Protecting Teacher Individuality in an Age of Standardization

November 14, 2017

Think for a moment about a particular teacher that impacted you over the course of your life. Most likely what stood out was that he or she did something different – something that other teachers before or after had not done. Whether through method or personality, this teacher was unique. It is this uniqueness, this individuality in great teachers that I fear is at risk in an age of standardization and collaboration in education.

There has been a major push towards standardization in instruction over the last few decades. This standardization has shown itself in many forms, from use of district pacing guides and evaluation processes with extensive procedural requirements to increasing numbers of required standardized tests at multiple grade levels. Another type of standardization is the increased push for collaboration in the form of planned activities such as Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). This concept has been around for a while and my high school has tinkered with it in name only over the last few years.

Next school year, however, with a later start time we will be embarking upon the serious implementation of PLCs at our school for the first time. This serious push towards embracing PLCs, which encourages teachers to work collaboratively to plan assessments and lessons, has been touted as a way to reduce isolation and share ideas. The concept has, however, been met with trepidation by myself and many of my colleagues. In particular, there is fear of a loss of control over the planning and direction of the classroom – one of the key factors that I have loved about my choice of careers. There is also a serious fear of a loss of the individuality that can make a teacher special to students. While my school’s leadership is dedicated to allowing teachers to lead and organize our own PLCs and I can see positive aspects of working with other teachers to learn from them, I still cannot help but fear that there is a trend towards standardization in teaching that threatens the very nature of the American classroom.

Standardization can be an appealing idea to policymakers, education leaders and the community. It is comforting to try to find a common model that can be applied to all teachers as a way to ensure that all kids learn the same things and are taught in the same ways. However, with this move towards standardization there is also a risk of stifling what makes the classroom an exciting place:  the individuality of the teacher. Some teachers reach their kids by shouting poetry from atop their desk, creating math problems to fit the personality and ability of each student, or even by turning their classroom into World War I trenches – but these methods are individually created and utilized.

To ask teachers to follow these molds like recipes for success is like asking someone to wear another’s shoes. They may technically fit but they will not be comfortable and it is being comfortable with ourselves and with our students that allows us to connect with kids. Encouraging individuality allows teachers to be their real selves and kids respect “realness”. Individual talents and personality should not be squelched in the pursuit of a sense of security by making education the same.

As teachers we have all taken ideas from others for lessons, but when one does not make a lesson one’s own – incorporating one’s own personality into the design – the lesson does not feel right, and students can sense it. Encouraging teachers to teach the same things in the same ways, using the same tests, is encouraging a sameness that is contrary to the creativity and thinking skills we should be working to encourage in our kids. Most importantly, the idea that there is a single formula for teaching all kids presupposes that all kids are alike, which is incorrect. Instead, if we acknowledge that each of our students is unique, then we should seek to encourage differentiation in our teachers to foster the individual ideas and approaches to problem solving that will continue to push us forward as a society. We do not want robots for kids so we should not seek to create robots for teachers. Instead, individuality should be at the core of what students experience in their classrooms. It is the individual personality and approach to the subject matter that can spark a student’s interest and lead them to greater achievement, and too much emphasis on common pacing, common planning, and common lessons will instead risk pushing instruction towards mediocrity.

In preparation for my school’s move to PLCs my principal sent many teachers, including myself, to visit Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois – which has firmly embraced and utilized PLCs for over 20 years. I visited the school with all my fears about PLCs firmly intact. When I spoke with their social studies teachers, many of them expressed similar fears of being “turned into robots” when they first came to Stevenson. However, they assured me that they had made their communities into places which fostered learning and creativity among teachers. I was relieved to hear this but I also spoke to other departments at the school that had embraced all teaching the same lessons each day. Therefore, as I embark on this new era of PLCs at my school I plan to work to ensure that the different personalities of both teachers and students do not get lost to the standardization of instruction and that the passion and individuality that makes classrooms unique is protected. It is this individualism that makes classrooms special and that inspires students to achieve, to think for themselves and to grow.

Virginia DeCesare, NBCT

Virginia DeCesare has been teaching at Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colorado for 23 years. She is a National Board Certified teacher who teaches AP US History as well as US History to 9th graders. She also teaches an elective course on World War I and II that she created. She was named the 2017 Outstanding Teacher of American History by the Colorado State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.