Roxanna Elden: “What kind of jerk wants to leave children behind?”

April 25, 2011
Roxanna Elden is a teacher and the author of "See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers"

Participants at this year’s NewSchools Summit will have the opportunity to hear from a young teacher named Roxanna Elden, who has gained a sudden cult following through observations like, “If you sit through one of the new district-mandated trainings on the importance of rigor–and I don’t recommend it–you may notice that the concept would be better described as ‘not sucking at teaching.’” Roxanna’s Summit session will offer up her unique perspective on complications that arise when schools try to practice what policymakers preach. NewSchools Director of Policy Ben Riley exchanged emails with Roxanna last week in preparation for her Summit session.  Read their exchange below.

Ben Riley: Roxanna, thank you so much for agreeing to speak at our Summit this year, and to lead the session with the shortest title: “LeNOIWTA: ‘Let’s Not Overdo it With the Acronyms,’ and Other Secrets to Teacher Buy-in and Retention.” Let me dive right in and ask about a particularly controversial acronym, NCLB (short for No Child Left Behind), that’s been much in the news lately. Do you think teachers would have been more supportive of NCLB if it had just been called something else? I think of the Clean Air Act, which describes in three words its entire purpose. What if NCLB had been named the Educate Every Kid Act – EEK for short?

Roxanna Elden: Thank you for inviting me. “No Child Left Behind” is a good example of an education law named to gain public support. After all, what kind of jerk wants to leave children behind? (Probably the same loser who doesn’t want us to breathe clean air.) The problem is that optimistically titled reforms often clash with the learning conditions created by these reforms, which can turn them into punch lines among teachers – the more positive the title, the more ironic. At the school level for example, the phrase “No Child Left Behind” is most often used in statements such as, “Yeah, we don’t teach science and social studies any more. We’re making sure no child is left behind.” (The initials “EEK” would more accurately capture the way teachers feel about the unintended consequences of NCLB, but something tells me politicians would never go for it.)

BR: So what you’re saying is, teachers don’t respond to the upbeat names that policymakers bestow upon education laws?

RE: Reformers pursue public support to win political victories, but they need teacher support to run schools. Sunny titles don’t mean much to teachers, and catchphrases like research-based, transformational change, and status quo sound different to us than they do to the headline-scanning public. Teachers don’t need positive messaging. We need decision-makers to understand the way their decisions play out in our classrooms.

BR: See, you’re worrying me, because I use the phrase “status quo” all the time when I talk about failed education policies that hinder innovation and ultimately harm kids. Which brings up my favorite acronym-as-punching bag related to the status quo: “LIFO.” Short for last-in, first-out, LIFO is used to describe the teacher retention policy in many states and district wherein young teachers (the “last in” to be hired) lose their job before older, protected veterans (i.e., young teachers are the “first out”). As a relatively young teacher yourself, surely LIFO is one acronym-designated policy that makes your blood boil?

RE: On this issue I think there are valid arguments on both sides. It’s hard for young teachers to get behind the idea of seniority-based layoffs, especially in an economic climate where they have to fight for footholds in bankrupt school districts. On the other hand, districts spend a tremendous amount of money recruiting and training teachers who spend the first year on a steep, trial-and-error learning curve, and then have a 50% chance of leaving the profession within five years. In the most challenging schools, 50% of teachers leave within three years, taking their experience and institutional memory with them. We want young people to teach, but we also want young people to choose teaching as a career. That means we need to recognize experience as an asset and reward it accordingly.

BR: So you are against policies that protect seniority, but for policies that reward seniority – you will make an excellent politician if you ever leave teaching! All teasing aside, I’m so excited for your session at our Summit this year, and I hope everyone who’s read our little Socratic dialogue attends or follows online. Any final thoughts or comments?

RE: I’m not sure I’d be such a great politician, but I am happy to report that my book has developed a reputation for keeping teachers from leaving teaching. The book is called See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, and it’s a funny, practical guide with hundreds of stories and tips from teachers around the country. I’m really looking forward to this year’s Summit. I hope to have a lot of conversations about how we can help teachers make it to the five-year mark and beyond with their passion – and sanity – intact.