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Nerves and the New School Year

There is a good nervous.  And a bad nervous.

I was always nervous the first day of school, but it was a good nervous.  I was nervous-excited as a kid.  I was excited to know my new teacher.  I was excited to know who would be sitting next to me.  I was excited that I got a new pair of shoes even if I had to wear my big sister’s hand-me-down sweater.  It was a cool sweater, so that was ok.

As a teacher, I was always nervous-excited on the first day of school.  I was excited to know my new kids.  I was excited about the new lesson plans I had put together with science experiments from stuff in my kitchen and a script I had adapted from an adapted version of The Christmas Carol and a new group of pen pal friends we’d have from the retirement home in the community.  I was excited to meet the parents, many of whom I already knew because when you teach in the same school over the years, you become part of the neighborhood, and it’s flattering when a parent tells you, “I want all my kids to have you when they get to 6th grade.”

And you try not to flinch that actually, you don’t want to have all her kids because you know who’s on deck and it’s a darling who is, how do I say this?... “Stay-In-Your-Seat” challenged, for which there is no federally funded program.  But then you remember how much you liked the brothers and sister you had and they were full of “energy”, too, and how it always works out and that this mom is a good mom who loves every squiggle in her children and sees them as the immense blessings they are even when she’s tempted to bind them, gag them, medicate them, donate them… and you know you can tell her anything as long as you are coming from a place of love for her child, and she will do whatever it takes to support you in teaching this whole child:  Mind, body and character.

The beginnings of school years were always a nervous joy to me.  These days, my nervousness is not so joyful.  I think about the wiggly children who are not going to be given a chance to play and experiment and debate and question and create something that will make them love school.  I think of the millions of teachers this week who will be lectured that the goal of the year is an accumulation of artificial test score points that will be the sole determinant of some artificial judgment of quality of the teacher, the program, the administrators, the school and ultimately the wiggly child.

It is hard for those of us who believe in careful measurements – measurements to assess our effectiveness and to guide our progress and to give parents meaningful information as to whether or not their students are learning the essentials they must have to become truly educated - to be bogged down in arguments over standardized test scores.  We are not against assessments.  We are against using assessments badly.  Using any assessment as the sole judgment of a student is worse than ridiculous.  It’s dangerous. 

Good moms and good dads and good teachers and good school support staff and good school board members are good because they love the Whole Child.  They are not interested in playing games.  They are not interested in placing limits on their students.  More and more politicians seem to only love a number.  They want a number, and they want to make important, life-defining, high stakes decisions for children based on nothing more than that number because it’s simple.  That should make us all nervous.

Be brave, my colleagues.  There are many wonderful things that can be done without anyone’s permission.  If you say to yourself, “I wish I could do… the science fair, the concert, the Read-a-Thon,…” the whatever your students need to learn to love learning, then do it.  Parents will stand by you.  Parents want us to love the whole child.  Administrators, who are under pressure to get test scores up by any means necessary, still want to do the right thing.  Show them that we must stand together as professionals and demand that the whole child must be served and simple numbers must be put in perspective:  they tell us precious little about our precious students.

Children are not simple.  They are nervous this week, but it is a nervous joy.  Their teachers are nervous, too.  For so many, it is a brave nervousness as more and more and more make the brave decision to teach the Whole Child; to love the Whole Child… against the advice and at times against the direction they will be given to limit their love to what affects the raising of a standardized test score. 

Lily Eskelsen is one of the highest-ranking labor leaders in the country and an influential Hispanic educator.  She is currently the Vice President of the National Education Association.  She blogs at Lily's Blackboard.

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