This week, the resignation letter of a special education teacher in Florida has gone viral online. Through my friends and relatives who are teachers, and eventually others who read the letter and were moved to share it, I’ve seen it many times in my social network feeds in the last few days. Wendy Bradshaw, Ph.D., decided to resign her teaching post after giving birth and realizing that she felt a sense of dread thinking about her new daughter attending the schools in which she teachers. In her letter, she writes:
I just cannot justify making students cry anymore. They cry with frustration as they are asked to attempt tasks well out of their zone of proximal development. They cry as their hands shake trying to use an antiquated computer mouse on a ten year old desktop computer which they have little experience with, as the computer lab is always closed for testing. Their shoulders slump with defeat as they are put in front of poorly written tests that they cannot read, but must attempt. Their eyes fill with tears as they hunt for letters they have only recently learned so that they can type in responses with little hands which are too small to span the keyboard.
The emphasis above is mine. What Dr. Bradshaw is essentially saying is that the policies of her workplace prevent her from supporting her students’ sense of competence by guiding them through appropriately challenging tasks for their level of ability. She sees their lack of engagement, and it serves to diminish her own at the same time.
Two things stand out to me beyond the obvious sadness of seeing such a professionally accomplished and personally invested teacher leave her job because of policies that complicate her work. The first is that supporting competence (and autonomy and relatedness) in others can be a way for people to engage not just other people, but also themselves in their work. Removing the ability of workers to create engaging circumstances for their customers (students, audiences, users, etc.) disengages the workers eventually.
Second, this is an example of the unintended consequence of educational policies intended to improve the learning of American children. Legislation like the No Child Left Behind act was crafted, I am sure, with the idea that defining a baseline level of achievement and annual milestones for students would help American children learn more effectively. For a variety of reasons beyond my expertise, that has not come to pass, but as a psychologist, I can say one failure in such legislation is that it does not account for the different learning trajectories of individual students. At some fundamental level, people understand that everyone is different and not all children will learn the same material at the same rate using the same methods. Yet, our standardized testing system measures teachers and schools on their ability to get students to do just that. More than a decade after No Child Left Behind became law, test results consistently show that it was not effective at improving academic achievement. What is even more dangerous in my opinion is that it also seems to have caused talented educators and promising students to disengage along the way.