For the past week, social media has been buzzing with a 90-second video of Jeff Bliss, a Texas high school sophomore, giving his World History teacher a piece of his mind about the endless packets and worksheets, and what he feels is lacking from his teacher. Not surprisingly, the video has sparked a fresh round of teacher-bashing.
For my part, I feel lucky that I have the freedom to be a lot like the kind of teacher that Jeff Bliss is calling for. Most teachers are encumbered with state-mandated curricula that are a mile wide and an inch deep. In some districts (such as Boston Public), the worksheets are sent by the district, along with the unit test and a calendar that says which worksheets are to be assigned on which days, and when the test is to be given. In other districts, where the district’s survival depends on the outcome of standardized tests, the worksheets and practice questions are the only proven pathway to the required outcome.
I have the good fortune to teach physics, which in my school is a post-MCAS subject; my students do not need low-level test prep. I also have the good fortune to be the only physics teacher in the school, which means I can prepare my lessons and tests without having to coordinate with other teachers who have very different styles. I also have the good fortune to have a department head and principal who are happy to let me do outrageous hands-on activities that build student engagement, such as dropping eggs on my head from the roof, riding a bicycle or a vacuum cleaner-powered hovercraft down the corridors, lying on a bed of nails, or experimentally determining the pressure in a bottle of Diet Coke that has just had five Mentos mints dropped into it.
I have taught in schools in which one or more of these things were lacking. I’ve taught chemistry to students who needed to pass the chemistry MCAS test. I’ve taught under a department head or principal/head of school who were not enthusiastic about my ideas and teaching methods. I have had to collaborate with teachers who taught very differently and had different goals for their students. Now that I am finally free from it, I am beginning to appreciate the extent to which the drive toward standardization is stifling the kind of education we want our students to get in public schools.
If we really want our students to get the best education we can give them, we need administrators at the school, district, state, and national levels who value creativity and high-level problem solving, and who are willing to let teachers be creative and teach “outside the box”.