operate charter schools and private schools, and much more money can still be made. NCLB has also given rise to a whole new industry that creates and scores tests, provides test prep materials and training, and so on.

So instead of focusing on the real problems, we get smoke and mirrors…blame lazy teachers, tenure, the unions, teacher benefits, blah, blah, blah. The so-called governor of my own state recently passed legislation that eliminated tenure, ties teacher pay and evaluation to the state test, and deducts money for retirement from my salary (which has not seen a raise in 5 years, mind you)…all without consulting a single educator. His education transformation team included just 1 real educator (I don’t count Michelle Rhee since her 5 weeks of Teach for America training hardly qualifies her as an educator). His current state school board, which guides education policy for the entire state, currently includes not one educator.

Unfortunately this has all taken a toll on my desire to remain an educator in the U.S. I’m currently securing a position at an international school where I can teach with passion and without hiding what I do. A cop-out? Maybe, but my mental health is important to me!

So, if the Jeff Fesslers of this world are leaving their beloved profession here in search of overseas opportunities, what does that say about our country’s educational future? How long will we wait? Until it’s too late? As always, I welcome your comments, perspectives, and input.

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3 Responses to “Waiting for the Jeff Fesslers of the World”

  1. It has been my experience that the majority of teachers who were/are doing the best work in the classroom are often the very ones attacked for doing what’s productive in the classroom. School administrations have been pressured to create a school day that conforms to budgetary and test schedules while the very basic needs of children’s brains, bodies, and whole mind growth are suppressed at best, ignored at worst. Real time media has united many strong voices for change, how ironic that the very liberating, energizing, and empowering resource is banned in many many schools. We have created an environment that doesn’t value or best or our brightest learner or instructor. Many have left the field altogether, others have left the classroom so that the freedom to speak truthfully can be done without fear of retribution. Others are simply exhausted from pushing against a seemingly un-moveable wall of beauracracy.

  2. Caryn says:

    Children learn by example, they learn by doing, they learn by being engaged. Teachers like Jeff are role models that our children (especially the gifted ones) absolutely have to have. The items listed in his post are what the work force DEMANDS in the 21st century and the kids don’t get it unless they have dedicated (and sometimes obstinate) parents and are fortunate enough to get paired with a a teacher that really gets it. While this week is National Parenting the Gifted Week, let’s not overlook the “parenting” that is done by all of those great and innovated educators that we entrust our children to . . .

  3. Grw says:

    Early in our childrens lives, we discovered how bright they were, and had professional input into our decision to be in charge of stretching their knowledge laterally, instead of vertically. Over the past 10 years, we’ve spent our monies and time, engaging them in extra-curricular activities involving sports and group participation activities at church for example. We also involved them in the arts as band students and in theater performances, singing etc. We actually involved the schools grade school music teacher in these activities and prompted her to start an annual, after school practiced theater performance that continues today, providing kids with an opportunity to develop self confidence and performance skills. This greatly increased our kids knowledge and experience without there needing to be school time for this as well. The oldest just scored a 34 on her ACT and received a full ride scholarship for 4-5 years too.

    NCLB doesn’t help deal with these “can I measure up” questions that kids ask themselves. It just tells them “you are not measuring up”. Teachers are the ones that can ultimately see the needs of our kids in the classroom, and help them develop the appropriate changes in behavior or work habits or self confidence.

    As an example, our youngest was not eating much breakfast, and would not each much dinner, and we were worried about her health. Her body mass and general activities were outstanding. It wasn’t until a parent teacher meeting that we learned that her main meal of the day was lunch, and she was a power eater then.

    Parent teacher relationships and the qualified teacher’s analysis of your child’s needs are what makes schools work from both ends. The majority of problems that exist in kids progress in schools has little to do with teacher performance in the end. What is wrong, is that our societal behaviors at the parent level, have left kids to fend for themselves in low income areas because parents are continuously working or resting, and it is extremely difficult for them to engage in their child’s success without giving up something (mental health included) which would make the family situation worse.

    The privileged majority of the US population (including our law makers) still have a hard time understanding what the real problems are. It’s not the teacher’s ability to teach, it’s the child’s ability to engage in classroom activities.

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