Roger Ebert’s statements from his memoir have been reverberating in my mind this week. It is on this measure of joy that so many of us fail, fail miserably in fact. His illness sharpened his perspective past accomplishment and ambition to this single tenet “(t)hat is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”
In the teacher’s world of the classroom, one hopes to engender joy. We can all recall when it has surfaced, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes miraculously.
These times make it hard for joy to surface. I sought it in the classrooms I visited this year and hardly found it. I found dogged determinism, I found the usual adolescent antic, I found bitterness in the teacher’s lounge, I found suspicion in the principal’s offices.
But joy seems hard to come by.
There is no joy to be found in school board meetings, or any of the meetings upon meetings this town has held. Anguish and outrage in plentitude can be found, so can the wearied expression of the besieged and the forced placid demeanor of the decided. But joy, like this spring, has been slow to surface with consistency.
Bill Ayers wrote to me recently, currently enjoying new grandparenthood in Berkeley while his son and daughter-in-law resume teaching. There he expresses the tired joy of being in the company of new life, a feeling that transcends accomplishment and ambition.
Still, he shared with me a bit of his thoughts on the testing juggernaut wrenching the joy out of the student and teacher experience. In commenting on the aftermath of the test cheating scandal in Atlanta, which he claims can be laid at the feet of the focus on testing launched by the Bush and continued in the Obama Administrations, he wrote:
“The deeper problem is reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score. Teaching toward a simple standardized measure and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes” both incentivizes cheating and is a worthless proxy for learning.
I recently interviewed leaders at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools—the school Arne Duncan attended for 12 years and the school where the Obamas, the Duncans, and the Emanuels sent their children—and asked what role test scores played in teacher evaluations there. The answer was none. I pressed the point and was told that in their view test scores have no value in helping to understand or identify good teaching. None.”
And so the toll knells, and while the press conferences and releases and policy statements move circumstance and emotion, a movie man at the end of his life writes “To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crimes start.”