Education, learning, Literacy

Expecting Too Much–and Too Little–of Teachers

I was reading a professional text recently that, in many ways, moved me to nod my head so frequently as I was reading that I looked like one of those ubiquitous Mexican bobbing head turtles that you find at craft fairs and flea markets. There was so much I loved about what the authors had to say about our collective practice as teachers. But the deeper I got into the book, the less I nodded my head, and the more I started to cringe at the expectations these authors had laid out for classroom teachers–at the range and the number of teaching practices they insisted were essential cogs in the instructional wheel of literacy. This wasn’t the first time I’d felt this way; as a matter of fact, I often develop that cringe-y feeling when reading professional texts, particularly those that, in recent years, have become the most popular or sought-after among teachers of literacy.

When reading these texts, as I cringe, I often find myself wondering this: do we expect too much of our literacy teachers?

As a profession, we often talk about “balanced literacy” as if it were the most natural thing in the world: just provide students with equal amounts of reading workshop, writing workshop, and word study, and you’re golden. Students’ reading and writing development will flourish. (The “reading wars” are but a distant memory!) Whenever practicing literacy teachers fret about what they are “supposed to” teach and ask questions like, “What should I focus on? There’s so much to cover,” many of us gently wince, smile serenely, and unhelpfully respond with something akin to, “Well…it’s all about balance.” We condescendingly pat their hands and murmur, “It’s difficult, I know.” Then we pack up our laptops and our LCD projectors and sail into our next workshop, course, or consulting stint, leaving hundreds (if not thousands) of teachers in our wake, struggling to keep afloat on a daily basis.

But if we were to look–really look–at what “balanced literacy” entails, we’d probably throw up our hands and submit an application to the nearest Starbucks. Some entities attempt to break balanced literacy into three essential components: reading workshop, writing workshop, and word study. Others identify six components, breaking “reading workshop” into its more granular parts: independent reading, guided reading, shared reading, and read aloud. This resource from the-conglomerate-that-shall-not-be-named identifies a mind-boggling ten components of balanced literacy: reading, phonics, strategies, comprehension, spell–wait never mind, they’re idiots. (Who separates “reading” from “comprehension,” anyway?) Still. None of these iterations even takes into account craft and grammar study, oral language study, digital composition, and literacy within the greater society/world, to name a few.

Really, though–who among us has successfully incorporated “balanced literacy” (in the sense I have described here) into our classrooms? Show me a teacher who effectively manages the four agreed-upon components of balanced reading instruction alone–independent reading, guided reading, shared reading, and read aloud–and I’ll show you someone who’s either lying or alarmingly delusional.

In this sense, I think we expect far too much from literacy teachers. No one can do all of this–never mind all of this well– and still find time to confer, kidwatch, and read or write alongside students.

BUT (and this is a big but, as evidenced by my masterful use of all caps): in another sense, I think we–collectively–expect too little from literacy teachers. The ways in which I believe this, however, have less to do with literacy activities or “components” and more to do with literacy mindsets and behaviors. For example, I think that all teachers of student readers should read on a regular basis. I think that all teachers of student writers should write on a regular basis. I think that we should all meet students where they are, not where we (or other people) think they should be and build upon their individual strengths. I think we should teach students how to ask deep questions, seek answers, and reflect on their lives and identities as readers and composers of text. I think we should teach students far fewer whats (like “strategies” and “genres”) and teach them far more hows  and whys (like, “Why do you think the author used parentheses here?”).

Granted, this is a lot to ask. However, it’s also a lot to ask of teachers to try, year after year, to incorporate a ridiculous horde of components into their literacy instruction–in the name of “programs,” “structures,” or “frameworks”– and end the school year feeling like a failure, year after year. (Or maybe it’s just me who always felt like a failure. If so, I will gladly eat my words.) But teaching is incredibly challenging and complex; it always has been, and it always will be. So which is worse: expecting too much of teachers in terms of activities and components, or expecting a lot (too much?) in terms of mindsets and behaviors?

Please share your thoughts below.


2 thoughts on “Expecting Too Much–and Too Little–of Teachers”

  1. Hi, Shawna –
    I think that the expectations of too much/too little of teachers is pretty similar to the ones of children articulated in The Importance of Being Little.
    Too much attention and expectations focused on academic achievement.
    Too little to intellectual, social emotional, and creative development.
    Thanks for your post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent review of the challenges facing teachers. Your ‘solution ‘ is spot on. They aren’t intangibles but there’s a sense of organic teaching in what you described, in contrast to the programmed approach. Do you think new teachers need some kind of program to get them to where you are? Oh, the reading wars are not over everywhere. Sadly.


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