What do we want from our teachers?: A new REAL School team member on her experience with scripted curriculum in big city schools

After a week away, I’m happy to be back. Over the weekend, I received the following email from our newest REAL School design teammate, D.

I include the story D. tells here not because it is a shocking or rare, but rather because it raises a central tension in school design–the role of the teacher. At the REAL School we are building a democratic and participatory community. Democracy requires liberty and participation requires agency. If we take agency away from teachers, we discourage their participation and leadership.

If the goal is to limit independence and apply levers of control so that teachers have no agency, as seems evident in the case of the major urban school district referred to as “The District” below,  then a scripted curriculum without flexibility makes complete sense. I have heard many seemingly rational arguments for centralized, bureaucratic control over classroom learning.

At the REAL School, however, we hope that teachers and students will be provocative agents of change. One of our purposes is that all members of the community will participate in the development, life, and growth of the school. Achieving this goal requires individual responsibility on the part of all community members–we all must not only believe in the work, we must seek to make it better. We seek proactive teachers who want to be co-designers and co-builders with us and ultimately with the entire REAL School community.

As usual, I have left her words unedited, so readers can hear her voice and her passion rather than my own.

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I am writing today as a new member of the REAL school team.  I am humbled to become a part of such an astounding group of individuals whose work has done nothing but inspired me even more to move forward in my goal to improve education for children.  The REAL school’s mission could not be a more perfect match for me.  Thanks to all involved for your hard work thus far.  I am thrilled beyond words to become a part of the team.

I began my teaching experience as a practicum student at the Penn State University Child Development Laboratory.   A HUGE, HEARTFELT thanks to the director for making me take her practicum course as she saw the “teacher” in me.  She told me then that there would be challenges, but was convinced that with CDL as my basis, I would certainly overcome them.  It wasn’t until I landed a job in the school District as a kindergarten teacher that I discovered what those challenges would be.  During the first few years I was lucky to get the chance to participate in the balanced literacy program.   This program gave teachers the autonomy to construct creative lessons that included all of the elements of effective literacy instruction.  The students thrived and learning was internal.

And then came the mandated, scripted programs.  Suddenly my passion for this job began to diminish due to the fact that many of the best practices proven to be successful for students were now becoming a big “no-no.”  I would be considered “insubordinate” for not following a program that in my heart AND head were neither developmentally appropriate nor engaging for the students in my class.  Now all I could do was think about how to change this.  I couldn’t sit back and watch students’ lives become effected by “big business” decisions.

Then came the day when I happened to walk through my school’s office, only to pass the conference room which had an open door.   Who was inside?  Two of our instructional coaches and a “big wig” from the central office.  I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go directly to the source and ask the questions that passionate teachers have been wondering since the start of these so called “scripted” programs.  So I went in.  And I asked them…

Q: “Our new curriculum does not include guided reading and collaborative learning groups.  Am I ‘allowed’ to use these practices in my classroom?  This is a research proven best practice that has worked wonders in my classroom so that I can differentiate instruction according to the needs of my students.”

A: “Guided reading and literacy centers should NOT be going on in the classroom as it is not a part of our new program.  We need to teach this program with fidelity.”

Q: “If I am following the weekly objectives in the planning and scheduling timeline and I have a different method of reaching the goals more effectively, can I make a professional decision to use these methods instead of those in the scripted program?”

A: “As I stated before, we must teach this program with fidelity because it is mandated from the district that we do so.”

Q: “Let’s put all of these mandates aside.  What do you think?  In your professional opinion, do you think that the components of this program are what’s best for our students?

A: “I cannot answer that question.  I represent the district and this program is what we are mandated to use.”

You can imagine my bewilderment.  We have been instructed on so many occasions to teach the students in our classroom as if they were our own children.  I’ve got news for you, District.  I would NEVER allow my children to come to a school that does not allow teachers to make professional decisions to use best practices that engage students and inspire them to become lifelong learners.

Thankfully the stars aligned and I became connected with a REAL school team member later that day.  I am anxious see the development of an educational environment that is MANDATED to put CHILDREN first!   And by the way…I WOULD send my child there!

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