Mrs. Jane Doe struggles to get out of bed, get showered and prepare for the day. She’s had only two hours of sleep. This is typical.
She arrives at the large Texas high school for which she teaches advanced and regular classes – at 7:15. She has about an hour before school starts. Students are already waiting for her because she encourages them to come before or after school for tutoring. She must also find a few minutes to go over lesson plans with her teaching partner, another experienced teacher who helps plan the advanced classes with her.
Mrs. Doe has been teaching for this district for well over a decade; her teaching career spans almost a quarter of a century.
As the day progresses, any sane observer would note that students in Mrs. Doe’s advanced classes respond with zeal and real affection to her obvious command of — and passion for — her field of study. She loves to read. She loves to learn. Both conditions are patently infectious.
The observer would also note that in all of Mrs. Doe’s classes, she is a kind of surrogate mom for her kids. She asks them about their sports, music, dance, after-school jobs, and plans for the future — and she is instantly alert to any signs that a particular kid is having more than the usual share of teen troubles. To a sane observer, it is obvious that she loves her students; they know it, and soon into the semester, they love her, too.
And yet, because the Texas Education Agency has flagged Mrs. Doe’s school as “failing” and representatives of the TEA are present during many classroom observations, so far it seems the case that teachers must never score higher than “in need of improvement” or “developing.” The evaluation system is based on quantitative measures. Although there are things that count very much, they cannot be counted.
When the school day ends, these kids again fill up Mrs. Doe’s classroom. They want tutoring or advice — or just a place to hang out. And they need feedback on research projects and essays. But because shortcomings were spotted in the review earlier, there is now also mandated professional development. She’s been asked to write up lesson plans that more clearly reveal how her classes will raise standardized test scores and encourage higher-level thinking. She’s been asked to treat two utterly contrary goals as if they are achievable — with a bit more work. The students come first, though, so when the last student leaves around 6 p.m., Mrs. Doe still has a formidable pile of work on her desk
Mrs. Doe is not the only teacher still grappling with an overloaded desktop; at 9 p.m., she and a handful of other teachers wearily say goodnight to each other in the dark, empty parking lot. These longtime teachers smile grimly at each other in tacit acknowledgment that they will see each other again in just a few hours — and that they will be standing by their cars just as late tomorrow night.
Home, Mrs. Doe has a very belated dinner: cheese sticks and some fruit that make up a homely repast. Besides, there is still that stack of essays. At 3:30 a.m., Mrs. Doe finally cannot continue; she dozes, as usual, in the stuffed chair in which she had been grading. The alarm will ring soon.
Friday night, the routine changes just a bit. Mrs. Doe collapses at 8 p.m. — when she gets home — and sleeps until late Saturday morning. This afternoon or early evening, she may go out to dinner or to a movie. Every time she goes out “on the town,” something quite remarkable happens: without exception, students or ex-students greet her with hugs and words of pleasure. Although Mrs. Doe cannot see this herself, her students continually affirm in these casual greetings the profoundly positive impact she has had on her students’ lives.
It is, however, unlikely that she will remain in the classroom for the decade or so she should have left. Mrs. Doe is existentially drained. Saturday night, it will be back to the grind. There is no rest – and she is too tired to be much rejuvenated by the delight her ex-students express in seeing her. The immediate problem tonight and every night is that the people who supervise her — and the general public that scrutinizes education — have created a system in which love for students and fluency and passion for a subject cannot be enough.
So the people who are fixing education are breaking Mrs. Doe. Soon enough, she will be gone. No number can measure what will be lost. In our zeal to find and fix what’s broken, we do not know what our zeal is breaking.
Newman teaches English at Western Texas College.