Ben remembers when his teaching career began taking shape. And when it shifted.
Ben’s dad was a teacher in the Walla Walla School District for more than 30 years, so life in education was the norm.
By third grade Ben had developed a love of learning he could fully claim as his own. In fifth grade he decided it would be fun to go to Whitman College and become a teacher. So he did.
Now 32, Ben teaches an elementary grade in Walla Walla.
The idea was to grow the kind of people who could make positive changes to society, he recently said on social media.
“I believed in coaching kids to be more empathetic, believing it would lead directly to critical thinking skills. I believed kids should love reading, so I read only the richest stories to them. I wanted them to love science, so we built water rockets. They had to stay curious, so we spent time nearly every day seeking out answers to any questions they had about the world.”
See what I mean here? Ben obviously is entrenched in teaching and he’s not alone. In my two-plus years of reporting on education in the Walla Walla Valley, I’ve witnessed lots of Bens who have dived so deeply into their jobs they rarely climb out of the pool long enough to truly tend their own needs.
You know what Ben and his peers don’t love? The standardized testing they must put students through every year.
Ben said he’s not at all crazy about America’s fixation on defining children through test scores or measuring student success by proficiency charts.
“Our entire nation, we really focus on those scores,” Ben told me.
We were having this conversation because last spring I saw some of these sentiments on Ben’s Twitter feed.
Let me explain this part. Educators posting ideas, thoughts, concerns and news on what I think of as Education Twitter is invaluable to people like me — those not exactly working in that world but closely orbiting to better understand issues and trends.
Toward the end of May a series of Ben’s tweets caught my attention for a second time. He was writing about “testing season” and its impact of students and teachers. Children were crying in the halls, doubting their ability to pass a test. Parents — and their kids — don’t know test results until months later, reducing what can be learned from a student’s score.
Teachers, the men and women bearing twin burdens of pushing children to get ready for testing, then consoling them afterward, think the tests take too much time and are not good indicators of student learning, Ben tweeted.
I’d started looking at Ben’s Twitter feed seriously about six weeks beforehand, when I noticed an unexpectedly open and vulnerable conversation between Ben and anyone who cared to tune in. The teacher was letting the world know he was teetering on burnout and had undergone a few sessions with a counselor to understand why. Ben’s counselor handed out his own homework — Ben needed to write down positive things for all of his students.
“Easy enough,” he tweeted.
Ben could soon see a disturbing pattern, however. Students gained favor for being easy to teach, easily engaged or curious about learning. In other words, the most value was assigned to kids who made his job easier.
It was hard, he tweeted, to come up with things about students that had nothing to do with the classroom.
One child remained a blank slate, until Ben could verbalize this to his counselor:
“I imagine her in sitting in my class, talking to a classmate when she shouldn’t be. She looks over her shoulder and sees me watching. She smiles, not out of malice, but because not even being caught by the teacher curbs her happy attitude. I tell the counselor she’s joyful.”
Joyful. That’s it.
“I see people all day who are desperately trying to figure out how to have what that girl has,” the counselor told Ben.
That’s when Ben understood what had happened to his love of teaching, for what more could be asked than a human be happy and content?
After eight years of battling the external pressures of standardized tests or letting his students become numbers, a look in the mirror tells Ben he has failed, he tweeted,
“The system eroded away the teacher in me.”
There is no doubt assessments of student progress are important, experts say, and Ben agrees. Testing measures a child’s progress, points out areas that need work, gives school districts a heads up when programs and curriculum are effective and when they are not.
It also holds school at a high level of accountability and that’s a good thing, Ben said.
“We want all kids taught at high levels in any state.”
A survey by his office indicates local teachers do find value in testing, notes Keith Swanson, who heads the teachers union in Walla Walla.
“But almost universally teachers believe that there is too much class time devoted to standardized testing.”
Ben casts no blame on local education leadership, and lauds his colleagues and this school board as “outstanding.”
Washington education officials appear to be taking note of the flaws in state-mandated testing and recently have made some changes in graduation requirements surrounding that.
Other information about students and teachers are being factored in to state score cards, he said. And yet the invisible costs of so much testing remains, tallied up with mental health concerns and the scene of children running out of testing centers, overwhelmed with a notion of not being smart enough to fill in all those answers, Ben told me.
Schools nearly shut down during testing season and children react to the schedule change, missing the consistency we know kids thrive on. When testing is over, students are exhausted and can’t absorb new content for awhile, he added.
Who can change this, I asked. The answer is the same as it has always been, he replied. People in general and parents in particular can start a grass roots movement to reclaim all that school is meant to be — a place to nourish curiosity and creativity, to embolden children to seek answers. A place where praise comes easily and often. Where tests are just a temporary bother and, many times, a moment to shine.
School, the teacher contends, should be a place of joy for every kid and not just for one impish student who smiled through her troubles.
Ben plans to work on that.