Can Teachers Really Be Excellent At Everything?

About Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, at http://jenniferwolfe.net, and grab a free copy of "8 Tips For A Successful School Year" while you're there.

Imagine this: You’re a beginning teacher, fresh out of college. You’ve done a few weeks (maybe a semester) of teaching on your own. You’re thrilled to be hired to teach in your own classroom. You can disregard the low starting pay and the multiple subjects you need to prepare to teach every day. This is what you’ve been waiting for! You walk into your classroom and begin to prepare for the first day…

Sounds exciting, right? It’s what every kid who played ‘school’ dreamed of- the day they would officially be a teacher and have their own classroom. For me, that was 25 years ago. I was young and excited and energetic and ready to teach English. Little did I know that I would really be expected to be excellent at everything.

Little did I know that I would really be expected to be excellent at everything. Click To Tweet

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a type-A, first-born, driven perfectionist type. I went to an elite college, studied hard and threw myself into every mediocre-minimum-wage job I had. I’m not afraid to put everything into my job. I just didn’t know that when I finally started my career, I would need to be excellent at things other than teaching English.

Here’s what I mean: in the last 25 years, I have taught 5th grade (including Family Life), 7th grade English, 7th grade History, Reading, English for English Learners, 8th grade English, 8th grade History, Intervention (that’s the class where they put all the kids no one else can teach in one room and say, ‘teach’), French, Yearbook, Skills (how to ‘do’ school) AVID 8, AVID 9, and Honors English. I think I got everything.

But those are just the course titles – that’s not really what I’ve been expected to teach. Because in today’s education system, teachers are expected to do it all – be counselors, nurses, parents, cheerleaders and curriculum leaders, all under the job title of ‘teacher’. I’m wondering if that’s really what most people think this job is about when they dream of being a teacher. I know for sure that I had no idea.

An article in US News and World Report by Andrew J. Rotherham titled, “Let School Districts Focus On Instruction” caught my eye, mainly because of the ‘school districts’ part of the title. The article states that in preparation for the 2017 school year,  “Officials are thinking about transporting students to school, what they’ll feed them, health services for them, sports teams and schedules, and all the other things we call on school districts to do. Meanwhile, if you’re lucky, someone might also be focused on who is going to teach your child and what they’re going to teach.”

Wow. Really? Someone might be focused on who is going to teach your child?

Can Teachers Really Be Excellent At Everything?

I get it. I know that districts are asked to do many things for many children for many reasons. This takes teaching the ‘whole child’ to a new level, though.

The author continues to state, “Larger school districts operate food services rivaling restaurant chains and transportation programs on par with large bus companies. We wouldn’t ask Greyhound to also get really good at introducing students to algebraic concepts in the early grades or call on Five Guys to teach Shakespeare, so why we do expect school districts to be great at complicated work like transportation and food as well as teaching?”

Agreed, Andrew. Makes sense – but when have school districts ever been given the ability to run like everyone else runs their companies? School districts are, in my opinion, left to ‘figure it out’ with what we’re given. Depending on the policy of your state, how that flushes out for the students and teachers can vary greatly.

The article continues, “We ask school districts to do all manner of things before they even get to their core function of instruction. Even then we ask many of them to manage instruction from kindergarten through high school rather than focus on certain grade levels. It’s not by coincidence that some of the very best charter schools to open over the past two decades focused on bands of grades rather than trying to cover the entire spectrum.” Now I agree with you here. Charter schools have been given some huge leeway to operate in a selective and exclusive manner, leaving the ‘discards’ to the public school system, all while claiming that they are operating in the ‘right’ way.

When the author suggests, “Why not, then, unbundle school districts so they can focus on teaching and learning rather than a range of activities they do now for which other entities might be better suited?” I gave a simultaneous shudder and cheer. I agree the focus needs to change to teaching and learning, but will that trickle down to the teaching level? If we ‘unbundle’ the transportation and food and health and sports services, will we just be putting more cooks in the kitchen rather than solving the issues in a bigger, more permanent way? And where do the teachers fit in this ‘unbundle’? Will we still be expected to identify the social, emotional and physical needs of our students, providing band-aids and breakfast and pencils and paper? Will we still be expected to give parental advice about how to motivate their kids to do homework, and arrange for the bus and carpools for our field trips? Will we be freed from the daily lunch count and excusing tardies for those needing to get their free breakfast? When kids come to cry in the classroom at lunch because their stress level is over the top and their parents just don’t understand, will a mental health professional be just a phone call away?

Can teachers really be excellent at everything? Or can we expect them to be excellently supported so they can focus on teaching and learning?

The article concludes by stating: “As a rule the highest quality institutions we see, in all sectors, are ones that focus on being excellent at something. It’s just hard to be outstanding at a lot of things at once. Yet that’s what we ask of school districts year after year even as they struggle, mediocrity is the norm, and high-quality instruction is often an afterthought. So maybe we shouldn’t?”

Yes, it is hard to be outstanding at a lot of things at once, and yes, we ask school districts and TEACHERS to be excellent at everything. But mediocrity the norm? I invite you to my classroom, and to the rooms across the hall and around the corner. Mediocrity is nowhere to be found in my school – but it won’t be hard to find tired, overworked and underpaid educators trying to be excellent at everything for everyone in their classroom, every day.

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About the Author:

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, at http://jenniferwolfe.net, and grab a free copy of "8 Tips For A Successful School Year" while you're there.

3 Comments

  1. Opal July 29, 2016 at 8:56 am - Reply

    I want to respond to the question what is the #1 educational issue in education. The answer to this will vary I am sure but in my opinion when children cannot read they cannot successfully succeed. There are some many issues that can be said to be the #1 issue funding, teacher shortage, over testing, discipline, lack of interest from all parties and the list goes on. I see children who cannot read at grade level and they are struggling and we are focusing on testing, how can they be successful when they cannot read nor comprehend what they have read? If we want our children to succeed we need to teach our children how to be strong readers who understand what is on that page they just read over. As I said there are many things we can label as the #1 reason but I respectfully believe if a child cannot read he cannot succeed.

    • Jennifer Wolfe August 6, 2016 at 9:19 pm - Reply

      Opal, I agree reading is one of the most crucial elements to success – and I’ve spent the last 25 years teaching thousands of kids how to improve their reading ability. Thanks so much for the comment.

  2. Lynne January 7, 2017 at 7:34 pm - Reply

    As a Reading Specialist, reading must be a priority which means teaching must be a priority because it is vital for students to learn to read so they can read to learn!

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