Opinion: When teachers forced to become robots, no one benefits

A former teacher says, “I knew the K-12 space was no longer an option as I refuse to leave my brain on the sidelines and act as a robot. Feeling disempowered was a nonnegotiable for me and for many educators.”

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A former teacher says, “I knew the K-12 space was no longer an option as I refuse to leave my brain on the sidelines and act as a robot. Feeling disempowered was a nonnegotiable for me and for many educators.”

Ashley Nylin is a former k-12 teacher. After teaching middle school in Gwinnett County while also earning a specialist's degree in curriculum and instruction from Piedmont College, Nylin is now a doctoral student in the University of Georgia department of educational theory and practice.

She works with the Professional Development School District, a partnership between the college of education and the Clarke County School District, as a field instructor for pre-service teachers.

In this essay, Nylin discusses what happens when teaching is highly scripted and teachers are forced to leave their brains “on the sidelines and act as a robot.”

Nyline was recently named an "Emerging Professional Development School Leader" by the National Association for Professional Development Schools.

By Ashley Nylin

As you walk through the hallways, you notice the order of the building. Everything seems to be running smoothly, like clockwork.

Entering a classroom, you see students in rows, eyes forward, seemingly on the teacher. The teacher reads from a notebook, almost as if following a script. You leave and enter another classroom and see, to your surprise, a nearly identical scenario. Finding it odd, you excuse yourself and move into another room.

The same scenario.

You look more closely at the students, hoping for something unique, but as you look into their eyes, you are met with vacant stares. It’s startling, and so you look to the teacher – and you see the same vacancy.

What’s going on here? Aren’t schools supposed to be places of learning, excitement, engagement, and passion? Places of empowered teachers and students?

You start talking to teachers, trying to figure out where their fire for education has gone – why they appear as robots, or automatons, simply going through the motions. What has happened? You dig deeper and learn of prescribed and scripted curriculum; teachers are expected to be at the same point in the same lesson every day. For transient students that idea seems based in reason, but the practice has been detrimental to teachers.

You learn of the pressure felt by both teachers and students to perform well on standardized tests. You learn of the autonomy stolen from teachers to make any decision beyond a seating chart in their room. You learn of the complete lack of empowerment (and active process of disempowerment) of the teachers and then learn this is a widespread issue. Teachers across the country are begging for a shift away from this robotic sort of teaching.

Some are leaving the field. I did, and, while I ultimately found myself working toward my doctorate, I knew the k-12 space was no longer an option as I refuse to leave my brain on the sidelines and act as a robot. Feeling disempowered was a nonnegotiable for me and for many educators.

What does it mean to be empowered? Why does it matter?  To be empowered is to feel like you have the power or agency to enact change or make decisions. In my two public school jobs, my level of empowerment varied vastly.

In one building, school leaders made me feel trusted and knew I was a professional educator – I was free to plan my days with my students as necessary, while collaborating on big ideas with a team of teachers.

In the other building, I was sent daily slides to use – a relatively rigid script, if you will – and was never asked for input. My sense of professionalism went from full to empty.

Never before did I understand the importance of empowerment until I went from being a teacher to what felt like a robot. The expectation was to do exactly as I was told, to not provide input, and to do it with a smile. My lack of empowerment felt like someone had poured a bucket of water on a campfire, which was once a roaring, crackling, beautiful blaze burning with passion for teaching.

For me, the only way to fan the flames and attempt to bring back that passion was space and time away from the traditional profession. Our public schools can’t survive if every burned-out, disempowered teacher steps away to gain perspective.

You may often hear teachers say “Well, I sure don’t do it for the money,” and that’s true. Teachers show up for their students because they love the work – the lightbulb moment in an after-school tutoring session, the smile of a student beaming with pride after bringing up a grade, the glow of a bright future for our world as students think, learn, and speak toward what matters.

Disempowering teachers takes away these opportunities one by one, and our classrooms are left passionless. How do we expect students to be passionate when our teachers aren’t allowed to be?

The importance of empowerment wasn’t made clear to me – even though I made life decisions unknowingly based on my level of empowerment – until I lucked into working on a study where teachers made clear their desire – the necessity – to feel empowered in the workplace.

I had my own lightbulb moment, like several of my former students. Empowering our teachers is the key to so many things. We’re here because we love teaching and we want it to be the best year for all of our students. Is it wrong to request a level of respect from higher-ups that recognizes we are trained for this and our brains do have the capacity to think and make decisions in the best interest of our students?

So, what needs to happen?

We need to shift from a culture of blaming teachers toward a culture that celebrates teachers, not as perfect individuals but as professionals who continue to hone their craft through experience and professionalism.

We need to shift our view of accountability from one-size-fits-all to evaluating the “whole” teacher with a system significantly more robust than test scores, opinion surveys, and short, out-of-context observations.

Let teachers teach in ways they know will support their students. They know their students and we need to support their attempts to make decisions based on the students in front of them and on their professional expertise.

In schools that  have not adopted a scripted curriculum, where teachers are still being trusted to exercise appropriate professional judgment in their classrooms, you can walk down the hallway and hear a variety of approaches. Teachers are differentiating instructing for their students, providing scaffolding where needed, and helping to shape the next generation, while avoiding external pressures to become robotic in their instruction.

Walk through the hallways and embrace the differences and gifts of each teacher, as we embrace the differences and gifts of each student.

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