Free the Teachers
Updated: May 24, 2022
Teachers with a heart for serving children feel unfulfilled by an educational establishment obsessed with metrics. But they feel right at home at classical and traditionally liberal schools.
By the time Piper* was twenty-five years old, life had dealt her a quick succession of body blows. She had more than enough reason to concede defeat to the world, but the world hadn’t counted on two things: (1) her astonishing resilience, and (2) her passion to be a teacher.
Despite having to overcome a learning disability herself, Piper had always known she’d been born to teach. She had the natural disposition of an educator and an insatiable drive to serve others, particularly children. Having withstood her own serial hardship, she understood the liberating potential of a good education: that a person who can think, reason, imagine, and hope for herself can never really be beaten down or locked away, even in the toughest of circumstances.
So she threw herself into the work, taking an elementary position in one of the poorest urban districts in the country. She took on students who came to school literally just hoping to survive and taught them how to flourish. Over thirty-two years she racked up several “Teacher of the Year” awards and changed countless lives for the better. For hundreds of students, she’s been that teacher: the one who made school a place to look forward to and learning an experience to be loved. Her tenacity was contagious and her devotion planted seeds that insisted on blooming in an otherwise arid atmosphere. Of course, it wasn’t just the kids who thrived. Through teaching, Piper was restored to wholeness. She was validated in her dogged belief that, despite everything, the world was not her enemy; on the contrary, mostly it was just in need of her guidance, leadership, and love.
Two decades later, Sarah had a somewhat different origin story. Since the age of five, she had wanted to be a professional dancer and a teacher, and for years she worked hard to become both. In college, however, she knew she’d have to choose. So she let go of the dancing dream in order to pursue her higher calling, and she landed her first position in a small, tight-knit town where people grew up, settled down, and sent their kids to the same schools they’d attended as children.
She had no regrets. It was arduous in a different and far more hidden way, but the opportunity to teach was worth every sacrifice. Sarah believed in her bones that the spotlight of Broadway could never replace the thrill of shepherding her third graders to wondrous discovery and understanding, and she eagerly looked forward to years of such life-changing work.
Though a generation apart and working in entirely different regions of the country, Piper and Sarah shared what most teachers do: a whole-hearted commitment to every single student’s well-being. It was the common motivation that sprung them out of bed in the morning, propelled them to spend untold hours (and often their own money) preparing for the next day’s adventure, and kept them awake late into the night.
As years went by, however, both women faced an unexpected trial: they never lost fervor for the kids, but the public educational establishment did.
The way Piper tells it, “the focus has shifted from teaching children to teaching curriculum. The idea that each child deserves to be well-rounded and prepared for a good life has been put on the back burner to some extent, while curriculum and political agendas are moving to the forefront.”
From her perspective:
The almighty standardized test is definitely the new focus. Society has started to think of school as a “business.” But we’re not. We deal with real human beings who have unique wants and needs. Children are not simply pieces of a manufactured product to be produced for profit. They’re human beings with day-to-day issues that need specialized attention. But the way things are these days, it’s more like we try to put them in an assembly line to be "fixed" or molded into the same end product.
Piper concedes that the contributing factors are complex. In her district, for example, many children face massive instability at home. As she puts it:
Adults are not stationary, but are instead quite fluid. So much so, in fact, that kids don’t even know what it’s like to have the same adult role models from day to day. They live in fear that the adults will abandon them. They genuinely fear that when they go home at the end of any given day, the adult who was there in the morning will not be there, and will never return. When a person lives in that kind of fear, his or her most basic needs cannot be met. So I spend much of my time just helping kids build and be part of a safe, stable environment. Thirty years ago, I didn’t have to help them create that world.
She cites other factors that have made her job harder over the years, but at the end of the day she always comes back to a distorted focus. School used to be student-centric; now it’s metric-centric. In her view, society has become preoccupied with producing workers who will have the edge in a global race for economic dominance, and the clock starts ticking from the very beginning. That’s why, she believes, even kindergarten looks so different today. In her early career, kindergarten was a half day filled with fun, song, and play like dress up, pretend store, and fort building. Piper is quick to point out that such play-based learning wasn’t by chance or lack of alternative; on the contrary, it was founded on solid brain research into the most effective foundation for academic joy and success. Despite that research, however, kindergarten in 2022 is a full day “filled with books, desk work, and very little play, and if a child isn’t reading upon ‘graduation,’ she’s already seen as ‘falling behind.’”
Though her students tended to face different life challenges, Sarah echoes Piper’s concerns. She had started out her career as a facilitator who guided students through problem-based learning, but the educational goalposts began to shift as competitive metrics - and in particular standardized exams - started to take on almost religious status. Once that happened, everything existed in mere service of the test: every lesson, every writing assignment, every book. Good literature disappeared from the shelves, replaced by material calculated to raise scores. Extended math and language arts sessions crowded out sweet moments like outdoor time or extra recess. Creativity was stifled until May, when it was practically too late to whet appetites for real learning (tests were administered in April), and her freedom to teach as her students truly needed it was buried under graphs of target scores and sterile action plans to win the testing game.
Most depressingly, the classroom came to be ruled by the calendar. She explains:
They started giving us dates for when specific units needed to be completed. If the first language arts unit was expected to be completed by the end of October, I was given no choice but to move on once that date arrived. Even if there were certain children who needed some extra time or attention to master the content, I had to move on anyway. They were simply labeled as having “fallen behind” because they hadn’t learned things by the date some paper said they should. It was very frustrating because if I could just slow things down a bit and devote the extra resources I knew these kids needed, we’d have been fine. But I didn’t have a choice because my supervisor demanded that we stay ‘on track’ for spring testing.
It’s an avoidable tragedy. Teaching is a noble profession and those called to it are usually equipped with servants’ hearts, several extra doses of patience, and a unique ability to enchant others into the great unknown and shepherd them through to understanding. Their natural desire to facilitate authentic learning ought to be enriched, not throttled. Their devotion deserves to be revered, and their sacrifice should be an object of sincerest gratitude, not a gateway to exploitation. Too often, the educational establishment fails teachers as much as it does families.
Thankfully, not every school has lost touch with its roots. The renewal of the classical (or “liberal,” originating from the Latin word, “liber,” meaning “free”) approach can be a beacon of hope for teachers as well as students, because it honors them as human beings and lets them keep their educational priorities straight. While recognizing that grades and test scores can offer an approximate reflection of skills acquired and content mastered, classical education rejects metrics of competition or profitability as a teacher’s purpose. Rather, the reason to show up to a classical school each day - whether as a teacher or a student - is because that’s where one has the best chance to seek truth, pursue goodness, and encounter beauty. At the end of every day, attendees are one day closer to being fully alive – seven hours more equipped to live happy lives of great meaning and love.
Because it prioritizes the person, classical education avoids the “assembly line” trap. Teachers aren’t pressured to shoehorn children with arbitrary know-by dates or cookie-cutter sequencing. Instead, they’re encouraged to take their time - largely according to their own well-founded perception of students’ needs and interests - and lead classes on wondrous journeys of exploration and active engagement. Above all, because students matter more than scores, teachers are free to recognize “falling behind” as an opportunity for growth and, very often, a delightful new depth of discovery for all.
Done right, classical education liberates the Pipers and Sarahs of the world to become the teachers they always imagined themselves to be. It honors their natural aptitudes and hones their skills. In short, it unlocks their full potential both as educators and human beings, just as they unlock the full potential of every student who walks into their classrooms.
*names changed for privacy
Johanna Webber, an attorney and mother of 8, lives with her husband in New Jersey. Their oldest daughter is a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy and their second will be entering the United States Military Academy at West Point in June. Daughter number three attends Lumen Gentium Academy, a classical high school in the Catholic tradition and the next four children attend Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Boonton. The youngest, a two year old, keeps Johanna on her toes all day long.