Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Imagine a Place Where Teaching and Learning Are Inspirational: A Decade of Collected Wisdom from the Field

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Imagine a Place Where Teaching and Learning Are Inspirational: A Decade of Collected Wisdom from the Field

Article excerpt

Some middle grades educators find ways to engage and inspire their students in an era of high-stakes testing and rigid accountability policies.

I love my job, I love to teach and learn. ... I will never give up the good fight for the rights of my students to get the best from me as a teacher. ... I sadly and strongly feel our current direction with assessment is the wrong way and that there are other acceptable ways to move forward [that] don't take away quality teaching and learning. I love the kids, but the picture on a student's face today, knowing he was the only one not to finish the test, brought tears to my eyes. (MS-U.S. middle grades teacher, excerpt of an e-mail to his school's principal)

After a decade of collaboration and research on middle grades education, the wisdom of dozens of teachers, administrators, and university faculty has led us to a compelling set of observations (e.g., Dalton, Samek, Olson, Greene, Caskey, & Musser, 2004; Greene, Caskey, Musser, Samek, Casbon, & Olson, 2008; Greene, Caskey, Musser, Samek, & Olson, 2005; Musser, 1998; Samek, Kim, Casbon, Caskey, Greene, & Musser, 2010; Samek, Musser, Caskey, Olson, & Greene, 2006). Teachers and principals know what is best for their students, value collaboration, and are passionate about teaching and learning. Yet, these educators also express deep concern stemming from the tension of trying to enact their heartfelt vision of teaching within a culture of standardization and accountability.

The purpose of this article is to share wisdom collected from the field and offer a view of meaningful learning, explore the tensions that exist in educators' work, and invite conversation about the future of educational practice. The anecdotes and data come from a series of research studies conducted from 2001 to 2011 by a cadre of middle grades researchers- university faculty from public and private universities across Oregon. Over the past decade, we studied the perspectives of middle grades principals, middle grades teachers, university faculty, and district personnel directors representing distinct communities (urban, suburban, rural), disparate demographics (e.g., low SES to high SES), and varying school size (i.e., small to large middle schools). We guided each study with research questions such as: How are national policies affecting how teachers view the nature of their work? How does national policy affect the way middle school teachers balance the academic-cognitive needs of young adolescents with their social-emotional needs (Dalton et al., 2004)? How have high-stakes accountability measures based on yearly academic testing influenced teachers' curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices (Greene et al., 2008)? What are the perceptions of middle grades university faculty, classroom teachers, and principals regarding well-prepared middle grades teachers (Samek et al., 2010)? We used a variety of data collection methods including surveys, interviews, and focus groups to build an understanding of school and university perspectives.

What we learned is that teachers often find themselves caught between the expectations of external influences and their responses to the deep needs and yearnings of their students. In the words of one veteran middle grades teacher, "I'm tired of my inability to do what's best for my kids." When teachers like this one act on their inclinations to do what is best for students, they may feel their behavior is subversive. Another middle grades teacher explained during a focus group interview,

I feel like I do it a lot more, but I feel like I kind of have to hide it a little bit. If I'm going to be talking to some kids about something real, authentic, something emotional, I kind of have to go shut the door, you know what I mean? (Samek et al., 2006, p. 28)

Although principals recognize the pressures placed on teachers, they are not positioned to question mandates because one of their roles is to enforce policy. …

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