One of the key dichotomies for teachers in public schools, especially when you speak of education reform, is autonomy versus accountability. Many experts and politicians regularly attack the current system as providing too many protections which enable teachers to avoid being held accountable. Those against teacher tenure, unions, and collective bargaining rights emphasize how those things shield teachers from being called to task for academic outcomes; when employees in business don’t deliver demonstrable results (increased sales, more profits, or work productivity), the reasoning goes, they are subject to being fired with little recourse: Produce or get out. Teachers, on the other hand, (as claimed over and over by tenure foes) achieve job protection early in their careers and are never again under any pressure to do anything except show up and get a paycheck, regardless of lackluster results, typically as shown by standardized tests.
But people like me will counter that without commitment, dedication, and creativity in our teachers, our kids won’t get a quality education. Teachers coerced, demeaned, and rated like brands of toothpaste will not be happy in their work, nor will the most talented individuals be attracted to a profession which is not valued in terms of either prestige or monetary reward. I have always wanted my children to have motivated, energized, happy people teaching them; and the best teachers have always insisted on a certain amount of freedom to conduct their classrooms as they saw fit. Although we’ll discuss how curricular decisions need to be determined collectively as well as updated frequently, individual teachers need to feel in charge when it comes to their classrooms which can only come through a sense of autonomy, the belief that what you are doing matters and that you have control over how you do your job.
And that’s one reason teacher unions have come to play an important role in getting teachers some freedom. It would be quite disingenuous of me not to let you know that I was a union activist over my 33-year teaching career: Not only did I teach junior high and high school English, but I also served in my teachers’ unions in several positions for the bulk of that time, as local president, contract negotiator, and grievance chair for example. Obviously that experience does color my perceptions on this issue, so you’ll have to keep in mind I am decidedly pro-union when I analyze how public schools can improve. It will come as no surprise, then, that I support tenure, collective bargaining laws, and independent teachers. I’ve explained all the reasons why many times before: You can check out other essays on my blog (or if you’d like even more detail, my book) to get those explanations more specifically. But like that quick take above, unless teachers are enthusiastic and motivated (aka autonomous), your kids won’t learn as much as they could. If you want your teachers to give their best and work their hardest, you’d better be sure they like what they do. Treating them like interchangeable, faceless clerks who need to stock the shelves with material you have forced on them while insisting they handle that material in identical, proscribed ways—which is what some claim as necessary “reform”—will not create the environment or workplace morale which can enhance the education of our country’s children.
But if patronizing standardization isn’t the answer, leaving teachers wholly to their own devices isn’t either. One persistent issue over the years has been how the quality of instruction varies from teacher to teacher and school to school. Because teachers have been largely tossed into their classrooms without much day-to-day support, there is no question that some have floundered more than they should. Don’t get me wrong: I believe floundering is one of the best learning tools for anyone in a new job, and I heartily endorse a healthy amount. Learning by doing is the fastest way to become competent, so trying lots of different things in order to figure out what works is one of the best ways for new teachers to grow. (Be sure to catch my enlightening workshop: “Floundering—Going Down with Style” coming soon to your child’s desperate-to-fill-institute-time school district. And no, I don’t really explain anything during the three-day workshop; good teachers will flounder around until they figure it out on their own!) Really, I’m not sure I’d want to keep any teacher on staff who believed he had all the answers after teaching for one year; making mistakes, second-guessing lesson plans, and the Sunday-night “dreads” (becoming uncomfortable as the wonder of your school-free weekend fades into the reality of the approaching Monday morning) all help motivate young teachers to figure things out, to get better. But like all “good” things, too much struggle can lead to habitual bad techniques, cutting corners, and out-of-control classes. All of which leads us right back to the original American Enterprise Institute article which has stimulated my last three essays (Numbers one and two are still available if you haven’t read them.)
Those essays and that article review the ambitious goals two schools implemented with teachers providing students with challenging curriculums and pushing the highest standards, while being provided with quality resources in the form of up-to-date facilities and opportunities to collaborate. But we also discovered that no matter what anyone tells you, no two schools will require exactly the same treatment: Many outside factors (parental support, community educational background, and available resources—to name a few) play a role in how ready students are for the material they are expected to handle. Forcing all schools to follow the same path to achieving those high-level standards is not only a foolish goal, but logistically impossible. Classrooms are always inhabited by unique sets of human beings who must cooperate and concentrate to complete purposeful actions in the hopes of attaining something useful (knowledge). That’s a challenging, complex set of variables which will interact in a myriad of ways. Results will never be constant because it’s impossible to control all the things which will impact the final outcome. Not only will each individual and class react in one-of-a-kind ways based on their unique backgrounds, but you also have the wild-card factor of rapidly changing/growing young people. There’s no question that you will see a large change in both students’ personalities and habits from kindergarteners through seniors in high school. I certainly did as the school year progressed in the students who made up the bulk of my 33-year teaching career, ninth graders (fourteen going on fifteen)—a first-quarter freshman can be very different from that same human being in the fourth quarter. Blend all those ingredients together and you can have a significant variance from year to year with a single teacher and the same curriculum. That’s not speculation; that is a fact, as any teacher will tell you.
But good teachers will focus more on what they can do to “fix” whatever doesn’t work well, rather than fixating on all the other variables. Understanding those things which impact readiness for and obstacles to learning is one thing; using them as an excuse to give less than maximum effort cannot be acceptable in a teaching staff. And right there you have the rock and hard place of teaching: Teachers can never stop doing their utmost to provide students with the opportunity to learn, but they have to accept that there are many factors beyond their control which can impede progress. The challenge for teachers is to ensure a baseline performance which meets the minimum standards which have been collectively worked out by the school’s community. No, those should not be left entirely up to any one teacher; this is a key issue for accountability: Teachers have to understand that simply because they disagree with or haven’t signed off on parts of the curriculum doesn’t mean they shouldn’t teach them or work just as hard to help students attain the goals which have been mutually worked out over the years. Because of those non-academic items which affect every child’s capabilities to achieve standards, teachers must recognize that the curriculum which has evolved for any one school is the product of many years’ experience and work from other teachers, administrators, school boards, and community members. A school’s “culture,” therefore, is much too significant for any individual to ignore, and new teachers have to learn the larger gestalt in which they work. But equally important is that every teacher has a vital role to play in that culture’s progression.
Accountability, then, is based on the way a teacher fits into a school’s process. All too often, teachers are given little education on the background of their school—what the community expects and how that has been changed over the course of decades. Instead, they are assigned classes to teach, textbooks to use, and provided no help figuring out how they can use their unique talents to assist their students to achieve established standards. And those standards might not be very clearly spelled out either; teachers have to learn those mostly on their own, too. Finally, even less time is spent helping new teachers to understand how they are a crucial part of evaluating and modifying the curriculum from which the standards flow, that their opinion based on their own experiences will now contribute to how the school operates. No matter how many decades more one teacher has been teaching than another, both the first-year rookie and the thirty-year veteran will have roughly the same number of students to teach; and thus equal responsibility for the school’s success or failure.
But because schools generally do not foster a sense of teacher community, instead leaving that mostly to chance, every school has developed extremely varied identities which will veer positively or negatively, way too dependent on the charisma or quirks of individual teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards. Teachers have to fight to be heard, and most never even understand how important they are to the school’s function. Instead, they have shielded themselves from the capriciousness which regularly seems to flow from their bosses, politicians, and communities, accepting responsibility only for what happens in their classrooms and ignoring their rightful place as an important piece of the larger picture (often using the insulation provided by strong unions to stay out of the fray).
But as we noted last time, the trend in many schools is toward more time for teachers to plan and work together, which could help develop that unified purpose, that feeling of community which allows the sum to be much greater than that of the parts. And you can rest assured that once a sense of teachers’ belonging, involvement, and being valued as important to the school has been instilled in a school, that school’s teachers will expect all members of their community be accountable for their efforts toward that end goal. The widely criticized tenure process is supposed to be a trial period for new teachers, a time to evaluate if they have what it takes to join the rest of the teachers as shareholders in “ownership” of the school and its legacy. Tenure is a significant achievement, not because it guarantees lifetime employment, but rather because it means a teacher is now a full-fledged, accepted member of the staff, a partner in the firm. When you work with kids, you have to feel like what you’re doing is significant, that it matters. Which of course, teaching does.
Consider the memorable people with whom you have interacted over the years. The odds are high you will list at least one teacher among the top two or three important non-family influences in helping you to become the person you are. Granted, teachers do spend a great deal of time with the community’s children and are entrusted to make sure their students are provided with worthwhile learning opportunities. But that quantity only emphasizes how important quality matters in teachers who are shaping our communities of the future. I feel a personal disappointment/responsibility that with over 3,000 of my ex-students now eligible voters, Trump could ever come close to being elected President. I do take some solace on Illinois’s overwhelming support for Hillary, but still… Regardless of my overblowing my own importance in Presidential elections, every person who attended public schools bears the impact of many teachers; they participate in the growth and development of all of us. We tend to ignore their importance in how our society turns out, but after family, teachers are the most significant influence on our kids.
Accountability, then, can become institutionalized once teachers who actively participate in their schools’ curriculums and cultures work more closely with those new to the profession. It’s already happened to some extent in virtually every excellent school in the country. The challenge is figuring out the correct environment which allows that culture to develop so the process is not so haphazard. The encouraging trends of permitting teachers more time to interact through more student late-arrival days and the increased numbers of teachers working together to team teach are definitely steps toward helping teachers to learn their schools’ cultures more thoroughly. It will also lead to everyone’s becoming more familiar with each other’s methodology which can only lead to inexperienced teachers learning how to do better and skilled teachers to a clearer understanding which teachers need help or another career. No, the veterans won’t try to create clones of themselves—that would take way too much time and work, given their normally busy schedules. But as all teachers get more time to interact with their colleagues, they will instill a sense of mission in each other that accepts nothing less than hard work, dedication to common goals, and a ruthless devotion to finding even better techniques, materials, and/or technologies to increase their effectiveness. Those who can’t or won’t commit to that level of performance should be obvious to everyone, certainly during the multi-year probationary period currently in place prior to achieving tenure, and politely but firmly shown the door.
And that’s without even getting into my challenge that if the current tenure process is used as it was designed to function (at least here in Illinois, one of the more “liberal” teacher union states), it will effectively police the teaching profession. Accountability coupled with autonomy in schools already exists; you need only look to those which are successful and you will discover its proliferation. The question is how to replicate that atmosphere more consistently and systematically: Setting up situations where teachers have the time to cooperate with each other is the single best way to ensure an accountable outcome and a more robust school culture filled with autonomous teachers.