Like the Sweater You Shrunk in the Wash

Our education system often feels like a dearly-loved sweater that has shrunk in the wash. In my daily life as a classroom teacher, so many aspects of the system feel like they don’t fit, and are growing increasingly more uncomfortable. Here are the areas that I feel are constricting my daily effort to serve students and elevate authentic learning.

I’m very particular about the process of laundering my clothes. My sisters and husband know this, and now anyone reading knows this too. My care for and attention to laundry comes from experience with a few clothing tragedies–a pen left in the back pocket, a pink sock stuck in the load of whites, or a wool sweater accidentally tossed into the dryer. I know the sinking feeling of pulling out a favorite shirt and recognizing that it will never be the same. I also know the phase that follows: denial. Trying to convince myself that it’s not that bad, I continue to wear the shrunken sweater. But all day, I’m tugging–tugging at the sleeves, the hem, the collar. The confidence I had disappears as discomfort and doubt creep in. Then, finally, acceptance–it’s just not a great fit for me anymore.

Our education system often feels like a dearly-loved sweater that has shrunk in the wash. In my daily life as a classroom teacher, so many aspects of the system feel like they don’t fit, and are growing increasingly more uncomfortable. Some of these I’ve written about, but have not yet felt resolution. Others are becoming more apparent to me as I take on new classes and revise old curricula. Here are the areas that I feel are constricting my daily effort to serve students and elevate authentic learning.

Distribution of Time

The forty-three minute, eight-period traditional schedule chafes me. There are too many transitions in a day. Too many faces churning in and out of each classroom. Not enough time to develop recursive, deep, discussions. Not enough time for complex science labs or intricate beyond-the-classroom math applications. On top of the inefficiency of this schedule and the stress it causes, there is an even larger stressor–outside interruptions that steal instructional time.

In the last few weeks of our first marking period, I have lost over eight hours of instructional time with my students. Classroom teachers are being asked to cover breadth and depth of an increasingly complex curriculum while also accommodating huge losses in instructional time. Although some interruptions like the anti-suicide assembly address important issues for our students and others provide crucial professional learning time for teachers, the stress on both teachers and students is enormous. We have to find a better way to build these unique learning experiences and valuable conversations into the regular schedule of our school day and year.

Let’s address the way we distribute time more broadly throughout the year. Most districts continue to favor a nine-month school year with very few substantial breaks within the year; instead, favoring huge swaths of time away from academic environments through a long summer break. Although I appreciate the flexibility of summers, teachers, students, and school support staff would be much healthier if school calendars were created with a more balanced, researched-based approach. We should offer more flexible time between trimesters (or marking periods) for teachers to engage in reflection and professional learning. During that time, students could take their learning outside of the school building and apply it in different contexts. Might this flexible time also be a place to put some of those important assemblies and guest speakers? Summer could be reduced to a four week break, while a mid-winter holiday would expand to the same time frame. Students’ summer slide would diminish.

I’m uncomfortable nearly every day by the way we allocate time for learning.

Grading Systems

I am deeply uncomfortable with our current and antiquated grading system. I’ve already explored this discomfort here and here. I promised to write a third post, which currently resides in my drafts folder. Why? Because in that “final” post, I challenged myself to arrive at a solution, which I still don’t have. Although I have gathered compelling research from both experts and students (and in this case, aren’t they one-and-the-same?), a decision for my grading practice remains elusive.

Some great educators are speaking out and rejecting the traditional system of grading. The more I watch them, the more deeply I believe they are headed in the right direction, and their students are benefitting from their courage. But as I realistically look at my own classroom, I’m not sure this is the battle I’m willing or able to take on. I don’t think I alone can fight the entrenched system of grading in my school. It would isolate me from my department and even more so within my school community.

But I’m upset by the high stress some students experience because of a grade. The marking period ends this week. Because I structure assignments around a deeply-held belief that the majority of work should be low-risk, ungraded practice, I only have a few grades entered in our gradebook. These are not enough for students who are conditioned to base their whole success as a learner on this one reductive number. They are frantic for “extra credit” and are pressuring me to squeeze in one more big assignment before the week and the marking period end.

Why do we have four marking periods? Why do we have a grading system that requires a basement grade to be given for the first three marking periods to mathematically prop up the potential for a successful fourth? No matter how I set up the grading scale in my classroom, why is my student’s end grade a percentage predicated on a deeply flawed 100 point system?

More importantly, how do you de-program students who have existed for 10-12 years in a system completely dependent on a reductive form of assessment?

I’m deeply conflicted by our adherence to a broken system of measuring student learning.

Segregated and Inequitable Schools

As I leave my home every morning, I am ten minutes from one of the most under-performing and under-funded school districts in the state. Harrisburg city schools have been state-run and in distress for as long as I can remember. But I’m employed by one of the best schools in our state–a well-resourced and high-performing small suburban district. On my 20 minute commute, I pass through two more school districts, each with varying degrees of test performance and funding. In short, Pennsylvania’s educational structure grants extreme local control over education. This system, coupled with a disastrous funding model that has received criticism from the U.S. Department of Education as recently as March, forces me to confront the fact that I work in one of the most inequitable education systems in our country.

This summer, I listened to a shocking podcast The Problem We All Live With, which revealed the deeply damaging legacy of segregated schools and illustrated how many of our problems could be addressed by creating policies that intentionally desegregate our schools. I witness this segregation in my region every day. It’s evident in how communities talk about each other, and how my friends discuss needing to leave the city so they can ensure a quality education for their children. Our funding structure is broken, and we lack sufficient cultural competence about the impact of race on children’s educational opportunities.

I’m deeply uncomfortable with the ways in which I benefit from the blatantly inequitable education system that surrounds me.

The Conclusion I Don’t Have…Yet

Like a sweater you shrunk in the wash, our current educational system is constricting. I feel limited by its flawed design, yet too attached to its inherent value to discard. I deeply believe in its promise while being unsettled by its fit. I’m uncomfortable.

I’m still here, working 10-12 hour days and pouring my resources, heart, and talents into the students in front of me. But for how long? When do I acknowledge that the sweater no longer fits? Perhaps I’ve grown, perhaps it’s shrunk. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.

I find hope in communities like CTQ, NNSTOY, and ASCD who work diligently to seek answers, and to empower teachers to lead innovations. Yet the issues I mention above are system-wide and culture-deep. Grades, schedules, and racial divides have become part of a traditional canon in education. And, as I’ve been discussing with my sophomores, unquestioned traditions can blind us to harmful practices.

So I write to question. To ask the often unasked: Why? And what if…? And more dangerously: When? When will we listen to students and teachers who have better solutions to the problems of our shrunken traditions?

For now I’m still wearing this sweater, but more and more I find myself questioning why.

This post was originally published on my blog at CTQ. I left the high school classroom in 2016 to support the adults who influence students every day in our public education buildings and classrooms. 

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