Volume:9, Issue: 2

Sep. 30, 2017

Conflicting Demands on Teachers: Suggestions for Mitigating Effects on Students
Dooley, Kalah R. [about]

KEYWORDS: challenges for teachers, standards and differentiation, multiculturalism, quality content, holistic education, Pestalozzi, Montessori, Sukhomlinsky.

ABSTRACT: This paper examines three issues that create challenges for today’s teachers and explores options for moderating the effects of those difficulties on students.  The challenges discussed are: (1) standardization versus differentiation, (2) multiculturalism versus segregation, and (3) content coverage versus depth.  As these challenges are interwoven in the current and historical structure of the school system, a teacher’s efforts in their individual classroom will not be able to fix the root of these issues.  However, by integrating ideas from holistic educators like Pestalozzi, Sukhomlinsky, and Montessori, teachers can help to mitigate the effects of these conflicts on their students.  Discussed in this paper as potential strategies for improving the experience of the teacher and the student in the face of such conflicts are Pestalozzi’s emphasis on a safe environment for learning, Sukhomlinsky’s integration of a moral education, and Montessori’s insistence on the student as learner. 

In today’s classrooms, teachers face pressure from multiple sources: national and local policies, school policies, colleagues, parents, and students.  Some of these pressures lead to complications within the institute of the school system, while others more directly influence teacher practice, but all have an impact on classrooms.  The most notable challenges that teachers face come from conflicting demands and ideals with which they have to contend. Among these conflicting demands are, (1) the simultaneous increase in standardization along with the call for differentiation; (2) participation in an increasingly multicultural world while schools continue to be mostly segregated; and (3) the commitment to cover certain amounts of content while stressing the importance of the depth of information taught.  At the classroom level, teachers will be unable to address the institutional problems inherent in education, but can seek to mediate their effects on students through some of the ideas of thinkers like Pestalozzi, Sukhomlinsky, and Montessori. 

Standardization versus Differentiation

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen a rise in testing and standardization as well as an increased push for differentiation of curriculum and teaching methods.  President George H.W. Bush’s America 2000 legislation required “substantial reliance on increased educational testing of many kinds” and rewarded schools based on “standardized test scores” (Urban & Wagoner, 2014, pp. 325, 328).  President George Bush took a further step toward standardization through the “No Child Left Behind (NCLB)” Act, which “institutionalized standardized testing as the vehicle by which public schools would be measured” (Urban & Wagoner, 2014, p. 351).  Such moves toward standardization can create problems on their own including temptation to teach to the test rather than focus on robust curricular content.  However, the push toward standardization is particularly difficult for teachers to deal with when they are also called to provide differentiated instruction.

In her book The Charged Classroom: Predicaments and Possibilities for Democratic Teaching, Judith Pace discusses the newest efforts for curricular standardization, the Common Core State Standards.  She notes that “while the Common Core State Standards steer teachers towards a more coherent curriculum…navigation of standardizing and diversifying curricular imperatives is a perennial challenge” (Pace, 2015, p. 84).  The push for diversification has roots in the increasing efforts for inclusion of students with disabilities.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act states, that “schools must educate all children with disabilities…regardless of the nature or severity of the disability” (Bicard & Heward, 2010, p. 322).  This means that unique accommodations must be made for students who have difficulty learning in traditional classroom settings.  This can require a significant amount of planning for teachers.  Teachers are bound to provide differentiated instruction to students with disabilities, however, as Pace (2015) suggests “connecting students to the curriculum and supporting their intellectual agency are vital in order to engage them in learning (p. 85).  Additionally, on a biological level, “every brain is wired differently…different regions in different children develop at different rates” (Medina, 2014, p. 92).  Each student will have unique experiences and backgrounds that will help connect them to their learning; a teacher must strive to be able to activate those connections for all of their students.

The conflicting demands of standardization and diversification of curriculum are both aimed at providing the best possible education for all students.  Practices of standardization have been implemented in the hopes of raising academic achievement, providing diagnostic data for schools to improve their practice, and increasing academic standards of students across the nation (Urban & Wagoner, 2014).  Efforts toward differentiation for individuals and groups of students seek to reach students at their level and engage them in learning through their own experiences.  Standardization and differentiation are both understandable goals, but the simultaneous demand for both these aims creates conflict for teachers. 

Multiculturalism versus Segregation

Another conflict that affects teachers in the classroom is the contradiction between the increasingly multicultural nation and the movement toward progressively more segregated classrooms.  Banks (2010) states, “almost all classrooms in the United States are multicultural because White students as well as Black and Brown students are socialized within diverse cultures.  Teachers also come from many different groups” (pp. 19-20).  Students in the United States come from “different cultural backgrounds with multiple intelligences, diverse perspectives, and contemporary concerns” which has the potential to “bring life into the classroom” (Pace, 2015, p. 85).  Living in a multicultural country suggests the need for an increase in multicultural education.  This requires “making a commitment to respect and teach about the many cultural backgrounds that children bring into the schools” (Urban & Wagoner, 2014, p. 340).  Multiculturalism in schools is valuable because schools today are tasked with socialization of their students.

According to Webb and Metha (2017), “socialization is the process by which persons are conditioned to the customs or norms and behavioral patterns of a particular culture” (p. 191).  As the culture of the United States is increasingly multicultural, classrooms and the education that occurs within them should reflect that by also becoming increasingly multicultural.  However, in recent years there have been movements in some cities, like the St. George incorporation movement in Baton Rouge, to separate school districts in the name of increased student achievement (Robertson, 2014).  The end result of such movements is often school districts that are less racially and economically diverse with the exclusion of minority students from the better schools (Robertson, 2014).  Creating smaller school districts also leads to a loss of special services and programs that are available to larger school districts with more tax support (Robertson, 2014). 

Pace (2015) also recognizes “the re-segregation of U.S. schools” which she notes as a problem because it “clashes with the fact that diversity is necessary for teaching ‘enlightened political engagement’…in a multicultural world” (p. 121).  This is troubling because “through both the formal and the informal hidden curriculum [students] learn the behaviors that are supported and valued by society” (Webb & Metha, 2017, p. 193).  In the classroom, it is difficult for a teacher to advocate acceptance and embracing diversity within the community when outside of the classroom society suggests that the right approach to difference is separation.  This puts teachers in a position of combatting what society appears to value.  In fact, Urban and Wagoner (2014) state that “educators and intellectuals who seek to introduce one or another aspect of multiculturalism…often find a school system or a larger community that is uncomprehending of the problem or indifferent to the proposed solution” (p. 340).  Ideally, the work of teachers would be supported by the larger school and neighborhood communities, but it seems that this is increasingly not the case.

The issue of multiculturalism and segregation is an institutional problem that needs to be addressed on a larger scale than the classroom.  Pace (2015) states, “it is incumbent upon policy makers to confront flawed conceptions of educational equity” (p. 121).  Teachers can work outside the classroom to support efforts toward increased representation of America’s varied cultures in its school system.  However, in the meantime inside the classroom, teachers must reconcile the differences between school cultures and the cultures of the nation.

Coverage versus Depth

A distinctly classroom-based problem that teachers have long dealt with and continue to face is the clash of quantity versus quality.  Pace (2015) sums up the problem stating that “teachers have historically been inundated with competing messages about what and how to teach” that “communicate the imperative to impart procedural skills and declarative knowledge” while also conveying “the importance of developing conceptual understanding, critical thinking, and creativity” (p. 69).  Teachers recognize the need for comprehensive instruction, seeing that “the brain processes meaning before detail” (Medina, 2014, p. 120).  However, within the structure of schools, “strong forces, such as testing, textbooks, and lack of professional support, steer teachers away from balancing traditional school knowledge with in-depth multicultural curriculum and democratic learning opportunities” (Pace, 2015, p. 86).  Teachers are oftentimes required to cover a certain amount of material over the course of the year and sometimes have to follow pacing guides set by their districts or individual schools.  This can have the effect of limiting the amount of freedom teachers have to create deep and meaningful learning experiences for their students and comprehension is sacrificed for content that can be memorized.

Useful Ideas from Past Educators

After analyzing these problems, there are a few ideas from former educators that I believe would be useful if teachers implemented them today.  I do not think that any of these ideas will completely solve any of the three problems presented; to completely deal with these problems goes beyond the purview of the classroom and into the realm of a rethinking of the school system itself.  However, I think that through implementation of ideas from such renowned educators of the past as Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Maria Montessori, and Vasily Sukbomlinsky, teachers can work to help mitigate the effects of these conflicts for students.

Pestalozzi’s Safe Environment

Pestalozzi believed that the foundation of education should be an emotionally safe environment (Ngo Manh Lam Ngo Manh Lam, 2015).  Such an emotionally safe environment, according to Pestalozzi, “depend[s] on a love relationship between teacher and student” (Gutek, 1995, p. 236).  Teachers should place an emphasis on developing relationships with their students and creating respectful, trusting, safe communities within their classrooms.  Creating such an environment with students will create spaces where students feel comfortable sharing their differences, exploring alternate perspectives, and supporting each other.  A safe environment might help students be more open to making mistakes and struggling through problems together, which supports deeper rather than surface-level learning.

Sukhomlinsky’s Moral Education

Sukhomlinsky advocated for the integration of moral education within the school curriculum.  He believed that “every aspect of education was interrelated, and every aspect was crucial” (Cockerill, 2011, p. 207).  Integrating moral education, teaching students to “never forget that you are living with other people,” and to “be kindhearted and help those in need” reinforces students’ connections as members of a larger community that they have a responsibility to improve (Cockerill, 2011, p. 200).  Moral education can give deeper meaning to learning and emotionally connect students to the material.  It can also empower students to not settle for society as it is, but inspire them to seek equity and justice in their immediate communities and the world.

Montessori’s Emphasis on Student Learning

Montessori believed that “the teacher’s responsibility is to prepare the environment, direct the activity, and function as the authority, but that the actual learning is the responsibility of children” (Gutek, 1995, p. 273).  While I do not think that the Montessori method can be implemented as a whole in classrooms that do not exist in a Montessori school, I do think that the notion of learning being the responsibility of the student is an important one for today’s teachers to keep in mind.  With pressures to cover material, improve student achievement, and prepare for standardized tests, teachers may end up leading students through the curriculum.  By this I mean that teachers might focus on fact-based questions, or for more challenging questions, might end up doing the thinking for students.  It is important that teachers not fall into this temptation, but set up learning experiences for students to navigate because “one can learn only through one’s own efforts” (Gutek, 1995, p. 274). 

Experiential Learning

All three of the educators mentioned are considered holistic educators who believe in a more natural process of education than is currently exhibited in most schools.  For instance, Pestalozzi placed “emphases on beginning instruction with the learner’s experience, on using the educational possibilities existent in the environment, and on maintaining a continuum of experience in instruction” (Gutek, 1995, p. 239).  These ideas have strong support in biology and psychology.  Medina (2014) states, “if you have an interest in a subject or a person, or something is important to you, you tend to pay more attention to things related to that subject or person” (p. 108).  This supports beginning with the learner’s experience and the surrounding environment, as these are likely to hold interest for the learner.  Also, learning through exploration engages the learner in a “multisensory environment” and “learning abilities are increasingly optimized the more multisensory the situation is…recall is more accurate, more detailed, and longer lasting” (Medina, 2014, p. 171). 


Again, I do not think that natural methods of education are possible or even necessary for every learning experience.  However, I do believe that incorporating them where appropriate can enhance student learning, making students more conscientious citizens and community members, as well as curious learners.  These proposed ideas are not solutions to the problems teachers face, but implementing some changes in classroom instruction can help teachers to create more meaningful lessons for their students while preparing them to engage in the expectations of an ever-changing world.


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