Interview: Miami Herald – Joys, Perils of Teaching

Q: If you could change one thing about the way the teaching profession works, what would it be?

A: There’s a big push right now to run schools according to a business model and hold teachers and schools accountable for “results.” It’s probably well-intentioned, but the business model assumes that educated children are our product. The way it plays out is that test scores are the product, and we’re treating students like employees at test score factories. They’re missing out on a lot of the activities that made learning fun for us, and teachers are frustrated at being forced to teach in ways that fit neither our students’ learning styles nor our own personalities. Another unintended consequence is that accountability measures scare teachers away from the kids who need the most attention.

Nirvi Shah is consumer affairs and personal finance reporter for The Miami Herald who previously covered education. She asked this of Roxanna Elden, who wrote See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers (2009; Kaplan, $19.95). Elden has been teaching for eight years, including the past six at Hialeah High:

Q: You offer some amazing pearls of unsugar-coated wisdom, both from your own experiences and those of fellow teachers. Some of them sound downright harrowing. Others seem too embarrassing or demoralizing to recover from. And yet you and so many of the teachers you included remain in this profession. Why?

A: The only thing worse than having a fight in your classroom, drowning in paperwork, or bombing an observation is feeling like those things have only happened to you. I thought it was important to address the worst things that can happen in a classroom, especially those incidents that teachers take most personally. Luckily, there are plenty of moments that make the hard days worth it. Sometimes it’s hard to explain why a particular moment is so meaningful, but it’s very rewarding to see the efforts you’ve put into a student or class pay off. The contributors to the book all continued to teach for years afterwards — despite the stories they shared. That in itself shows there is a lot to love about teaching.

Q: In the past calendar year alone, two students were killed on the campuses of Broward and Miami-Dade public schools. No matter how motivated and inspired you are, are there still days where you just feel like giving up? How do you keep from quitting? Have you ever seriously considered changing your line of work?

A: I have bad days but have never seriously considered quitting. As a teacher, you learn to focus on the variables you can control instead of hammering away endlessly at those you can’t. You also accept the fact that teaching involves a nonstop series of judgment calls. Sometimes you make mistakes, but your average improves with experience.

Q: If you could change one thing about the way the teaching profession works, what would it be?

A: There’s a big push right now to run schools according to a business model and hold teachers and schools accountable for “results.” It’s probably well-intentioned, but the business model assumes that educated children are our product. The way it plays out is that test scores are the product, and we’re treating students like employees at test score factories. They’re missing out on a lot of the activities that made learning fun for us, and teachers are frustrated at being forced to teach in ways that fit neither our students’ learning styles nor our own personalities. Another unintended consequence is that accountability measures scare teachers away from the kids who need the most attention.

Q: Do you think you’ll be a teacher the rest of your working life?

A: I’ve always been a teacher at heart, and have no plans to change careers. The whole idea for this book came from a desire to take lessons I learned the hard way and make them easier for others. Most teachers will tell you — that’s what we’re here to do.

• 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Room 7128. With Michael Davis, “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.”

Click here to read the full article in the Miami Herald.