To A New Teacher Struggling with Common Core

130After two months, I still think about her question every day: “What do you tell young teachers who are struggling with Common Core?”

The questioner was a pre-service teacher a few weeks away from beginning her student-teaching experience. The place was a National Council of Teachers of English conference presentation led by several literacy experts dealing with resistance to implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Here was a new teacher, close to graduation, passionate about her professional goals, well prepared in her subject matter pedagogy, and eager to dig in with students. And now this.

After the session I talked to Dr. Kim McCollum-Clark, one of the session leaders and a leading teacher preparation instructor. I told Kim that I wished I had a good response for that young educator, and Kim basically gave me the assignment to come up with an answer.

So, here it is, my advice for new teachers entering the profession with trepidation about how the Common Core State Standards will affect their professional lives.

1. Don’t get fired over this. Ten years from now, I doubt that the Common Core State Standards will be as controversial as they are today. They will either be gone, or they will be the status quo. Either way, you’re not helping anyone if you lose your career in its infancy. Let the warriors fight the battle out front. Watch and learn from the sidelines as much as possible as you hone your craft and figure out the culture of your new school community. Take the measure of all you see, and make up your own mind about controversial issues like CCSS and the key players on all sides. The critical factor to notice is who acts in the best interests of students. There will come a time for you to speak and act, but wait until you are have a firm hold on your job. The veterans will understand your position. We’ve all been there.

2. You can’t just be against something. It’s more important to be for something. There is plenty of room for skepticism about the Common Core, and if you’re against it, you probably have good reasons, but what are you for? What positive actions can you take? If you ask me, the most important positive actions we can take on behalf of today’s schoolchildren are promoting literacy and ending poverty. When every American child is a proficient reader living comfortably, no one will be talking about Common Core State Standards. If anyone scoffs at these goals as too lofty, I say these ideals are no more impractical than imposing accountability for a standardized curriculum on a diverse nation. Maybe it depends on how you want to spend your idealism. I’ll spend mine on authentic literacy and economic equity rather than on corporate testing and Orwellian conformity, thank you very much.

3. Understand the difference between your job and your work. You need to do both well, but they are not the same thing. Your work is your mission, your passion, your drive to make a difference. Your job is a context for doing that work, although it’s possible that you may also do your work in ways that go beyond your job. That’s fine, as long as you do your job well too. If the Common Core or other problems on your job cause you anxiety, keeping that dichotomy in mind can be helpful. Your job may require you to compromise sometimes; your work cannot be compromised.

4. You may need to leave your job if any situation at your school, including Common Core implementation, becomes too much of a negative factor in your life. No job is worth living an unhappy life. The right job fit for you is out there, but it can be challenging to find. If your school’s philosophy is at odds with your own, you may need to move on and find another context for doing your work. (For an example of how to thoughtfully process difficult career decisions, be sure to read this blog post from my friend Beth Shaum.)

5. Although the Common Core is a national issue, remember that it plays out one school at a time. Not all schools have Common Core fever but many do. Some schools are staying focused on a rich, deep curriculum and downplaying the Common Core testing frenzy as much as possible. When test time rolls around, these schools are relying on this curricular focus to pay off in test results that will satisfy their accountability demands. Other schools do a lot of standardized testing, but their overall assessment strategy is so incoherent that the test results are not meaningful or useful. In those schools, Common Core is likely to be a distraction but not too much of an obstacle. Some schools have a pragmatic approach in place as they are aligned with Common Core in a more or less minimal fashion, while still providing innovative programming and a good balance of autonomy and collaboration in their faculty. If you are in a school that is locked on to Common Core and your school leaders talk about little else but testing, well, you can hope it will moderate in a few years, and you can try to play a role in that moderation, but it might not happen.

6. Keep your focus on your students. The best part of our job will always be our time with students, leading them toward new learning, helping them discover new possibilities, and shaping the future by inspiring their creativity and problem-solving skills. If we are blessed with wise leaders and dedicated, thoughtful colleagues, that’s a bonus, but it’s not a necessity. The ability to do our work on behalf of our students is a necessity, and by far the most gratifying part of our jobs. When things are at their roughest on our jobs, the saving grace is almost always in a classroom with our students.

As you hear more and more about CCSS implementation, you may wonder if the job you have prepared for is now worth the trouble and expense you have gone through in preparing for it. The short answer is Yes. It’s still worth it, at least for now, but you need to be smart, informed, and possibly even brave.

Whew. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got, Kim.

I hope others will offer their advice and suggestions in response to “What do you tell young teachers who are struggling with Common Core?”

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3 Responses to To A New Teacher Struggling with Common Core

  1. Love and wisdom in one package, Gary. I wouldn’t have expected any less from you, my friend. I tell my teacher babies that we are “public humans”–that our lives in school are meant to show students how it’s possible to “be” everyday. If they don’t learn our content lessons, they can learn something else. This is so true of you and every one of your posts.

  2. Gary, You’ve developed a very wise, thought-provoking response and it resonates with me, not a “new” teacher. We do need to remember our work and our job are two different things sometimes (unfortunately). I firmly believe there is a way to make it all blend well so that the good of the common core can help us move forward in our “work”. I’m going to share your post with my daughter who is currently student teaching:) Thank you!

  3. Love the distinction you make between one’s work and one’s job. Thoughtful!

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