Five Myths Reformers Want You to Believe about Teachers

Teachers are no strangers to having stories told about them in order to move political agendas forward. During the era of No Child Left Behind, tales of lazy and incompetent teachers helped pave the way for strict accountability measures. Now, as ESSA marches forward with its plans to commodify, digitalize, and outsource education, a new set of myths has begun to circulate. Here are some of the most common fables you’re likely to hear.

  1. We spend most of our time lecturing.

In a 2010 article titled Teachers Unions vs. Online Education, Katherine Mangu-Ward summed it up like this: “A child who was perfectly content with a video stream, an MP3, and a chart flowing past him is suddenly ordered to sit still, shut up, and listen while a grown-up scrawls on a blackboard and delivers a monologue.”


But here’s the truth: most teachers spend very little time lecturing. At the elementary level, most teachers are trained in the “workshop model” of instruction, where direct instruction is limited to a short “mini-lesson” only. Across all grade levels, most teachers combine discussions, projects, and group work into their daily lessons. Scrawling on blackboards while delivering monologues? Not so much.

 2) We make our kids memorize lots of stuff.

This one also makes a great foil for reform plans: while teachers simply jam a bunch of knowledge into kids’ brains…


…online and digital programs will actually teach kids how to think.

But again: this just doesn’t happen. In most contemporary education programs, teachers are taught to use the constructivist model of education, where knowledge is “co-created” between teacher and student, and memorization takes a back seat to meaning-making. Meanwhile, the end-of-year math and ELA assessments don’t actually require students to know any particular facts at all; instead students are asked to do things like “find the main idea” of a paragraph, or decipher the meaning of an unknown word given its context in a sentence.

So, as much as they would like you to believe that those antiquated, 20th-century human-teachers are simply filling kids up with facts and sending them on their way, it’s just not true.

 3)  We teach according to our own needs and interests.

There is a big push right now among digital reformers to make learning more “student-centered” – as though we have somehow been centering our teaching elsewhere.


The truth is that as teachers, we are constantly searching for ways to tap into our students’ interests to engage them more deeply. “Teachable moments” – those spontaneous moments where you set the day’s plans aside because of something a student said or did – are one of the best parts of the gig. We only wish we had more time for them.

4)  We need better “assessment tools.”

This one brings my blood to a particularly rapid boil, as it pretends to hear some of our concerns about the end-of-year test (we don’t get the results back in a timely manner; they don’t actually give us worthwhile information, etc) but is really just trying to sell us more junk. Most of the major testing companies (Pearson, McGraw-Hill, etc.) have shifted their focus to the burgeoning “formative testing” market and are now promising to give teachers the real-time data and analytics that we need to inform our instruction. Meanwhile, an army of corporate-funded non-profits are aiming to put teachers to work developing banks of formative assessments that can be also used to gather student data.

But here’s the truth no one’s telling you: we don’t actually need any of this data.


Our own assessments, our own eyes and ears, our own conversations with kids and parents and caregivers give us more than enough information about our students to do our jobs well.

5) We are on board with the latest reforms.

We are asked to complete surveys that don’t include options for what we actually think; sometimes a couple of us are invited to participate on policy task forces only to find out that such policies have already been determined; occasionally someone from on high asks for our “input”…


…but lord knows what happens to it.

The fact is, while we make good window-dressing, teachers don’t have much say in what happens to public education.

Can you imagine what things might be like if we did?





Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

8 thoughts on “Five Myths Reformers Want You to Believe about Teachers”

  1. Great post Emily. I will share. I continue to be struck that its people with for-profit interest who make most of these myth statements and then use well-funded marketing/press release/communication machines to spread them. Talk to classroom teachers and parents of young children – and make sure teachers are free to say what they really think.


  2. I call bullshit on the claim that most teachers use constructivist practices…but I also think constructivist solutions don’t go far enough. Schools disempower children and the only real solution involves GIVING IT BACK.


  3. Online and digital programs (my experience, high school level) are the worst! Definitely a teacher’s monologue, scribbling on the board, with no ability to gauge student reaction or understanding, or to repeat things that you know they didn’t listen to! And student progress is meaured by a multiple choice quiz…which, for my underperforming math students, means they think they should be able to just look at the answers and choose the right one when they actually need to do 3 or 4 steps on scrap paper first. And the questions that purportedly require thinking skills are actually convoluted, difficult to read & decipher, and there is nothing in the instruction that guides the student into that kind of thinking. I can’t tell you what kind of sophisticated methods the students come up with in order to move through the material; it’s their way to work around things that are impossible or at least unrealistic. And then there are the (few) questions that actually require a written response that the computer automatically marks as “correct” no matter what is written….and it is left for a teacher to “grade” whether or not the teacher would ever use that particular question in a real classroom, especially as an evaluation question, but there is little room for thought-provoking “discussion” questions because it is all “individualized”–even though the only individualization is the pace a student goes or the ability for the teacher to add or subtract chunks of material. No option to reteach material in a different way, “reteaching” is done by going over the same instructional material the student already didn’t understand…..


    1. Are you a teacher? Sometimes older methods work better! The “reformers” want the public to believe the new methods we work. NOT !


  4. Reblogged this on Mister Journalism: "Reading, Sharing, Discussing, Learning" and commented:
    Five Myths Reformers Want You to Believe about Teachers
    By Emily Talmage, educator/writer

    Teachers are no strangers to having stories told about them in order to move political agendas forward. During the era of No Child Left Behind, tales of lazy and incompetent teachers helped pave the way for strict accountability measures. Now, as ESSA marches forward with its plans to commodify, digitalize, and outsource education, a new set of myths has begun to circulate. Here are some of the most common fables you’re likely to hear.


  5. Speaking of myths and boiling blood, it was offensive to hear a Baltimore County teacher state the following at a January 2016 “community input” meeting about the county’s digital “transformation” STAT (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow): “This is the first time – the first time – we have ever put this much emphasis on student learning, on student understanding.” This was after she characterized pre-STAT-era students as “passively compliant.” All things STAT and personalized learning are covered here:


  6. My children attend a public school in Richmond, California where even the kindergarteners go to computer lab weekly. They do In first and second grades, they seldom bring home artwork because, according to the first grade teacher, they have to spend too much time preparing for, and taking, computerized testing. Report cards are mostly regurgitated computerized testing results, with little real discussion of students as unique individuals.


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