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My Math Tests Didn't Change Me, But a Community Concert Did

cc student art displayed at art exhibit in USED July 2016.jpgBy Brett Bigham

Over the past several years I have had the absolute honor to meet teachers from every state in the country and a substantial number from Europe, Asia and South America. I've had the chance to learn from the best and share deep conversations about many of the issues teachers all over the globe are facing. 

I'm not surprised that many of those conversations turned toward social-emotional learning (SEL), or some variant. International educators very often come to me with the idea that American teachers spend their time teaching students how to take tests instead of how to be better people. I'd dismiss that idea, as the teachers I know are hard-working and dedicated to their students and would figure out a way to cover all the bases. But I can no longer say that in good faith. Many teachers I have spoken to share the same concern that teachers no longer have the time to focus on SEL. As a teacher I lament this.   

When you think back to your own education, what pops up into your mind? Is it that really awesome standardized math test you took in 5th grade or the art project that got to hang in the Anchorage Museum of Art?   

Our school years are so full of highly impactful moments of social emotional learning that our memories of school might actually be a roadmap of those SEL moments. I can remember how reading The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank changed how I saw history and people in general. Those intense science experiments in lab, where working with a group taught camaraderie and team building would be the basis for understanding future history lesson and literature selections where a "team" would become one of the main characters. SEL is immersed in PE and extra-curricular activities and can run deeply through math and science. Statistics, a dry, scary topic to many, can break your heart and put steel in your spine. 

I was in high school for four years and the single most important hour of it was in my senior year when our 15-member swing choir went to Fairview, the state mental hospital, and performed a Christmas concert. I met a lot of people that day who were, by no fault of their own, looking at a life of incarceration in a mental hospital because they were born with Down syndrome or autism. I left with this overwhelming feeling that our society was not treating people with special needs right. That was the single most important hour of high school for me and the lessons I learned have pushed me to be a better teacher and a better human being from that moment on. 

When I think of my choir teacher, one who I often butted heads with, I give him great credit for what was the best social-emotional learning lesson I received in high school. But that makes me wonder, in our modern world where we want to judge our teachers' effectiveness by testing, how would that Christmas concert show up in my test scores? That hour shows up over and over in many of my life choices but on a standardized test it wouldn't even be a blip. 

That is part of the reason I scoff at holding up testing as our ultimate end game. So many of the lessons I teach are to grow that inner person in my students. Many of my kids are years behind in development and that means I'm not just teaching them to read a story, I'm also trying to make them experience the moral of the story. Reading the story is the small testable part of the lesson, living the moral of the story might just be lost when the student is filling out the bubbles.  

NNSTOY, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, recently published Student Social and Emotional Development and Accountability Perspective of Teachers. For those of you who are conflicted about testing and Social Emotional Learning it is a very clear report that looks at the issue from the perspective of award-winning teachers.   

Using round table discussions and surveys, NNSTOY asked teachers to share their input on testing, SEL and the idea of teacher evaluations being tied to how well students perform on tests that evaluate aspects of SEL. This is an example of how NNSTOY is a big voice today for teachers in education. Instead of looking at outside research for answers, NNSTOY surveyed its own members in an effort to make teachers part of the conversation and to make sure classroom experts, the teachers, have a role in creating answers to the difficult questions faced in today's modern classrooms. 

Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. In 2015, he was presented with an NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is a 2018 NEA Foundation Global Fellow and will be traveling to South Africa as an ambassador for American educators.   

Photo Credit: SCAD Art Opening 2016 by US Department of Education is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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