If you’re lucky, then at least once you have a teacher who makes all the difference. My firstborn — who’s now on his way to grad school — lucked out when he was 6, with Mr. Weinstein.
David Weinstein has taught first grade at the Pierce School in Brookline for 29 years. He’s gifted, dedicated and beloved — so I was stunned to find out that he is retiring, early.
In his early 50s, he’s leaving as the Brookline schools are immersed in contentious contract negotiations, largely about the data and documentation workload for teachers. This isn’t just a Brookline issue — it’s part of the national story of education reform.
Weinstein says it’s the main reason he’s stepping down. Even in a progressive town with an acclaimed public school system, he says, the paperwork is overwhelming.
And this is not a guy with an aversion to detail. For instance: Every year, since 1987, he has mailed a birthday card with a personal note to every student he’s ever taught.
Weinstein’s last day as a teacher in Brookline is Monday, June 20. As the day neared, he paused to reflect.
Here’s a condensed and edited version of what he said.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, just in terms of how the profession has changed and what we’re asking of kids. It’s a much more pressure-packed kind of job than it used to be. And it’s challenging.
The pace is intense and I feel for kids, because they’re rushed. They’re constantly being rushed. You only get to be a child once. And you don’t get to enjoy childhood when you’re constantly being rushed from this place to that place to this, and being assessed in this way.
There’s a lot more data collection than we used to do. Data collection is important; part of education is assessment. Data collection isn’t inherently bad.
What becomes problematic is when an outside party is asking you to collect data which isn’t tremendously useful to my tailoring instruction to children. And that — that becomes frustrating to me as an educator, when I’m spending the limited time that I have each day collecting data, as opposed to developing lessons and working with children.
There are only so many hours in a day. And I’d rather spend those hours doing something else which I think would be more beneficial to children.
All this assessment and all this testing — what I think a better reaction is, is supervision of teachers. You want to have your principal as your instructional leader. You want principals and vice principals and all the administrators to be going into classrooms and to be watching what’s going on, on a regular basis.
But our administrators are so overwhelmed and overburdened by all the mandates that have come down. Our teacher evaluation system is unbelievable in terms of the amount of work that has to be done — self-assessments, and reflections, and have meetings, and download evidence, and create goals, and all this paperwork, which is not nearly as valuable as someone coming into your classroom all the time and saying, “I really liked what you were doing here,” or “Would you think about doing it this way?” or “What about this?” or “I noticed so-and-so was having a hard time with that.” Those discussions, those wonderful rich discussions, that’s what moves education forward.
There’s a lot of looking at standards — that’s the big thing in education — and really with the goal of trying to break education down into bits and pieces, so that we can have a clear understanding of where kids have mastery and where kids don’t have mastery. All these little pieces don’t necessarily add up to a whole. It’s hard to say that if you’ve mastered this and this and this, you have an educated person. That I don’t believe.
My favorite quote is “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” That’s what education’s all about. We want to get kids excited about learning. I want kids to leave first grade and want to learn more and be excited about learning and coming to school and discovery. That’s what education is all about.
I guess the big-picture problem is that all this stuff we’re talking about here is coming from on top, from above, be it the federal government, the commonwealth of Massachusetts, the school administration. But the voices of teachers are lost. I mean, nobody talks to teachers. Or, if they do talk to teachers, they’re not listening to teachers.
And that’s, I think, the frustration — that this stuff just comes down, and we sit with each other: “Well, who thought of this?” or “Why do they think this is a good idea?” It’s kind of like “Why not come and talk with us first?” We actually are professionals who work with kids. We want what’s best for kids. We know what works. We know what doesn’t work.
Education is always changing. What we know about teaching and learning is always changing. But the people making those decisions should be teachers. It should be educators making those decisions, and not politicians, and not people who aren’t in schools.
Would I be leaving teaching if things were different? Probably not, no, I wouldn’t be.
You know, honestly? If it wasn’t so intense now, all year long, every single day, I would do it for longer. I would. But the reality’s a reality.
I think what I’ll miss the most is having my own group of students. That’ll be hard, because that’s like — that’s one of the things that actually brings tears to my eyes. Because it’s, like, every September, I’ve had this new group of kids to form and to work with. And I won’t have that any more. So that’s hard.
But then I think to myself, “You know what? At some point, you’re gonna have to say goodbye.” And I think, you know, I’ve had 29 groups of first-graders. I was lucky enough to get to have these groups of students. They’re still around. OK, they’re not 6 years old anymore, but that’s a good thing — they’ve moved on. But, you know, that’s hard.
And, under different circumstances, would I like to have a few more groups of students? Yeah, I would. But it is what it is.
Credit: Sharon Brody, the voice of WBUR’s weekend mornings. On Saturdays and Sundays, she anchors the news for Weekend Edition and other popular programs such as Only A Game, Living on Earth and Car Talk. During the week she frequently anchors the midday and afternoon news shifts. She also contributes essays to Cognoscenti, WBUR.org’s opinion page.