OPINION — If you ask anyone who their favorite teacher was, guaranteed the answer will be based on a connection or bond they felt.

Teachers know that at the beginning of the new school year, not only do they need to learn each student’s name, it’s critical that they find a way to connect with them. This connection is necessary to motivating student learning and growth. Especially with struggling students, they need to feel their teacher cares and “knows” them.

In an average classroom, teachers have students of varied interests, strengths, deficiencies, emotional and behavioral needs. In order to meet those needs, teachers have been trained in the art of differentiation, which means to tailor the lessons, strategies and processes to the student. As parents can attest, no two children learn the same way and at the same pace. What works for one child often does not work for all.

These understandings are in direct contrast to the “one size fits all” mandates coming from districts and states to “fix” the educational process. “What” is being taught has always needed to be standardized, but in recent years, state lawmakers are making the decisions about “how” they should be taught. Lawmakers are needed for funding education, but they have begun to overstep into the classroom. A perfect example of this is the teaching of reading in our elementary schools.

Having spent over 30 years doing so, I have seen the pendulum swing from little phonics instruction to a complete focus on phonics. The truth is there is no magic bullet that will teach all students to read at an expected time. The mistake made time and again in education is to throw out everything educators have learned in the past to make room for a new philosophy, strategy or fad.

Students in the kindergarten and first grade classrooms visited at Paradise Canyon Elementary eagerly listened and shared their own experiences with first responders and reading, St. George, Utah, March 2, 2022 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

In reaction to low state reading test scores in 2022, the decision was made by mostly politicians and school boards, neither of which have actually taught reading, to implement a very standardized, scripted method of teaching reading. The same is happening across the nation. The most worrisome part of this law is how it is being implemented. Teachers were told that their past practices, no matter how successful, were no longer to be used. All students were to receive the same instruction in the same way and teachers will be held accountable for fidelity in its implementation.

Never in my career has a particular philosophy of teaching reading and curriculum been mandated by law. These decision-makers actually think they know better than teachers. The loss of teacher autonomy and their right as professionals to make decisions about how to teach the most fundamental subject — reading — has been taken away. In 10-20 years when we, as a nation, look back and see it was not the magic bullet we were hoping for. Will anyone accept the blame?

This movement, affecting both public and private schools, makes teachers more “implementers of programs” rather than trustworthy professionals who are closest to their individual students. The trend is growing with math mandates about teaching and testing rolling out from our state. Will we continue to allow people far removed from the classroom and students to micro-manage daily teacher decisions? Parents don’t want this intrusion either. My experience is that parents value the teacher’s ability to know and make adjustments to meet their child’s needs.

We should also worry about the consequences to the teaching profession. Teachers with 10 years or more experience can see the trend to take away autonomy in the classroom. However, new teachers will never have the freedom to expand their toolbox with the myriad strategies needed to meet diverse student needs. A freedom that I believe is truly the “Art of Teaching.” New teachers will become great “implementers” instead.

This trend in education is hidden because lawmakers and parents don’t see the unintended consequences of laws that mandate more of the decisions that used to be made by influential teachers who know better than anyone what their students need to learn and grow into successful humans. Teachers are fearful of speaking out and practically silenced into submission. If this trend continues it will erode confidence in teachers, and we will see less need for their training and preparation. After all, can’t anyone “implement” a program?

Submitted by ELLEN BENNETT, Washington City. Bennett taught for 27 years in Washington County elementary schools. She attended Brigham Young University and graduated from Southern Utah University with a master’s ineEducation. Besides teaching kindergarten and first grades, she spent the last 10 years teaching fourth grade at Coral Canyon Elementary.

Letters to the Editor are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.