students vs. statistics: why I stay a teacher

On my way to work each day, looming above the newly-built-but-not-yet-operating-train-tracks is a billboard that declares:

Unlimited Data

Of course, it’s some advertisement for a phone company that offers all the access one could ever want to Facebook, Candy Crush, Snapchat, Twitter and Youtube.

And then I walk through the door of my school, which is a representation of any public school in the American education system, and I hear the same message from above, around, and below:

Unlimited Data

Recently, a dear friend at another school told me a colleague counted somewhere around 27 days of assessment for their school year, not counting authentic assessment teachers are doing in their own classroom on behalf of their own students. Twenty. Seven. Days. That is an entire month of a ten month school year gone, eaten by some number-crunching, spirit-crushing, out-of-the-classroom, higher-up-Pac-Man’s insistent demand we know where are our students are at.

Um, dear pawn of the government, I know where my students are at. My students are below proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science–oh, and they probably will be in gym and social studies, since that’s being tested this year. My students come to school hungry, but are filled with sugar in the morning by the Breakfast in Class program. My students, since they are under-performing, are subjected to overwhelming academic minutes in the seat, without electives and sufficient transitions and a healthy lunch for a full eight hours. My students trip over dead bodies killed by rival gangs in their neighborhood. My students support their moms who have been beaten to seizure-status by their dads. My students take care of four younger siblings while their parents work multiple jobs to pay the bills. My students have surgeries to remove the growing toxins in their bodies from the industrial air they breath daily.

This week, the moon’s fullness has stripped my colleagues and I of spirit. Behavior has been out-of-control. Time is dwindling into unknown black holes. Energy has been sapped. Motive has gone AWOL. On Friday, a colleague and I sat in my “comfort corner” and discussed where we’re at, and how much this is influenced by our nation’s state of education. A nation obsessed with unlimited data. And through discussion we came to the conclusion, we are not against data. We want to know where our students are at relative to the target. We want to know what next steps are for each of our students. This, after all, is good-teaching. And by and large, across our school, across our district, across our nation, teachers strive to be good teachers.

But, then it hit me, education really has moved past the point of data. Unlimited data isn’t data anymore. It’s statistics.  And as a nation, we are shackled by statistics. Unlimited data is data that cannot be processed or utilized. It just sits there, glaring at us in our urban schools with frightening statistics; it is the oppressive gaze.

But, as a teacher, statistics don’t help me. Statistics don’t help my students either.

It is enough to quit. The pressure comes from above (nation, district); from below (statistics, systematic oppression of our students by society); and from the side (unsupportive school systems, weak collaboration). Voices across the nation are echoing the same sentiment. M. Shannon Hernandez nearly begs for systematic change to focus not on statistics, but on students. Elizabeth A. Natale advocates for systematic change to restore the spirit and art of teaching. Sarah Blaine calls for systematic change to honor the challenging profession of teaching. I also have written about my frustrations before.

In my aforementioned conversation with a dear friend, the topic shifted to: how do we stay? In this climate of systematic statistic subjugation, how do we persevere? I was in such a bad place, my question might have even been, why do we stay?

Our students will not get the education they need–they deserve–if not for people like us.

And there it is, the call of my heart. My students. The stories of my students. The souls of my students. The spirits of my students. My students who share the most profound insights as we read literature. My students who leave small gifts on my desk. My students who cry on my shoulders, but then find the strength to wipe their tears and keep showing up. My students who smile so deeply because they’ve finally written something of which they’re proud. My students who read more books in a year than they have in their whole school career. My students who are so resilient, and who overcome, and who shine, and who go on to have functioning families and successful scholarships and courageous college contacts and justified jobs and triumphant testimonials.

And so, like my students, I will persevere and overcome. I will teach, because they need me. And I need them.