In Native American culture, the natural world is a sacred place. When a loved one dies, their physical possessions—an extension of themselves, are cleansed, buried, or burned. For the last two years, our school has unexpectedly lost staff members. With respect for Native American tradition, a Medicine Man has been called to spiritually cleanse the areas of our loved ones—a ritual that’s initiated by removing items they intimately touched with their body: cups, forks, food, sweaters, shoes.
If you’re reading this from your desk, pause for just a moment to consider what these physical items might be for you. On a breezy Monday, they probably look like clutter. But on a tragic Tuesday, these are physical symbols of your impact: the Keurigs you stockpile for coworkers, the mug a student gave you as an inside joke, the sweatshirt you loaned to a kid.
One of the items on my desk is a newspaper, courtesy of our Special Education Newspaper Delivery program. The front-page article alerts the public of the varying test scores between local public and charter schools. The article generically states that my high school’s scores “dropped”.
Here’s what they forgot to report: a beloved teacher unexpectedly died on a Monday night; on Tuesday night, the Medicine Man cleansed her classroom; on Friday morning, her students began AzMerit testing.
The injustice of this article literally makes me shake with rage. The standardization of the American education system aims to measure a teacher’s impact. Standardization begets data; data begets budgets. For years, educators have cried afoul that teaching is a personal art, one that can’t be universally, scientifically, or objectively measured. For years the system has cried back it’s a single data point.
But I’m looking at this article and it’s the only data point. I’m looking at this article and I see the scores and the cups and the sweater and the kids.
Once the room was “cleansed”, three colleagues and I worked in shifts to empty her classroom. Physically and emotionally, it took weeks. A teacher’s classroom is a teacher’s life. Everything was personal. Everything symbolized the person we lost. Everything deserved context. Objects that appeared useless were the focal point of important stories. Even the furniture had been personalized. And the papers… the papers…my God, there were papers everywhere: a swirling tornado of student voices. Among the guilt and sorrow that I’ve inherited from this loss, I’ve inherited too an eye for objects—an almost obsessive inability to walk into a room without noticing the puzzle pieces people arrange around their identity.
Dr. Dennis Shirley, in his book The New Imperatives of Educational Change: Achievement with Integrity colloquially refers to standardized test scores as “autopsy reports” because they give teachers information after the students are out of their care. (Only now does the morbidity of this phrase hit me.) Shirley asserts that the “assembly-line” view of education dehumanizes both teachers and students; such scores overlook the civil skills, roles, and relationships people bring to their societies.
Poorly reported test scores not only paint an inaccurate portrait of schools, they ignore the human impact that necessitates communal schooling. They ignore the fact humanity supersedes data.
They ignore the fact that the experiences of a single year of life can never be measured with a number.