Sunday, September 28, 2014

Confessions of a Data-Driven Teacher

As a teacher, I was born into the age of No Child Left Behind.  Aside from two years that I spent teaching at a Christian school, my effectiveness as a teacher has hinged on teenagers ability to select the correct bubble and make their marks heavy and dark.  This is not why I decided to become a teacher.  When I was weighing my options after graduating with an engineering degree from Michigan State University, I decided to join Teach For America to teach in Baltimore to impact the lives of students, particularly the lives of students most in need of positive influence.  In hindsight, I probably started my teaching journey with too much of a savior complex.  As a leader within Spartan Christian Fellowship I had been able to positively influence many college students, so I assumed that my leadership in my classroom would have the same effect.  I was capable, creative, and confident.  How hard could it be?

I quickly found out that teaching, specifically teaching in Baltimore, was a lot harder than I ever could have imagined.  It would take a long blog post to reflect on all the complex factors that have created this situation, so all I will say is that teaching in Baltimore was the first challenge in my life that I felt that I could not overcome.  My visions of a transformative classroom symbolically crumpled up in paper balls scattered around my classroom.

The first semester of that first year saw very little success of any kind.  However, as spring dawned my students started to show some academic progress and this carried over into my second year at Northwestern High School.  I rigorously tracked students' mastery of learning objectives on each quiz and test and rejoiced when they hit our "Big Goal" of 80%.  During that second year, 55% of my freshman algebra students passed the state standardized test, a massive increase over the school-wide pass rate of 12% from the previous school year.  My classroom was still not the transformative oasis that I had envisioned.  It was a less chaotic pocket in a sea of lawlessness, but at least the numbers showed that students were learning, right?

After I taught for two years at Northwestern High School, I needed a break from the storm.  Becky and I were about to get married.  I felt myself becoming jaded and needed a different perspective on teaching, which led me to teach middle school math and science at Mountain Christian School.  While still driven to strive for excellence in my craft, I did not track data as rigorously as I had at Northwestern High School.  My prayer for my students was that of the Apostle Paul's for the church in Ephesus:    

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16-19)

While at Mountain Christian, I felt my teaching practice align with my motives for entering the profession, to not just have a positive influence on kids in a general sense but to point students in the direction of knowing and treasuring Christ.  Obviously, being at a Christian school made it easier to make Christ the center of my teaching.  Culturally, it was easier to form relationships with students, which in turn made it easier to find more fulfillment in those relationships than in academic progress (not to discount the importance of that element of teaching).

However, after two years at Mountain Christian, I felt called to return to teach in Baltimore City Schools for a myriad of reasons which again are too complicated to wander off into in this post.  One thing I did thirst for was a positive experience teaching in Baltimore, centered around transformative relationships with students.  I opted to teach in a public charter school, hoping for a more productive school climate and teaching environment.  Following my experience at Mountain Christian, I felt better prepared to relate to and influence students at Afya Public Charter School.  After the first day of school, I thought, "Oh, boy!  What did I get myself back into?"

At that point, Afya PCS was in its third year of existence.  My eighth grade students had been the charter class of sixth graders two years earlier.  As a result, they had been the guinea pigs as the administration and teachers ironed out school policies and worked on building a positive school culture, which resulted in significantly worse behavioral habits than subsequent cohorts of students.  I struggled to form the relationships that I had hoped for and was spending incredibly long hours just preparing for two different 90 minute preps each day.  It was easy to fall back into the habit of finding my success in my students' assessment results.  My algebra class regularly exceeded my goal of 80% mastery on learning objectives and increased their proficiency by 8% on the state standardized test.  In the absence of the spiritual fruit that I truly desired, I found at least a measure of success in these results.

This long winded introduction is all to set up my thoughts about one of the students in that algebra class.  His name was Keith.  He was murdered in the streets of northeast Baltimore early on the morning on August 20th.  I moved on from Afya PCS at the end of last school year, but returned one evening during the first week of school for a candlelight vigil to remember Keith.  In the days leading up to the vigil, I pondered over what I might write in response to this tragedy, an event that stirs up a similar response in almost everyone.  It is not right for a seventeen year-old's life to be snuffed out by mindless violence.  It just isn't right.  It disturbs us, as it should since there exists within each of us a knowledge that we were not made for this sin-stained world.  We were created for so much more.  We were created to walk with God.  I thought that I would write about how this gut level disturbance tends to drive people in one of two ways, either to call out to God for intervention or to run from God reasoning that the senseless event only solidifies the folly of believing in an all powerful and loving God.

However, as I stood there holding my candle and listening to the grieving of Keith's peers and my colleagues, I was overcome with a wave of an emotion that I had not anticipated: meaninglessness.  Everything seemed meaningless.  I can't say that I have enjoyed reading Ecclesiastes in the past, but the words of Solomon rang true at that moment.  The wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten.  Like the fool, the wise man too must die! (Ecclesiastes 2:12).  I am not sure how much wisdom I had imparted to Keith.  He was one of only a few students in that algebra class to not pass the state standardized assessment, but any mathematical knowledge that I had passed to him had now perished.

I know that teachers often don't see the immediate fruit of the seeds that we sow into the lives of students.  It isn't often until years later, if at all, that students return to thank a teacher for the profound impact they had on their life.  I am not minimizing the impact and effectiveness of teachers.  It is anything but meaningless.  Paul touches on this concept in his letter to Corinthian church saying, "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow." (1 Corinthians 3:6).  As teachers, particularly as Christian teachers in public schools, we are planting seeds but we may never see the fruit.  We also serve a God who calls others to join with us and follow behind us in watering these seeds and we serve a God who ultimately brings these seeds to life.

So teaching is far from a meaningless profession, yet there is a form of teaching that is meaningless, at least in the lens of eternity.  It is a form of teaching that is easy to slide into because it is easier to measure and yields much quicker results than transformative life change.  Jesus chastised the Pharisees and teachers of the law stating, "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions." (Mark 7:6-8).  In some ways, I empathize with the Pharisees.  While there certainly was pride and a desire for the approval of man wrapped up in their lives, I also think that some of them must have genuinely wanted to know if they were on the right track.  I believe that some of the Pharisees genuinely wanted to please God.  Am I pleasing God?  Am I bearing fruit?  Will I hear the words, "Well done, good an faithful servant."?  In my own life it is tempting to answer these question using measures similar to the traditions and rules set up by the spiritual leaders of Jesus' day.  True transformation in my own hearts is so much harder to gauge and I may never witness the transformation in the lives of others for which I hope and pray.

As a teacher, I also want to know if I am on the right track.  Like the Pharisees and teachers of the law there are certainly teachers who have become hardened and should have stepped out of the game years ago, but I believe that most teachers still desire to have a positive impact on children.  Am I making a difference?  Am I having a positive impact on students?  Just as it is easier to measure spiritual progress using legalistic benchmarks, it is easier to measure effective teaching based on academic growth measures and standardized tests.  Add to this the immense pressure that educational policy places on teachers to produce these results, and it is easy to see how teachers can slide into this mindset.

Yet, we can do so much better.  I can do so much better.  I firmly believe that providing rigorous academic instruction is part of my mission as a Christian teacher.  However, that can't be my measuring stick for my ultimate purpose as an educator.  I don't know what impact I had on Keith or have had on other students, but I do know that during that difficult first year at Afya it was far easier to strive for academic mastery than to push on towards the goals that God has placed on my heart to reflect his love and truth into the lives of students.  By God's grace, I was blessed to experience stronger relationships with students in my subsequent years at Afya and now find myself in a favorable position teaching in Baltimore City School's advanced math and science program.  With some other stresses removed, it is easier to refocus my motives for stepping into the classroom each day.  Nonetheless, as I stood holding my candle, I fought back tears thinking about how meaningless Keith's ability to solve a two-step equation or determine the slope of a line seemed in that moment.  I still have data on all the assessments Keith took that year.  What do they mean now?  All I can do is hope and pray that maybe a seed that I had sown in Keith's life or that someone else had sown in his life was watered by the Holy Spirit and brought to life.  When I feel myself slipping back into data driven tendencies, I can remind myself that I am called to scatter seeds of hope, love and truth into the lives of my students and take great comfort knowing that it is God who causes them to grow.