Barnett Berry is the founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Teaching Quality, a national nonprofit organization based in Carrboro, North Carolina aimed at transforming the teaching profession. He wrote to me about a colleague of his, Wendi Pillars, a teacher who wrote an apology to young students who are being forced to take too many tests and miss out on hands-on projects and other enriching work. First read what Berry has to say about Wendi Pillars, and then read her letter.
From Barnett Berry:
I am proud to work with Wendi Pillars, an English as a Second Language (ESL) expert who teaches in a rural high-poverty school about 20 miles from our CTQ offices in North Carolina. Wendi is part of our virtual community: the CTQ Collaboratory includes more than 4,000 educators and is open to all who value teacher leadership.
Wendi is a National Board Certified Teacher with 17 years of teaching experience. Wendi’s students come to her with the lowest language proficiency rates, but she knows how to get results. Last year, all of her students exceed expected growth on the district’s proficiency exam, and about half were able to exit the ESL program after a year in her classroom. Her teaching strategies include connecting literacy development to community service, reading books in sync with other classes worldwide, and creating partnerships to nurture her ESL students’ social and communication skills.
Wendi is beyond frustrated with her state’s policymakers, who are mandating standardized tests that are not aligned with the Common Core, increasing class sizes, and eliminating teaching assistants. (The NC Legislature is also on its way to paying teachers more when they raise test scores and firing them when they don’t.)
Wendi remains committed to her students, but is also compelled to ask them for forgiveness—for the kind of learning environment our nation’s education policy leaders are commandeering.
Here’s the letter from Wendi Pillars:
Dear third graders in North Carolina,
Kids, in case I haven’t told you lately—I hope you don’t mind if I call you my kids—you are the many reasons I love my job, inside and out. I have come to recognize the nuances in your looks, behavior, and motivation these past few months.
And I don’t like what this year is doing to you.
I want to apologize.
I want to say I’m sorry for the academic pressures you feel as eight and nine year olds. I know you are nervous about the End of Grade (EOG) test you keep hearing about—it’s unlike anything you’ve ever encountered, and it seems so important to so many people to quantify you with a number.
I want to apologize for the 54 mini-tests you are required to take between now and the EOGs because of Read to Achieve laws. Your parents may not know this, but these tests will cause us to lose a tremendous amount of instructional time—time when you and I could be reading together, exploring ideas, and finding innovative ways to communicate your new knowledge to others.
When you take these mini-tests, I cannot tell you what you missed, what the correct answers were, or delve into your thinking. But I will look you in the eye and tell you whether you passed or not. And when I do…
I want to apologize for how few hands-on projects and extra resources I am able to pull into our classroom. The extra testing is taking up precious planning, collaboration and preparation time—which now must be spent making test copies, stapling them, scoring, then storing them securely, as if your future depended on them.
I’m sorry for the other new reading assessment system we have implemented this year, too. Those of you who have the most difficulties with reading and comprehension must be retested every 10 days. About two-thirds of you are in that position, which means I must test 2-3 of you each day to fit it all in.
These one-on-one tests are time-consuming and so I have to assign all of you a lot of silent, independent work so I can test. I give you interesting assignments, but all the testing means that we have less time as a class to work together on developing your language skills.
I want you to know that I am so proud of you for persevering and for so many of you continuing to try your ding dang best.
A, I have seen you grow five reading levels since August, your self-esteem blossoming.
P, you are now three reading levels ahead of where you were, and your sense of humor and dramatic flair tell me more about your potential than any test could.
C, this year has been hard and I know you are still struggling with reading, but I also recognize your savviness in listening and presenting your case in arguments.
J, I have seen how you made a conscious decision to try hard this semester, and wow, it has made a difference. It’s too bad that the tests you’re taking don’t indicate how much you’ve grown.
As we enter the season of heavy-duty testing, I renew my promises to you:
I will seek the gifts you bring to the classroom, and point them out to others.
I will learn as much as I can about you so we can make the best possible use of the learning time we do have.
I will push you and maintain high expectations, but I will be fair.
I will share my own love for learning, language, and reading with you.
I will admit readily when I do not know or when I make mistakes.
I will seek help from my colleagues if I can’t provide what you need.
I will learn from you—how to laugh, how to see through your eyes, and how to be a better teacher.
I will light my flame from yours, and return the favor when you most need it.
And in return, I must ask you to keep trying. To give your best effort. To ask questions. To wonder. To read, and read, and read. To take your curiosity out into the world. And, most of all, to trust me when I promise that learning is about much, much more than what tests can measure.