The past decade is the first that I have spent entirely as an educator, and it is incredible to reflect back on how much things have changed over that time. At the federal level, our education system has experienced the shift from No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act, followed by the different approaches to ESSA implementation resulting from a change in presidential administrations. With the flexibility afforded by ESSA, some states have sought to innovate while others have largely maintained the status quo. And at the school level, seemingly everything has changed in a decade that started with Facebook and is closing with Tik Tok.
In trying to capture the story of a decade in education, the temptation is to focus entirely on what can be quantified, from test scores to funding. In looking at these numbers, it can be easy to fall into the trap of focusing exclusively on what has gone wrong in schools. But, if there is one thing I have learned in the past decade of teaching, it is this simple truth: not everything of value in education can be captured in a number. Instead, too often, the things that matter most aren’t the statistics—they are the stories. And it is in those individual stories where I feel you can most clearly see what has gone right in schools over the past ten years.
'A Christmas Carol' With A Twist
I experienced one of those stories this week. For the past six years, our school’s incredible drama program has staged a unique production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol during the holiday season, and attending has become a tradition for my family. This year, the production had a special twist as our theater teacher invited back alumni from the past six years to reprise their roles in the play.
As noted in the play’s program, these young adults are now engaged in a wide range of post-secondary pursuits—from continuing their education to becoming established professionals in locations across the country. Because of their busy lives, they had little quality time to rehearse, but they provided the type of performance that touched the audience. And in that performance, I saw a crystal clear picture of what has gone right in our schools—the power of a teacher to touch and forever change the lives of their students.
Most of the former students in the production are no longer engaged in the theater, but even three or four years after they last stood on stage, the skills they learned in high school were brilliantly on display. Trying to measure the excellence of the performance would prove challenging in our current standardized test-driven educational paradigm. In fact, if you could find a test to administer to the performance, it probably would have received a grade of “C,” but only because the performance showed mastery of so many different “c” words we say we value in education but rarely try to measure.
These young adults showed the capacity to collaborate in a high-pressure situation with individuals they may have only met days earlier. The actors displayed creativity and the ability to communicate powerfully. And above all, the performance showed the community they have built with each other, with their alma mater, and most importantly, with their teacher. Even the most hardened skeptics of our schools would be hard-pressed to see the impact this teacher had on the lives of students and declare it anything other than a success.
The Success Is In The Stories
Certainly, there is a great deal wrong in our current educational system. It is a system that continues to fail to reach the goals of equality and equity articulated over 50 years ago in "Brown v. Board of Education," with schools in too many places that are becoming increasingly segregated and funded by models that fall well short of providing equal access to educational opportunity for all students. But the success stories in our schools are still occurring in spite of these shortcomings, and they can most often be found in the individual stories of a life changed by a teacher.
These individual actions include the drama teacher that equips students with a love of theater and the arts that endures years after they graduate, but there are countless other examples. You can find what is right in our schools by spending time in the classroom of the early career teacher who poured herself into creating an engaging lesson over the weekend, designed to ensure that every student in her class could see themselves in their learning. Or, you could watch the teacher who brings snacks to school each day, paid for from his own pocket, to ensure that the basic needs of his students are met. You can see what is right in our schools by watching the look on a child’s face when their teacher helps them experience success for the first time and shows the child the full depth of their limitless potential.
If you want to look, you will find what is right in our schools by watching the teacher who grades papers late into the night, unpaid and unseen, but dedicated completely to providing each child with the feedback they need to drive their growth as a learner. You will also find glances of what is right in our schools by finding the teacher sitting in the stands during a sporting event, in the audience during a production or in the room during a birthday celebration—in each case, there for no other reason than to ensure that their student knows they are valued and supported. What is right in our schools is measured by each “high five” given, each smile created, each laugh shared and each shoulder to cry on offered and each tear dried.
One of the most powerful moments for me in A Christmas Carol is always the visit of Marley’s ghost. In reflecting on his life, he tells Scrooge that while he experienced financial success in life, he failed at his true purpose. In Marley’s words, he failed because his “business was mankind.” Perhaps in no other part of our society is this business of caring for mankind more fully met than the work being done each day in our schools. That work isn’t always perfect, and we must continue to push for improvements for the sake of all children, but we shouldn’t be too fast to overlook the stories of lives changed that occur every day in countless classrooms across this country due to the tireless and dedicated work of individual teachers, administrators, counselors and every other caring adult in a school.
There is no other action that is more inherently human than to touch the life of another individual, and as the new decade opens, I will be grateful for this essential work of mankind conducted each day in our schools.