They will be extinct by 2033 if the current rate of loss continues.
Like most endangered creatures, their habitat is threatened. When you were a child they were present in every city and town in the United States, but now their world has changed. They can be found only in rare, hospitable environments.
I’m not talking about polar bears, the red wolf, or the pygmy rabbit. The endangered ones I speak of here are not four-legged animals, but an important category of educators: teachers with a high level of professional freedom.
These are the teachers who pause their lesson when your kid asks a fascinating question. Or take the class outside to catch the first snowflakes of the year. Or extend recess because the whole class is playing together for the first time since Nancy and Joleen had a falling out and everyone took sides. They are the teachers who invent class projects that make learning fun and make your your mornings easy because your fifth-grader is eager to go to school.
Your child’s experienced teacher who was once an inspiring dynamo will not tell you that it’s not his fault that he has become increasingly boring and strict. He is distressed because his freedom to be a great teacher has been reduced year by year. He’s afraid he might lose his job if he speaks up. So he follows the rules, teaches to the test, gets the wiggly kids to settle down and keep their eyes on their screens when he knows in his heart that the best way to get kids to focus when inside is to give them more time outside.
Your child’s teacher smiles at back-to-school night. She remembers the now disallowed projects, the lessons, the spontaneous, magical moments her classes once enjoyed. She gives you no reason to suspect that the most important aspects of her profession have been stolen. But as she drives home, she is calculating whether she can afford to retire early because her years of hard won experience are no longer valued by the decision makers in her district who wonder aloud how much of her job can be done by a computer.
Your child’s teacher won’t tell you that the high level of professional freedom she had in 1997 has been reduced year by year so that now she routinely tosses her best inspirations out the window. She still gets to choose how to decorate her bulletin boards, but she is no longer allowed to use the puppets she made herself that helped to spark an interest in reading in the first-graders she had 10 years ago. In 1997, she was eager to teach the lessons she created herself. Now she is handed a script and told to read it to her class word for word without any puppets.
You may remember this quote, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees,” from the classic children’s book by Dr. Seuss. It’s time for a movement of truly scary mommies to speak for the teachers, for they can’t speak for themselves and still keep their jobs.
Take a teacher or two out for coffee and ask questions. Promise to keep their answers confidential. Ask whether they are expected to teach to a test. Ask whether they are allowed to postpone the planned lesson to allow time for a great conversation. Ask whether they are allowed to extend recess. Ask how often they are allowed to teach a lesson based on their own creative approach. Ask whether they have files full of proven lessons that they once lit a fire in their students, lessons that are no longer allowed because they are not part of the program bought by the school district.
Perhaps you will be the lucky parent who discovers that the teachers in their local school still enjoy a high level of freedom. If this is the case, thank the school board and ask your local newspaper to publicize the fact that freedom is not endangered in your city or town.
Only 12% of teachers report that they have a high level of autonomy. So, chances are, the teachers you meet for coffee will represent the other 88%. The good news is you don’t have to go to the federal or state government to advocate for these teachers. While curriculum goals are dictated by the state and testing mandated by the federal government, it is the local school district that specifies teaching methods.
When you advocate for professional freedom for teachers, you are standing up for your child’s right to be heard, for her right to spend time playing and exploring nature outside during the school day. You are promoting a vision of school in which children experience joy, wonder, curiosity, and an eagerness to learn.