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Nancie Atwell Gets It Exactly Right

At my age, in this still hierarchical time, people often ask me if I'm "passing the torch." I explain that I'm keeping my torch, thank you very much--and I'm using it to light the torches of others.    

Gloria Steinem

When I read, earlier this month, that there were three American teachers (in a field of ten), competing for a coveted new million-dollar global teaching prize, it was gratifying to see that one of them was Nancie Atwell. We've become accustomed to seeing young, fresh-faced teachers--millennials--highlighted as the future of teaching recently, so it was refreshing to see that all three candidates for what they were calling the "Nobel Prize" of teaching were experienced classroom veterans.

I've been an Atwell fan for 25 years, since I first heard about her book, In the Middle, at a middle school conference in Michigan. I bought a copy, and it remains on my go-to bookshelf to this day, even though I'm a music teacher and the book is mostly about reading and writing.

Atwell's thinking was invaluable when my district made an attempt to incorporate "writing across the curriculum," and also when I was trying to infuse interdisciplinary learning into a conventional band program. She inspired me to set up a little library filled with books about all kinds of music in a rolling cart in my classroom. And I re-read the chapter entitled "Making the Best of Adolescence" every year--it is solace, excellent teacher-to-teacher advice.

And--when Atwell won the million dollars and international fame, she did precisely what any courageous teacher leader, given a platform and microphone, would do: she spoke her mind about what's happened to public education in her homeland.

"Teachers are being essentially asked to be technicians, to read a script, and the script is not valid," Atwell said. "[Test scores] are all that counts right now. It's all data analysis, metrics and accountability. It's a business model that has no business being applied to the craft of teaching or the science of learning."

Atwell disagrees with the politically contentious common core educational standards, which she said focus too much on test scores, rather than lessons learned, or books read, as a mark of achievement. Students all learn at different paces and levels, and the common core standards steamrolls individuality and forces everyone to be quite literally on the same page, she said.

For those well-articulated reasons, Atwell remarked, she hesitates to recommend a career in public education to promising students.  And for that casual comment, Atwell has been castigated by Dan Brown, in Real Clear Education, a media outlet that promotes the very policy initiatives Atwell (who's lived with those policies) questions.

Working conditions have always been tough for teachers, Brown says, but things are looking up. As proof, he offers these exciting new resources and ideas: The internet. Social media. Crowdfunding. Teacher residencies (replacing "failed" teacher-prep programs)--plus what he calls "nascent" teacher leadership programs.

I have news for Dan Brown. Nancie Atwell was already a teacher leader in 1987, when she wrote her first book.  She didn't need an outside, Gates-funded program to train her how to research, document, write, and advocate for what her eyes and heart told her was true: Good teaching is enormously rewarding. And it can be improved, by individual teachers tinkering and paying attention, in their own classrooms.

Teaching in America has been systematically de-professionalized. It's no longer a job where experience, mentorship and creativity are valued. The evidence around that--beginning with test score-based teacher evaluation, and ending with federal funding for Teach for America-- is incontrovertible.

Atwell's "I encourage my students to look at the private sector" remark was not the meat of what she was saying. In cherry-picking that single sentence, Atwell's real message--public-school teaching has changed, due to top-down policy-making-- was obscured. Any teacher who's been in the classroom for more than a handful of years would feel that. In their bones.

We keep saying we want teacher leaders at the table, informing policy. But when Nancie Atwell was given a seat at a big, shiny international table, we're stunned when she tells her truth? Does that mean we only want "teacher leaders" who spout party-line beliefs? 

I deeply admire Atwell's courage. I agree that teaching is an amazing, rewarding profession--and what I love most about Atwell's response is that she recognizes that will still live in a hierarchal education world--and she spoke clearly about what she sees. She's keeping her torch. 

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