I just returned from a trip to Florida, where I helped deliver a professional development day for a group of high school teachers. The day-long event, organized by the district’s science supervisor, was a mandatory professional development workshop for roughly 100 teachers from all over the county. The agenda sounded good, on the face of it. A morning inquiry workshop featuring an expert facilitator, lunch, and an afternoon session of science labs, putting the principles of inquiry into practice (that was my part, along with my colleague). In addition to the laboratories, we hoped to work a bit of web 2.0 use into the afternoon to show how these new tools can help facilitate inquiry and give teachers some untried and invigorating options.
As the teachers filed into our room after lunch, I knew in the first 30 seconds that we were in trouble. To a person, they looked exhausted. Beaten down. Each facial expression, every pair of eyes told me, “I didn’t ask for this and the only reason I’m here is because I have to be.” Hooboy.
As we went around the room, introducing ourselves, they offered up their stories – budget cuts, no computers in their classrooms, zero funding for lab supplies, teacher lay-offs, increased class sizes (due to those lay offs), and the constant thrumbeat of that (as one of the teachers put it) “four-letter word” – FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test). If there ever was a situation with teachers feeling the demand to “teach to the test”, this was it. And you’d be hard pressed to find a clearer illustration of the ways in which high-stakes testing saps the life blood out of educators.
As we worked through our afternoon – trying out new labs, posing experimental questions, showing them how to upload photos and use a wiki – I would occassionally see a glimmer of excitement or a flash of enthusiasm. But it was usually followed by one of their colleagues reminding them that “they had no time for this” or “your department chairman would never let you” or “you’d never get a computer in your classroom.”
As our session was winding to a close, one of the organizers came in to announce that there would be a mandatory power shut down, on order from FEMA. We had to wrap it up and get out of the building in 20 minutes. We hustled through the last segment, bid the teachers good-bye and good luck, and offered to continue the conversation via their newly established wiki or email or whatever worked for them. I’ve been home for five days and haven’t heard a single peep from them. Zero traffic on the wiki.
It’s difficult to pick apart the contributing threads to this situation (there are so many of them). The nation’s sagging economy is affecting us all. Already strained budgets, stretched even thinner, will limit educational options. Anyone in fear of loosing their position is bound to approach their job differently. But over and above all of that, these teachers clearly felt they had no agency, no personal command of what happened in their classrooms. Their state-mandated, high-stakes exam casts a long and powerful shadow over what they teach and how they teach it. And, for all the reasons you can imagine, that shadow sapped the creative juices out of their brains. I can’t help but conclude that they’re shutting down a whole lot more than the electrical power in Florida.