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Here's Why I Teach, Brian Williams

It was a provocative question: Is the role of a teacher to educate students for college or for the wider world? That was the first question that NBC newsman Brian Williams asked on Sunday at the second annual Education Nation Teacher Town Hall. Now I know that college has become the new high school; that an undergraduate degree has become the basic level of education required to get an upwardly mobile job.

Teaching students with college in mind is the noble thing to do. What teacher wouldn't want every student prepared for college, whether he decides to go or not? Because of this reality, 44 states in America have agreed to throw out their state standards--which were designed to prepare students for high school--and adopt the Common Core Standards whose primary goal is to prepare all students K-12 for college.

The ideal is great, but the implementation of it makes the ideal rather daunting. As a teacher who has taught low-income, inner-city students all her career, I understand how challenging it is to get some students to pass tests based on the less rigorous state standards. Expecting them to meet even higher standards just adds to the teacher's already overwhelming sense of pressure.

At my charter school's staff meeting last week, the administrative team presented their big goals for this school year. They had changed our goals from increasing the numbers of students who "meet or exceed" to increasing the students who "exceed" the standard. Our school outperforms the district and the state on the test, but the number of students who are "exceeding" on the test is not as impressive. Studies from the Consortium on Chicago School Research shows that unless students exceed on Illinois state standardized tests they usually do not score above a 20 on the ACT, making them less attractive to universities.

It reminds me of the time I went for a medical check-up and was told that I had borderline high cholesterol. I was shocked because the year before I had gotten an excellent bill of health. My doctor explained that medical guidelines on measuring cholesterol levels had just changed significantly. I left the doctor's office frustrated that I had spent a year with an elevated risk of heart disease while under the impression that I was perfectly on track.

Our work as teachers is never done, and it's getting harder to be considered successful. Every time I celebrate for a job well done, I find my accomplishment diminished. For example, I two years ago I worked tirelessly to provide the best education to my 4th grade students. In fact, I helped my grade level team double its "exceeds" score in reading from the year before. We were elated. Unfortunately, my team's "exceeds" score in math fell by half. Whoa. Was I teaching too much reading at the expense of math? Was I crummy at intergrating math into other subjects? Maybe I was just not as good at teaching math as the 3rd grade teacher ... I spent the weekend mulling over why my test scores turned out the way they did. I also bugged my principal with emails about it. She graciously told me to stop over-reflecting on the scores—move on—and keeping teaching in the spirit of excellence.

As for my answer to Brian Williams' question? That's a no-brainer. I am teaching students to be healthy—physically, emotionally and academically. I am teaching them to be leaders, collaborators, and critical thinkers. I am teaching them to be find creative ways to bring about peace and solve conflicts. So my job as an educator is to prepare students for wider world, because there's a lot of life after college. Brian knows should know this: He dropped out of college and still found amazing success.

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