Some kids dream of becoming an astronaut, a lion tamer, or a rodeo star. As a child, I never had outlandish aspirations. From as early as I can remember, I always dreamt of becoming a teacher. My dream came true in 1997 when I secured my first position as a fourth grade teacher.
During the first few years of my career, I felt as if I had won the lottery. I was proud to cultivate an environment where kids felt safe to be creative risk-takers and had the freedom to enrich the curriculum as I deemed appropriate. When we studied dental health, my students created their own toothpaste brands and produced commercials for them. In social studies, we explored the regions of the United States and worked in teams to design fantasy vacations from coast to coast. We made our own recycled paper and used glitter and glue to customize unique constellations in science. My students played theater games to delve deep into literary elements and wrote their own plays using potatoes as puppets.
I wasn’t the quirky teacher who went overboard with imaginative projects and tossed the curriculum out the window, nor was my classroom Disney World with desks. I, along with my colleagues, practiced the art of teaching. I worked nights, weekends, and summer vacations enthusiastically planning to wow my students. My first students are now in their early 30s and still visit me. Not a single one has ever said, “Wow, I will always remember that standardized test we took.” Instead, many tell me they still have the Young Author’s book that they wrote, or that they remember doing our signature “happy dance of joy” to celebrate student accomplishments.
As the pendulum in education swung, I witnessed the sad near extinction of teacher creativity and steady decline of student engagement. I watched education become a data-driven monster that sometimes treated children like widgets. Teachers were expected to deliver mandated instruction and not deviate. Students were not given ample opportunity to stretch their imaginations. There were years where I don’t recall my students ever picking up a pair of scissors, much less using glitter and glue.
By 2010, high stakes testing had invaded every aspect of education, essentially handcuffing teachers to exclusively teaching the content of the test. Poetry celebrations and vocabulary parades were replaced with long hours of frustration and high-stakes test preparation. The joy was sucked out of my teaching, which inevitably impacted my students’ excitement for learning.
Thankfully, in the last decade I have seen a gradual return to engaging instructional methods. With the advent of STEM, there has been a renewed focus on experiential learning. An emphasis on social emotional learning has brought to the forefront the critical role relationship building plays within the classroom community. Innovative flexible seating and a return to collaborative learning opportunities has reignited a spark for many teachers and students. Make no mistake, high stakes testing has not gone away, and we are, in many ways, still tethered to test results. Nonetheless, it seemed, at least to a degree, that engaging students in the learning process was back in vogue.
In a matter of months, a worldwide pandemic dismantled education as we knew it. The physical closing of schools has already had a devastating impact on our students, with a disproportionate negative effect on our marginalized student populations. Unfortunately, we don’t know what the future holds in terms of returning to “normal.” As the Fall looms ever closer, our collective anxiety over what our school system will look like swells by the day.
Against the backdrop of COVID-19, with all the tragic educational limitations teachers face, I hope we remember to prioritize the joy of teaching and learning. I know that sounds crazy. Shouldn’t we be prioritizing the acceleration of academic growth? I’ve taught long enough to know that joy and academic progress are not competing ideas. When teaching and learning is joyless, it is far less successful. I don’t know how this concept translates into reality, being that many still don’t know if schools will be physically reopening or implementing a remote learning plan. Though we may be teaching and learning through masks or a computer screen, I hope beneath that protective layer, we find a way to smile. Because in a world that feels endlessly dark, our students and teachers deserve some glitter.
Lisa Helfand has been an elementary school educator for 24 years. She began her career as a fourth grade teacher and is currently a reading specialist, working with struggling readers in grades 3-5. She has a passion for helping students remove obstacles and help them grow into successful readers. Lisa resides in the Chicago area with her husband and two teenage children.