SANTA FE, N.M. — Teachers in Santa Fe and elsewhere are saying they are under increased pressure these days due to the federal and state mandates that grew out of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Some of them, however, have found support and solace in a teacher renewal program offered through the Academy for the Love of Learning just outside Santa Fe.
“The program renews our enthusiasm and dedication as to why we’re teaching in the first place,” said Eileen Stapleton, a fifth-grade teacher at Piñon Elementary. “So when we’re feeling stressed out and overwhelmed from all the things that come down from on high, it helps us cope.”
Stapleton, who has been teaching for 25 years, said teachers are facing increasing challenges. They’re required to teach to a curriculum determined by others and put students through a battery of tests that determines whether a student advances to the next grade level or, in the case of high school students, graduate. Those test scores also factor into evaluations intended to measure a school’s overall performance on an A-F grading system introduced two years ago.
A new teacher evaluation system being implemented this year just adds to the stress, she said.
“It’s already a huge job to meet the needs of kids, and teachers get demonized and blamed for a lot of these issues that are affecting education,” she said. “Then, there’s the whole testing conundrum … the testing frenzy that’s going on. There’s so much that’s being required, I don’t know how many people will want to come into this profession the way it’s heading.”
There’s no turning back for Stapleton, who said she knew she was going to be a teacher since she was in second grade. So she forges on, with the help of the friendly folks at the Academy for the Love of Learning.
“They’re extremely supportive of teachers. It’s the most supportive thing I’ve experienced in my teaching career,” she said. “Just going into that building is calming and relaxing. The staff always makes us feel so welcome and it’s not just lip service. They truly believe in what they’re doing.”
Located just southeast of Santa Fe off Old Las Vegas Highway, the academy was founded as a nonprofit learning center by Aaron Stern in 1998 on the former estate of naturalist, artist and author Ernest Thompson Seton. Its stated mission is “to awaken, enliven, nurture and sustain the natural love of learning in people of all ages.”
The academy offers several programs with that aim, one of which is the teacher renewal program.
“Teaching is a raw and personal act – an in-your-face profession,” said Patty Lee, who directs the teacher renewal program. “Teachers can lose themselves and lose their souls. They go into it thinking the system will nurture them, but that’s not what happens. They often become faced with disillusionment.”
Lee said the program is intended to help teachers find themselves again and restore their passion for their profession.
“Overall, it’s to wake people up to being the teacher they want to be and make sure that they are on the right path,” she said. “In order to do that, they have to fall in love with learning themselves, instead of being numb to it. Unless you know how to dig deep and access what you know about learning, you lose sight.”
Lee said the program is based on the academy’s learning model and consists of three prongs, the first a series of three six-hour workshops.
Combining experiential methods with reflection and conversation with other teachers, its goal is to put teachers back in touch with their purpose, she said.
“It teaches them to ‘explore who I am as a teacher. Who are the children I’m with? What is my work in this world? What am I meant to be?’ ” Lee said.
After completing the workshops, teachers then attend monthly “wisdom circles.”
“It’s basically a colleague support group,” Lee said. “It includes book study, or case study, where teachers sit and discuss their current situations.”
Finally, teachers attend a three-day summer institute. During this time, teachers are taught how to release themselves from the year just completed and partake in exercises of creative expression, and are shown how to take what they’ve learned in the program into the next school year.
Lee said much of the work is accomplished through dialogue; the academy doesn’t lecture to people.
Instead, teachers often will be paired up with a partner or meet in small groups to discuss their teaching experiences. They are sometimes asked to contemplate and discuss passages on education written by such people as John Dewey, Aristotle and Martha Graham. Journal writing and walking on the land in quiet reflection are other activities the academy uses to help teachers find their purpose again.
“Teachers will say that teaching is one of the most isolating professions. After going through our program, they become strong supporters of each other,” Lee said.
Santa Fe Public Schools has partnered with the Academy for the Love of Learning since the program was introduced four years ago.
“It’s very popular,” said Rhonda Gardner, director of teaching and learning for SFPS. “Teachers say it’s one of the premier professional development activities available to them. It allows them to reflect on their practice and what they need to do to become better teachers. Other trainings in the system are focused more on the day-to-day practice, whereas the teacher renewal training is more reflective and all-encompassing.”
And teachers get paid to go through the training, which occurs outside the framework of their workweek. They earn $16 per hour, paid for out of Title II professional development funds.
Gardner said that, from what she hears from teachers, the training is well worth the investment.
“From the feedback I’ve received, they absolutely feel there is a direct link between this program and improvement,” she said. “It’s really very organic. They find it to be non-threatening and more about personal accountability than external accountability.”
Stephanie Hubley, who like Stapleton teaches at Piñon Elementary, attests to that.
“It’s nice to have an outlet and space where I can talk about being a teacher in a non-judgmental setting with like-minded people,” she said. “We’re looking to evolve as teachers and that community, that support network, helps us in trying to keep that creativity and evolve in the practice.”
Hubley said teachers these days find themselves trying to perform a balancing act between teaching creatively and following the mandates that are imposed upon them.
“The academy works to make sure the pendulum doesn’t swing too far in one direction. We don’t want the pendulum to swing so far that there is no creativity,” she said.
Asked for examples of how she’s put to use some of the things she’s learned at the academy in her fourth-grade classroom, Hubley cited several.
One simple one is she’ll sometimes have her students sit together in a circle, like they do with the wisdom circles at the academy. The idea is to encourage students to be more active in the learning process by getting them involved in discussions in which they learn from their peers, as opposed to being “talked at” by a teacher.
Another concept she’s employed is to empower students by offering them choices and opportunities to express themselves. When covering a subject matter, she may give them a choice to interview someone, design and create a poster, or write a book report.
Using arts and music
She said she also tries to incorporate arts and music in teaching – a technique used during academy workshops – and integrate hands-on learning whenever possible.
“There really is something to be said about putting your hands on a piece of clay. It helps conceptually to actually do it,” she said. “In math class, I’ll have them break up candy bars to learn fractions. It’s more meaningful for students.”
Both Hubley and Stapleton say they understand the reason students are subjected to testing and teachers are required to follow a core curriculum and to go through an evaluation process. It’s about creating accountability, and they’re fine with that.
“Accountability is fine, a certain amount is fine, but it has just become so copious,” Stapleton said. “Kids are spending so much time being tested and these evaluations take up so much of our time, and our administrators’ time, I think it’s too much. It’s too tedious and demanding.”
Stapleton said the teacher renewal program has renewed her passion for teaching in the face of the mandates.
“In my heart, I’m a holistic teacher and the academy helps me hold on to my belief in holistic education,” she said. “Sometimes, what we’re asked to do, it gets so focused on test scores and numbers, it helps me bring joy into the classroom. Teaching needs to be joyful and fun.”
“For me, it’s one way to offset teacher burnout,” Hubley said. “The Academy for the Love of Learning is unique because they are trying to address teacher burnout head on. It’s refreshing to be in a group of people where we’re talking about education, but it’s not complaining and it’s not griping, it’s remembering why we like to teach.”