What is a Teacher?

On Tuesday, a little before 5 pm we were standing outside, waiting for our students to fully disperse to nearby homes, Kennedy's Fried Chicken, and where ever else they chose to spend the remaining daylight hours. There was an energy in the air, and down the block we could see there was something starting. Two teachers crossed the street to break it up, and for a while the sidewalk was clear and calm again.

But not much later, maybe a minute or two, the crowd had converged again and we could hear yelling and screaming. As soon as the traffic light changed I took off to break up the fight. By the time I got down there kids were scattering in every direction and the only people left were an angry mother and a few neighbors.

On Wednesday, returning from a field trip to the offices of Google, several students asked me why they still had school after the state exams were over. The final round of tests end next week with the state math exam. In their estimation, this means that the school year should end as well, their learning having culminated.

"The only job of a teacher is to tell us what to do on the test," one miniature-sized sixth grader with a special talent for getting under his teachers' skin said. This hurt more and more the longer I thought about it. And at the same time, how could I blame him for such an assessment considering the culture we've built in our schools today?

On Thursday, I got onto the 4 train, and immediately noticed two students locked onto each other. They weren't much older than my students. They maneuvered back and forth, halfway between playfighting and pummeling each other. All of us on the train, including a large group of students, watched. One woman next to be started recording it on her phone. 

As an educator, I felt an uneasy tension. Anyone who's inadvertently used his or her teacher voice or stare outside of the classroom knows that sometimes teacher instincts take over without warning. Here I was actually fighting that impulse, frozen by some mix of indecision, self-preservation, exhaustion, cowardice... choosing instead an unsettling role of bystander as it continued for several stops.

I'm thinking of these three interactions, and contemplating what a strange, confusing experience it is to be a teacher today. Some days it feels like my student's proclamation is right on. Our society seems fixated on simplifying our work and worth to what we can get kids to do on a test. But then how do you explain what happened on Tuesday and Thursday? We're more than test preppers. We have no choice. We have to be peace makers, role models, mentors, guardians, and even if that's not a part of our official job description we feel a deep urge to do so, even when we're no longer at work. I wish we could ensure students and policymakers valued these aspects of our work at least as much as the outcome of six days of testing.


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