3 Ways Teacher Alignment Can Actually Hurt Teachers and Students
Learning is organic. Standards aren’t.
The notion is simple: If teachers are doing the same things, we can tell where we need to improve. If teachers are doing the same things, learning will be better for students. If teachers do the same things, teachers will be accountable.
To a certain extent, sure. Content alignment has some purpose: it makes the odd one stand out, the mistakes are more obvious, and who can blame a teacher for anything when the others have done the same?
This safety-net approach to teacher accountability has become not only widely accepted, but loyally followed in content departments. And it’s pretty obvious why: if students are taking standardized tests, we must standardize learning. To standardize learning, we must standardize teachers. To standardize teachers, we must standardize their materials.
The latter step is a misstep. Standards are one thing, but identical or overly-aligned teacher lessons are an insult to teachers.
The writing is on the board: dedicated teachers feel mistrusted, undermined, and kind of like students. Not in the good “teaching is learning” way, though. Teachers get certificated not only to perform, but lead work they feel confident in, but now, they’re pretty much “taught” what to teach and how to teach. There’s plenty of “best practice” talk to justify this, but through a critical lens, the following consequences occur.
#1: It can hurt teacher authenticity, and hinder student interest.
Teacher ownership is an uncompromising component to a teacher’s craft. When teachers find, organize or create materials on their own, they undeniably feel an ownership to their lessons and can execute them well. Instruction is a learned skill, but teaching is a craft that is individual to people. Nothing feels worse than teaching something with materials you don’t feel great about. This isn’t to say that any teachers are better than others; actually, the truth is the opposite. All teachers feel best, and teach best, when they have the autonomy to create what they do. Yes, there is a learning curve for newer teachers, but it comes with great reward.
That being said, student interest is better maintained when the classroom isn’t a system of compliance (for them and their teachers). Students feel this more than anyone; they’re familiar with compliance-driven learning, and it’s not their first rodeo. They want a teacher to actually teach them something meaningful. This can only happen when teacher authenticity is present, and teacher authenticity comes from teacher autonomy in innovating their learning spaces.
#2: It can weaken teacher skill, and slow student growth.
When decisions for scope and sequence purposes, materials, platforms, and especially texts for English or history teachers are made for them, they lose opportunities to manage classroom learning as they should be. They become a middle man, or an implementer. Their decision-making abilities not only diminish, but weaken. These decisions should be encouraged for teachers, not taken away from them. Again, there is a learning curve for newer teachers, but it comes with strength. We learn by doing, just like students, just like people.
When teacher growth slows, student growth slows. We want students to develop and maintain agency in the work they do. This is only possible if students see that their teachers have agency in the work they do.
#3: It can stifle teacher creativity, and diminish student independence.
Teachers are innovators. When innovation stops, teaching stops. Teachers deserve space to be creative without having to explain themselves, or ask permission. Too often within content or grade-level departments, alignment expectations (the need for commonality among content delivery due to standards-based learning) causes teachers, especially newer teachers, to stunt themselves with planning and innovating. In short, standards-based learning and the role of standardized testing has systematized, muted, and removed meaning from the role teachers are owed, and owe to students.
This systematic approach to learning has also removed student individuality and independence. They’re all expected, if not encouraged, to do the same thing and arrive at the same place. Just like their teachers.
Different levels of alignment have different levels of consequences, and not all are bad. Most teachers agree that having a concrete collection of skills to teach is helpful. Standards themselves don’t hinder teachers and students, it’s the high stakes testing, data requirements and accountability tied to the data culture that minimize a teacher’s role, and student’s learning journey. Learning is organic, and so are we. A more cautious level of alignment can allow us all more meaningful growth (something data can’t touch).