When Teaching to the Test Isn’t Good Enough

I never stopped fighting for the right to teach the standards that I believed students deserved.
Thursday, December 20, 2012

Denise Bird taught in the 2008 San Jose (Bay Area) corps.

It was in early December of 2008 that I hit my breaking point.

My school day had just ended and I sat at my desk with my head in my hands.

That day I had started to implement a 100% scripted curriculum (as required by my principal). I spent a week changing all my routines and lessons to meet the new mandate. Now, my worst nightmare had come true:  Total rebellion in the classroom. Two boys fooled around with crayons in their desks; two of my strongest students yawned in the middle of the lesson; three other students asked why we were doing such boring things today. My kids were miserable. And from the looks of their exit slips from that day, they weren’t learning either.

I joined the corps full of creative and innovative ideas of how to teach. I had always imagined that my classroom would be one full of joy where kids would get to exercise both their artistic and intellectual abilities. And yet here I was, halfway through my first year, sitting at my desk feeling clueless. The mandated curriculum had replaced creativity and joy in my classroom. I saw the lack of enthusiasm in my students every day. Veteran and newer teachers alike shared my concerns—but they were ignored by our school’s administrators.

In moments like these, I would always think, “What would my mom do?” My mother is a pre-school Montessori veteran teacher with over 25 years of experience. Entering her classroom evokes the same feeling I would imagine one would have when walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. Her classroom is a magical place where learning is fun, kids are constantly learning, and there is never a missed opportunity to be creative or curious.

A group of elementary students all holding pencils, working together on a single large piece of paper.


Photo courtesy of Denise BirdI remembered the warning my mother had given me when I told her I was applying to Teach For America: “Denise, teaching and learning can be an amazing experience, but there are also real struggles, real challenges, real dissonance in striving to do what is best for your students.”

I was starting to feel that dissonance now.

My school’s new scripted curriculum, mandated in an effort to rapidly improve student performance on state exams, had been put in place to resolve what the district saw as ineffective teaching. Their actions insinuated that teachers were completely at fault for poor achievement and stripped teachers of creative control of their classrooms.  

Perhaps it was our definition of achievement that was part of the problem. In my experience, the best teachers didn’t teach to a test.

As a young bilingual child who was grade levels behind due to her language acquisition, I remembered teachers who helped me develop well beyond grade-level requirements. These teachers got to know me as a person, saw my talents, and nurtured my passions. They helped me define “success” for myself and taught me how to use my strengths to improve in other areas.

And as the daughter of an exceptional educator who did not use and did not send her children to schools that used a scripted curriculum, I grew up believing that one of the characteristics of a great teacher was the ability to be creative in the classroom.  I felt at odds with the system I was working in because I did not have that opportunity.

I went home for Christmas break and talked to my mom about the challenges I was facing. After listening to me for several moments, my mom sighed, looked me squarely in the face, and asked: “Denise, why did you become a teacher?”

I looked back at her, a bit annoyed at her question. “For students, of course!” I responded. My mom gave me one of her all-knowing smiles. In just a few words, she had refocused my attention on the passion that had called me to teach in the first place.

Over the next two weeks (and with my mother’s help), I spent time coming up with thematic units that used my mandated curriculum while also pulling in the creativity my students craved, as well as the essential English and Spanish standards that they needed to learn to accelerate academically.

I came back to California re-focused and committed to providing an environment for my classroom that met my—and not just the state of California’s—standards. It was a turning point that defined the kind of teacher I would strive to become.

I never stopped fighting for the right to teach the standards that I believed students deserved. To this day, I still work for Teach For America because I believe that one day, not only will students have access to an excellent education, but teachers will be seen and treated as the intelligent, creative, and selfless professionals that they are.


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