I began my high school teaching career in 1992 following a stint in the Oak Bluffs School and an alternative school so I guess this year I come of age. I have 21 years of growing, struggling always to do better, of working and living with this community. It is time to reflect.
There is so much to be thankful for in this richly diverse culture where I have found support from so many whose love for our children is indeed boundless. I have begged, borrowed, and I won’t admit to the stealing, to provide opportunities for our children to engage the world in whatever way we have been able to think of. On all my ventures, whether they were foreign travel, help for a student who needed it, the exploration of the African American history of this island, the cooking of meals for 150 kids, guest speakers to share their stories, representatives from the Tribe to share their language reclamation project, I have reached out a hand and it has always been grasped in friendship. I have wept with parents whose children have been tragically lost, shared the amazing windswept views of the Irish coast with Vineyard kids who have told me that this was the best day of their lives and watched those same kids parade around luxury hotels in monogrammed terry cloth robes.
This is an amazing community and to all those who have over the years put their hands in their pockets to send my students somewhere that will enrich their lives forever, I say a deeply heartfelt thank you. I love the people of this Island with their pride in their English, Portuguese, Irish, Native, African American, Cape Verdean, Jewish, Brazilian heritage and their common identity of Vineyarder. They have all been part of the education of my students in so many different ways.
I grew up in relative poverty and came of age a product of Catholic education, at a time when liberation theology gave me a strong sense of obligation to my fellow human beings. That joint legacy made it impossible for me to ever dismiss any child for whom I was responsible. I know experientially that social inequality and racism can forever blight the possibilities of any young person and ethically I know that I have no right to deny what I know to anyone.
In my first year at the high school as I struggled to engage a reluctant class, a young man observed ”you seem like a nice woman Mrs. Weintraub but stop trying to do stuff. You don’t have to teach us anything. No one does.”
I responded “I would not insult you like that” but he got the last word with “insult me like that anytime you like.”
This then was my challenge. I saw my role as a teacher as one of nurturer, challenger and always observer, and I am absolutely positive that there is no more rewarding experience than to have figured out what works best and see a student succeed. This was the job of teaching: one human being interacting with others to show them how to learn. This is why I like heterogeneous grouping because it requires that the teacher be aware of every student in the room and present information and strategies to them in as many different ways as possible. We like to think in the heterogeneously grouped history classes at the high school that we have no back rows and no labeled students. That is our hope. It makes me sad to reflect that now, despite what educational research shows us about teaching and learning, even first grade classes are grouped according to their perceived abilities. That is not building community or respecting diversity.
Increasingly, we are in an age of reducing the interaction between teacher and student to a measurable and mundane task. No more does the teacher pore over the student’s essay and write an authentic response. Now they check a box on the rubric. Each student is accompanied by a technical response sheet through which a series of checks is supposed to give a snapshot of that child, a glimpse into who she or he is. It is difficult to imagine how authentic that can be. In our small community where we are blessed with students who are willing to know and trust us, we are to push them away and record their data.
“Where is the evidence?” is the mantra that every teacher must learn now as their professional judgment becomes meaningless and the delicate dance between teacher and learner becomes an identical routine examination. Indeed, gathering data is very valuable but it is subject to interpretation and it can mean what we choose it to mean.
Educational reform was a great idea and there was much to reform. A thoughtful community always reflects and even when things go well most teachers think in terms of how it could go better. I like the idea that every child is expected to reach a level of competency, and that every teacher is held accountable for what they teach and how they teach it. What I do not like is the homogenization and disempowerment of students and teachers.
My colleagues are hard-working teachers who want to do well and who constantly reflect on their work. They give hours of their time to students helping them master content, coaching their sports teams, traveling this country and the wider world with them. Just this week at the high school, five teachers have been traveling with students to the Model UN in New York and to the Close Up program in Washington, DC. Students have won recognition in the regional drama conferences, in the science fairs and progressed to the regional semi-finals in basketball. None of these activities would be possible without teachers being willing to give their time and expertise.
This is a learning community blessed with stakeholders who support their schools financially and emotionally and as a vital part of the academic and emotional education of all of our children, we, the teachers, are worthy of respect, courtesy and professionally ethical behavior.
Elaine Weintraub is the chairman of the history department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.