Grading was an issue I wrestled with for over thirty years in my job as a junior high and high school English teacher. At their root, grades are necessary evils, required to motivate students to do that which they ought, but don’t particularly want, to do. It would be wonderful if we all possessed an innate general curiosity which led us to seek out that which is noble, truthful, and providing the greatest good for the greatest number. But, after a millennium or two of regularly doing exactly the opposite, resorting to selfishness, greed, and sloth in order to satisfy our creature comforts, it’s logical to assume we humans will always have to fight against our baser tendencies. Young people, contrary to the way they often seem to older folks, are no different in their approach than previous generations. The current change they especially grapple with, though, is how fast our ever-evolving technology is being integrated into all aspects of their lives—we’ve all been participating in countless sociological experiments as the electrical revolution showers us with device after device, innovation after innovation, which rapidly alter everything, with an emphasis right now on how we communicate with each other.
As you can tell, we could go off on a lengthy general analysis here, but one communication alteration in particular has significantly impacted those aforementioned grades: Grading programs and on-line postings of student performance for parental consumption have changed the nature of teachers’ evaluating students to the point where the usefulness of the A-B-C-D-F grading scale has been obliterated. Using a percentage rather than a letter under the current system would better represent a student’s performance in school and be a fairer way of reporting that student’s achievement to colleges and/or future employers. Schools need to dump letters and use numbers.
I’ve completely lost the battle against grade programs, and will refrain from reprising all the reasons I believe they have hurt public education. (You could read how more subjective, non-quantifiable student characteristics need to be factored into grades here, or check out a detailed analysis of why grade programs are awful in my eBook, Snowflake Schools.) Suffice it to say that I don’t like how all student evaluations now come in the form of points so that they can be used with a grade program which reduces student performance to a percentage. Maybe I’ll summon the energy to tilt at that particular windmill again some day—because I absolutely believe they don’t serve us well—but for the sake of this essay, I’ll concede their pervasiveness means we must adapt to minimize their negative impacts. So if grade programs and on-line grades are here to stay, in the name of consistency, we should use those percentages on grade reports and transcripts. You’ll also note that the report card is rapidly fading out of existence as well—everything is on-line, which eliminates the need for any kind of “card.” (I’m fine with that change since as a big tree hugger I’m good with anything which reduces paper consumption. And to emphasize I’m not asserting any “alternative facts” [i.e. lies] here as well as refraining from sugar-coating reality from myself, I cannot deny how popular grading programs have become with teachers. But when you combine the ease of computers crunching percentages when fed points with the public posting of each and every assignment result on-line, you really change the nature of the beast, as we will touch upon later.)
To start, those percentages are all the students and parents see up until their conversion to letters at the ends of semesters. And here’s where the harm of using letters rather than numbers arises: Any person with the slightest arithmetic knowledge can tell you there’s a greater difference between an 81% student and one who clocks in at 88%, as compared to that 88% student and your 91% ace. There can’t be much discussion that 7% is a bigger gap than 3%. (I realize with Trump as President, this kind of objective reality could vanish any day now.) However, on the grade reports issued for those three students, two will have a B, with only that 91% landing the first-prize A.
My contention has always been that the vagueness of the five-letter-grade system in the hands of teachers is a good thing: Much of what goes into students’ performance has little to do with how they do on assignments where points are assigned. Again, I’ve sounded this alarm often in the past, but to review the concept: Things like promptness, reliability, effort, quality of classroom participation, courtesy, temperament (mean vs. kind, for example), and source of motivation (the craven nature of some students who have no interest in subject material unless it will be an aspect of their grade is unacceptable and must not be rewarded) should matter when evaluating a student’s progress in class. But none of those things translate well or readily into points/grade programs and thus are mostly left out of the grades our kids receive now. So, grade programs have made a big difference in just how the grades our kids earn are tabulated.
Before on-line grade postings took away the more human kind of evaluations, that 88% student might have deserved to rank lower than the 91% student for deficits in some of the above characteristics. Yep, that would have been the teacher’s judgement based on observations taking place in the classroom over many months. Uh-huh, those would be subjective evaluations which parents would have to trust were being meted out fairly. Nope, that wouldn’t always be the case; personalities can conflict which might lead to different reactions in ways far too subtle to be clearly seen as discrimination or conscious bias. (And, by the way, grade programs can’t do much to end this by-product of human interactions.) But there have been many more cases where teachers used their positions to give students lower grades than they might have earned in points because their performance had been poor in other ways. Being a “good” person isn’t something that is documented specifically with an objective rubric, but we all know how important it is. I’m admitting—not to mention advocating and encouraging—that non-scientific stuff can/does/should influence a student’s grade, and there are cases where a teacher should use subjective criteria to help a student see the need for improvement. I also understand some people would rather have a grade reflect nothing but how a kid scored on tests—which is what grade programs have moved us closer to. But keep in mind that throughout the history of public education, there have been many, many more instances of students benefitting from a teacher’s subjectivity: Bumping up a student’s grade because the teacher had observed the stellar quality of that 81% student’s character, work ethic, and effort—even though the “objective” point total for that kid might have topped out at 77%. So that’s the huge scandal of the pre-grade program/posting era: Teachers tended to shade grades in ways designed to reward positive non-point behavior or to punish those who demonstrated negative traits which were not included in point totals; that definitely happened more than it happens now.
Instead, we have the harsh reality of points, which leaves little room for a teacher’s opinion on the student’s overall performance. The only evaluation calculated is a percentage of points assigned on specific assignments, with a significant proportion being determined based on tests and quizzes. And that’s where the conversion to letter grades really comes up short. A 79% might qualify as a C+ in most people’s eyes, but in many schools, on the permanent records, the + will be eliminated; that almost B-student will wind up with a C on his transcript and grade point average (GPA). So, instead of a 79% to be averaged in with other percentages, this student will have a 2 (on a four-point GPA system) instead of a 3. To illustrate how this can impact that kid’s class rank or college attractiveness, if another of his grades had been 86%, let’s say, the overall average of those two percentages would have been in the solid B range—82.5%. But, using the cruder letter system, that B coupled with the C, would result in a 2.5 GPA, a middle C (which translates to roughly 75%). And it doesn’t take mathematical prowess to recognize all the other misleading, bad results this can lead to: a student who ekes out low B’s in her classes (with an average of 80.5%) is recorded identically to the student with an 88.4% under the letter-to-GPA system—both would have a 3.0 GPA.
So until we de-emphasize grade programs (by at least stopping their on-line posting, which hardens what should be a more nebulous, evolving rating), we should use percentages rather than letter grades on permanent records—transcripts and the like—in order to represent student performance more accurately and fairly. The wide-spread (and also problematic, in my view) practice of weighted grades (giving grades earned in honors classes an extra point on GPAs, an honors B being figured in as an A or 4 instead of 3, for example, on the GPA average), would also have to be adjusted. Probably, honor classes’ percentages could be increased by 10% on final averages. Yes, that would lead to the somewhat absurd outcome of some very academically talented students having a final average above 100%, but that’s already happening regularly with those same students having a GPA of something like 4.35 on a 4-point GPA scale (weighted A’s are worth 5). I could renew my anti-weighted-grade tirade, but I won’t push my luck any further for now.
To sum it all up, using letter grades in the era of grade programs is unfair to students. It wouldn’t be hard or costly to shift to percentages over the A-B-C-D-F system most schools currently have; and it would better represent student achievement, at least until we revise the “only points matter” nature of how schools evaluate student performance and allow for teacher judgement of important subjective traits to resume its place as a key ingredient for determining how students are progressing.
For more detailed analysis of how both grade programs and weighted grades are detrimental to public education, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.
Previously, we looked at studies which showed how difficult it was to determine exactly what to look for in teaching candidates and methodology for helping teachers to improve. Despite the billions of tax dollars invested in hiring decisions and improvement programs that would enhance our public schools, nothing has been proven to work to any significant degree of statistical correlation. There are many reasons for this failure in one of our most important professions, but the chief problem is most approaches are based on one key teaching strategy that may or may not be of particular importance to any one teacher. The multitude of skills needed for effective teaching and how a teacher’s personality interacts with those skills belie any narrow approach; we simply have to accept that teaching is an art and that every artist brings unique talents to her/his classroom.
Instead, I posited that we should be seeking people with certain core characteristics which lead to good teaching, regardless of the various other skills any one teacher might inherently possess. To begin our list, I suggested that all good teachers have an exceptional willingness to work and a commitment to teaching their subject matter in order to foster student growth. These traits don’t always mesh with administrative goals of smooth, uniform, conflict-free staffs; but they lead to quality education for our kids. Show me a group of hard-working, standard-bearing teachers, and I’m certain you will have the foundation of a strong school.
But there are a couple more traits that teachers need to cross the threshold from promising to good. It’s not enough just to show up, put your nose to the grindstone, and insist that students meet high standards. I’ve known many teachers who had long careers with just those traits, and in a pinch, you can get by with those alone. But for the exceptional teacher, you should also be looking for people with creative flair who genuinely like their students.
We’ve all had teachers who were nice enough, but had absolutely zero sense of adventure, who were wheeling out lesson plans and dittoes decades old with references to match. (If you’re old enough to remember dittoes, I’ll automatically apologize for the small font size of this essay and try to speak louder.) I’ve explained how difficult teaching is several times before, so I’m hoping you might be able to generate a gram of empathy for somebody who sticks to something that worked one time, given the challenges of trying to update it. That fear of failure, however, is exactly the characteristic good teachers don’t have. Yes, you will bomb many times when you try things, but every new teaching implement you find which works enhances your teaching arsenal and makes you that much more effective down the road. No matter how many class periods my students endured where my “brilliant” idea lay there like a dead bird, that desire to go for something which had the potential to be helpful motivated me to keep slogging away. I often took my students to task for being afraid to take intellectual risks, that no subjective idea could be rejected if you provided clear, logical evidence in support—so it would have been the height of hypocrisy for me to have played it “safe” year after year. Good teachers never accept the status quo; they will constantly seek new things to try to get better.
I believe that creativity comes from an individual’s never-ending quest to be perfect. No, you won’t get there, but existential joy comes from seeking the ideal. The teachers I would want at my school would not be content to sit on yesterday’s success, knowing that next year’s class probably won’t come close to replicating that experience. Sure, it’s worth a try, and I’m certainly not saying teachers have to create new and stunningly engaging material every single day of their teaching careers. But you do have to push to see that the desire to keep experimenting is part of a teaching staff’s standard operating procedure. Which brings us to the final characteristic every teacher should possess, and it ties in to the afore mentioned creativity and currency; like anybody who cares about his audience, quality teachers want their kids to be successful and engaged in their classrooms because they like their kids.
It does seem odd that we have to single out this as a trait to look for, but I’ve know many, many teachers who were hard-working and had high standards but lapsed into boring, tired teaching primarily because they didn’t really care about their students all that much. No, I’m not pretending good teachers like every single kid who passes through their doors over the course of thirty-five years. Having that many students ensures that there will be a few with whom you just can’t connect. But, quality teachers will find ways around the issues of the vast majority of their students and create a bond. That does require patience from teachers since young people can discover anyone’s pressure points in a flash, and some seem to delight in pushing them as often as possible.
Ultimately, though, good teachers get along with their kids because they tend to see them as “their kids.” Once you’ve spent fifty minutes a day (or longer for elementary teachers) for some 180 days with somebody, you should have a good idea what that person is like; quality teachers will be familiar with every student assigned to them. Some will know all about their families, others can list all their likes and dislikes, and there will be those who simply enjoy them as people. Yes, you have to be able to relate to the issues of people much younger than you for that to happen, so I will plead guilty to a huge streak of immaturity that helped me to connect with my kids. Again, that might not number among the pristine qualities many administrators seek. But show me a freshman teacher who appreciates a good fart joke (and yes, you can number me among those who see “good” coupled with “fart joke” as superfluous), and I will show you someone who could be an awesome ninth-grade teacher. Find me teachers that have empathy for their students and can even enjoy them, and you’ll have some quality instruction going on, I guarantee.
So it becomes clear why all those programs and experts don’t do very well when it comes to figuring out who the best teachers will be or in helping teachers to improve their skills to become even better: None of the traits that every good teacher should have can be molded by one-day institutes or taught through on-line courses. Hard work, a commitment to students and standards, creativity, and liking the people you teach aren’t really things you can measure or improve through some PowerPoint presentation. Yet we keep trying, spending large sums for our futile efforts.
Better would be to conduct extensive interviews with prospective teachers’ cooperating teachers and/or college professors who had worked closely with them. No prospective teachers are going to admit that the best word that describes them is “lazy,” that holding students to high standards is a bad thing, that they have little interest in varying the slightest from whatever curriculum is handed to them, or that they really don’t like people the age their students will be. And we have to understand the limitations of the opinions of others who worked with them. Instead, we have to gauge those qualities as best we can through our interviews of the candidates and their mentors, but most critically, we need to have empathic, supportive people in their classrooms as often as possible the first few years of their teaching careers who can observe all those things in action.
Administrators, of course, are paid to do this, but you should also be using your good teachers for some observations as well. I’ve mentioned before how I had superior ratings throughout my teaching career but never had my opinions solicited on how younger teachers were doing. No, I was not “schooled” in administrative duties, but I did see how my colleagues conducted themselves both in and out of the classroom. I could have offered some valuable insight, especially on those teachers I felt didn’t possess enough of those four characteristics before they were granted tenure. I concede that it’s very difficult to determine if a bright, shiny college graduate will be able to teach a bunch of squirrely eighth graders expertly from day one, but there’s no reason not to recognize within a four non-tenure-years period (when dismissal is easiest) that someone just doesn’t have the right mix for long-term teaching success. We need to use our best teachers more often and more intensely in evaluating who does or does not have good teaching potential.
The same holds true for helping veteran teachers to improve. Bringing in outside experts with lots of degrees, foundations, books, and methodologies was how the vast majority of time I was allowed to work on myself was spent. Ironically, the best experiences I had throughout my career, though, came from other teachers who were working in situations similar to mine. Yes, occasionally an expert or method rang true and even got me excited to try something different, but well over 90% of these presentations served no purpose other than to give the illusion that my school districts had done due diligence in providing teacher training. But on those few days when teachers were allowed to interact, I never came away without at least one idea that made a positive difference in my teaching—immediately. One of the worst aspects of the “reform movement” of the last three decades (essentially,1983 began the whole mythology that our schools were horrible when the most influential report came out—A Nation at Risk —and many came to the conclusion that all of the blame for weak schools could be assigned to teachers) is nobody believes teachers’ views on education matter. Think about that for a second: Has that kind of distrust ever so universally been applied to doctors, lawyers, plumbers, engineers, scientists, or virtually any other profession? Not likely, but we’ve come to accept the lie that teachers are unqualified to make decisions about what and how they should teach. The truth, however, is every teacher is a fount of knowledge, ideas, and skills which could be utilized for the common good, well beyond that teacher’s specific students.
Of course, given those unique personalities and abilities we all possess, my fount might not be productive for what you’re growing in your garden, but nobody should expect that every teacher can be magically transformed by every other one. The problem is that few believe any benefit whatsoever could come from teacher collaboration; yet one of the most vaunted educational systems in the world—Finland’s—has teacher collaboration time as a focal point for developing its educators over the long haul. And not only would teachers talking to teachers be more cost-effective than expensive programs and self-promoters, but teachers would be much more willing to listen and give credence to the ideas coming from someone else who had been in a classroom too. There are so many positives to the whole concept of learning from others who do what you do that it seems downright negligent for more schools districts not to incorporate more collaboration. All those “late arrival” or “early dismissal” days many districts have these days are steps in the right direction; better would be to utilize some form of one-on-one work every day. Co-taught classes, observations of other teachers (in a variety of subject areas), and guided discussions (yes, still one-on-one but partners changed for each discussion with new topics every time based on input from…well, who else? Teachers!) are just a few ideas that might enable teachers to learn from one another. And couched that way—“learning from each other”—we could do away with much of the fear of being judged or *gasp* evaluated by the other person. It would just be colleagues working together to share their varied abilities and experiences. With all those positive possibilities and so little risk in the way of expense, it’s certainly worth a try.
Figuring out who will be a good teacher and assisting the ones already working to improve has been a sinkhole for much public revenue for many years, yet we still have little understanding of how to “manufacture” the kinds of amazing educators we all claim to desire. “Accountability” in teaching has become code for “everyone else knows better than you how to do what you’re not doing well,” which has led to our current frustration in seemingly all quarters; students, teachers, parents, administrators, school board members, politicians, community members, and billionaires all complain about the state of education in America with little to show for all their issues. The good news is that we can provide a better environment for our teachers to grow, provided we recognize those traits that go into the artistry of education. You can’t quantify or objectify a good teacher’s classroom, but it’s pretty obvious when you experience it. We just need to get better at allowing our teachers to work together to assist each other toward that goal.
For more on helping teachers to achieve great educational outcomes, check out my E-book, Snowflake Schools.
Last time, we reviewed a study which had looked at eleven different states’ efforts to screen for the best teaching candidates as well as the ways they attempted to provide for growth in teachers already employed. The results showed that despite taxpayer billions spent each year, there were no pre-employment hiring techniques or in-service, evaluation, or training that could be significantly correlated to that elusive “good” teacher label. Actually, the only way found to figure out which teachers will excel in any given year was to see who had success the year before. As anyone in education can tell you (I retired after thirty-three years in 2012, having spent the majority of my career teaching English at Hinsdale South High School), especially right now as districts gear up for the school year’s start, teachers are subjected to a lot of in-service and workshops each term, apparently with little positive return. And my experience would suggest that most teachers would heartily agree that most in-service experiences are not worth whatever is paid for them.
Before we go any further, we have to address the 800-pound piece of chalk in the room: How is teaching excellence defined? Unfortunately, many consider standardized testing as the best way to assess a teacher’s quality; I do not. However, for the sake of this piece, plus the fact that other measures are rarely studied thoroughly and my belief (based on anecdotal experience, I will be the first to admit) that teachers who teach their subject matter well will have students who do fine on those stupid tests; I won’t reject standardized testing as a way to determine teacher quality, at least for this essay. I despise standardized tests, however, and feel they have done much damage to public education, especially in the last ten years. But to continue this discussion and only for this brief interlude, I won’t attack their being used as a measure of teaching effectiveness for the next thousand words or so. I do have to insist, though, that there are many, many, many other better ways to assess quality teaching. My hope is that the characteristics analyzed in this series of essays could be the basis for tailoring methods that would look at how teachers do their jobs. Yes, we ex-teachers are not shy about claiming to know better than those who have never taught or sought to “escape” classrooms by moving up the administrative ladder or left them entirely.
The challenge, then, is to determine the essential qualities every good teacher should possess so we can get those gems in front of our children. Again, for the sake of this essay, I will not challenge the grossly exaggerated estimates of how many bad teachers are working in our schools. Even though I would argue (and have) that things like tenure and unions are beneficial for public education overall, I will cop to the charge that there are some teachers out there who shouldn’t be working with kids. So, how do we figure out who those people are? The easiest way is to look at the things that make some people really good at teaching.
At the top of my list is a solid work ethic in accepting the never-ending responsibilities teaching requires coupled with educational conviction and a personal passion for educating kids. As to the first, teaching is one of those professions where you never feel like you’ve finished all that needs to be done. One of the most awesome parts of retirement for me is that I no longer have a little cloud of responsibility hanging over me all the time. There was always something I could have or should have or HAD to be doing. As an English teacher, I dreaded the towering stack of student essays or (*shudder*) research papers that I would have to spend hours and hours of my “free” time reading, marking, and commenting on in order to get the 30-125 grades back to my students in two weeks. Two questions immediately occurred to many people when they would hear me complain about having to get all those papers graded in that time frame: “If you hate it so much, why do assign them in the first place? And why do you have to get them back in two weeks?” Fair questions both—nobody really ever forced me to assign the number of written assignments I did nor was there any departmental edicts on how long to take in grading them. But I was convinced writing was the best way for my kids to demonstrate the gamut of skills English requires, and I believed that waiting for more than two weeks would be too long for the results to have any hope of reinforcing those lessons.
And that leads to the second necessary teacher quality listed above and one of the best ways to find good ones: The best teachers have personal standards that have been internalized and will be pursued, regardless of organizational expectations or pressure. Of course, you can get a certain level of performance through pushing; we’ve all seen the movies where the baseball-wielding principal (played by Morgan Freeman, of course) single-handedly turns a hellscape into an educational utopia with sheer force of personality. But that’s mostly Hollywood exaggeration which had no parallel in my reality. (Well, there was the one time I killed a bee that wouldn’t leave my classroom with an extremely allergic freshman cowering at his desk…um, it was a pretty big bee.) Regardless, we have found over and over that forcing others to do things a specific way doesn’t lead to good results; the best employees are those encouraged to pursue standards in ways that enable them to express their views, to use methodology which plays to their strengths, and to have outlets for their creativity. Good teachers are just as driven as that whacky principal and just as insistent on the best paths to good results as salmon on their way home to mate before dying. I kid you not; I witnessed countless obsessive behaviors in my decades in the classroom, in myself own as well as many of my colleagues. That level of commitment and certainty—properly directed, of course—are exactly what make for classrooms that make differences in our children’s lives.
Every teacher can’t obsess over each and every detail in his subject area, but if I were an administrator seeking the best instructors for my students, I would watch for intense determination in my teachers. Do they push themselves to grade papers even when nobody else seems to care? Do they chase students down to hector them into getting extra help? Do they get red-faced and glassy eyed when lecturing on their passions? My key areas of focus were grammar and writing which led me into many “discussions” with other teachers who weren’t quite as keen on the logical precision of correct usage or the joys of grading written expression. After haranguing my honors students about the wrongness of a concept the social studies department had begun—the “Thesis Paragraph” (instead of having the kids write an entire essay, they would have them write these “paragraphs” consisting basically of all the topic sentences that would start the paragraphs of hypothetical essays)—the social studies department chair (who later went on to become assistant superintendent and principal at two highly respected high school districts in the Chicago suburbs) and two other social studies teachers asked me to a meeting to try to get me to ease off challenging their new brain-child. Needless to say, the three of them were completely out-gunned by one zealot who would never accept that taking short-cuts to essay writing could be a positive thing. The Thesis Paragraph died that day, and they began assigning Sentence Outlines, which is what they’d been doing all along. No, they weren’t all that happy about my fixation on not trying to claim an organizational technique was actual “writing.”
But good teachers don’t give a damn about other views when it comes to the things in which they believe. You can probably tell that teachers I consider “good” won’t necessarily make for the easiest people to work with. Cooperation with administrative directives and watering down deeply held beliefs—while traits most principals and superintendents find attractive—will not spur on the classroom dynamos I want in my school. So, yeah, the first trait we should be cultivating in our teachers is the passionate conviction that what they are doing is important and shouldn’t be messed with for expediency’s sake. It is going to be hard to ferret this out in new teachers who fear that not smiling enough at the superintendent’s lame jokes might cost them their jobs, but let’s be clear: The climate of the school is extremely important for teacher success. Instead of being distracted by all the silly “initiatives” administrators bring in to show how they’re leading the charge, we should focus on how teachers are overseen and how much freedom and creativity they are encouraged to pursue. Spine is a huge positive in a teacher, yet most school districts hate it when teachers stand up for what they believe to be in their students’ best interests.
If we want good teachers, we have to understand what they’re trying to do before we leap in with supposed “fixes” that do not mesh well with that teacher’s goals or personality. While that latitude cannot be total or last forever, supervisors should first and foremost check that the teachers have standards they are pursuing and that they are working hard to get there. Obviously, if the standard being pursued is as little work as possible, then that teacher has to go. Too often, administrators view complaints from parents about tough grading scales and stressed children as signs of bad teaching, rather than a potentially great teacher who merely needs a little seasoning and better communication skills. Conversely, teachers popular with students who seem to lack control of their kids’ learning and whose standards are too lenient can often evolve into gentle bastions of safety for kids who really despise school, turning student affection for that teacher into serious educational accomplishment, simply to please the one person they feel understands them. Good teachers develop over several years in millions of different ways, and good schools will nurture individual talent rather than general compliance.
The evaluation of work ethic and commitment, therefore, will take time and frequent observation. The current systems in place in most schools don’t make use of either. I’ll have to save my suggestions for how bosses in schools need to work with their teachers in order to stimulate idiosyncratic excellence for another time—there is no one way or one type that will succeed, as we saw in those studies with which we began this series. But, everyone should work hard and care, to cull what I’m talking about to its essence.
So if you have teachers who accept their never-ending responsibilities and are personally committed to high standards, you have teachers who can be stars. The final characteristics that all teachers should have are creativity and compassion. And we’ll soon take a look at how those manifest themselves.
For more on how good teachers can be supported as well as the mechanics of excellent public schools, check out my eBook, Snowflake Schools.
For as long as humans have been able to communicate with each other, we have had teachers, those attempting to help others to increase their knowledge more rapidly than relying totally on first-hand experience. Yet despite our millenniums of practice, we have yet to figure out what makes one person better than someone else at this ancient practice. It seems counterintuitive that given the billions and billions we spend educating our children that we still don’t understand how to detect and evaluate so crucial a skill. These two reports, “Peering Around the Corner” and “No Guarantees,” published this past winter by Bellwether Education Partners, however, come to exactly that conclusion.
In these papers, the authors looked at eleven different states in order to assess how well the various hoops that prospective and current teachers have to leap through in order to begin or continue teaching classes work. The goal (and probably assumption) was that a careful study of the various ways we attempt to make sure that our teachers teach effectively would yield the key components of that which makes teachers better. Their conclusion (a summary of which can be found in this article based on the reports as well as this newspaper account) was that, “We don’t yet know how to identify or train good teachers.” Despite licensure, teacher education programs, evaluation systems, in-service institutes, and hundreds of experts touting various different paths to teaching excellence (all of which generate heaps of revenue for the providers, often at taxpayer expense), the only useful predictor on how good teachers are going to be this year is how good they were last year. And for those new to teaching, there isn’t any difference-making training that would accurately ensure a first-year teacher would be successful. Yep, we spend billions and billions on standardized tests and training programs that don’t improve current teachers or predict who will be any good.
This comes as no surprise to those of us who have been claiming “artist” status for teachers for many years. Teaching requires such an intense combination of contradictory traits—obsessive organization has to co-exist with the necessary flexibility to adapt to current conditions. (If that makes no sense to you, then you’ve never had the joy of trying to conduct a lesson that needed careful concentration during a period when the first significant snowfall occurs. And no, I never taught below eighth grade, with the last twenty-five years spent in a high school—teenagers are just as distracted by crystalized water falling from the sky as kindergarteners.) You need to have a passion for your subject matter as well as being able to relate to the things that matter to your students, which is generally anything but your subject matter. Every day, you face from twenty-five to one hundred fifty kids with the goal of having unique, individual interactions with as many of them as you can as well as meeting educational standards often imposed by those who know nothing about your students. No day or class period will be anywhere close to the same as the day before, no matter how diligently you try to replicate previous successes. Most importantly, every day, your kids come to you expecting consistent professionalism, enthusiasm, and talent, despite their being all over the place in their emotions, motivation, and willingness to cooperate.
Of course nobody could find a system that could address all those skills, much less provide readily digested steps that would guarantee improvement in those expected to possess them. In my eBook, Snowflake Schools, I argue that the key traits any aspiring teacher should have are a good work ethic, creativity, self-discipline, communication skills, and a “Golden Rule” morality. Those qualities can only be assessed over the long haul; you can’t determine if people will consistently behave in those ways unless you observe them for months and years. And we all know those qualities don’t come easily—we have to fight to maintain them and will have periods where we are more successful in their execution than others. It’s a fool’s errand to try to in-service teachers on a good work ethic, for example. Yes, you could definitely provide expert help on some techniques your teachers might not have considered—especially for those new to the profession—but you couldn’t “make” them work harder if they weren’t driven to do so.
We also have to recognize that we can’t expect artists to conform to one set pattern of behavior. The quest for uniform teacher performance ignores the unique abilities and personalities every human has. Some teachers are very orderly, controlled, and matter-of-fact; some will be more spontaneous, funny, and wacky; and some will scare the living snot out of students without saying a word. All those types can be excellent instructors who might have a positive impact on your child. Teaching is not a popularity contest, and many kids need that tough task-master to push them harder while others flourish with a caring, supportive soul who remembers everybody’s birthday and always gives out treats around holidays. Like any relationship, some of our characteristics will mesh and others clash with our friends, family, and workmates. Teachers exist in a nebulous area somewhere between and part of all three of those categories, and you children will see them at various times as “buddy,” “boss,” and “relative,” with all the connotations those labels bring. No, teachers don’t exist completely in any of those realms and the Venn diagram for any individual teacher will tilt more toward one than the other two, but once you recognize how complex that dynamic is, you can begin to understand how impossible it is to provide step-by-step instruction for teachers to improve. Maybe one teacher needs some work on his empathy while another could get better at using her free time to plan for future classes while a third has troubles with classroom discipline while the next is way behind in the technology necessary to make the material much more interesting and accessible but the next…
Just as students with learning disabilities or behavioral disorders must have “Individualized Education Plans” (IEPs) crafted and evaluated every year by their special education teachers/case managers, every teacher’s improvement plan is unique to that particular teacher. That certainly doesn’t mean there’s no place for teacher institutes and opportunities for teachers to be exposed to new ideas. It does mean, however, that the school climate needs to recognize how many different ways there are to be an effective teacher so that those new ideas/techniques/insights are presented as concepts to be considered, not THE way things now need to be done. No matter how many PowerPoint slides are shown, how many catchy acronyms are coined, or how much administrative arm-twisting is used; teachers will assimilate other ideas into their systems much the way we all take in food. Some will be delicious and immediately incorporated into our regular diets, some will revolt us and be rejected forever, and some will have a few interesting flavors that we will revisit only after altering the recipe and/or preparation methods.
But the overall approach should flow from the foundation that only the individual teacher will be able to figure out if the basic ingredients show any promise at all. A teacher’s rejecting suggested methodology should not just be tolerated, but encouraged. Only when teachers are trusted to know that which will be most effective for their classrooms can outsiders have the slightest chance of helping them with modifications and changes that could help them improve. It should come as no surprise that most experts have no clue on training good teachers. It’s an idiotic question in the first place. Good teaching comes from good teachers and there are countless ways to be one.
I recognize that this seems a totally self-serving and ridiculously convenient view, especially coming from someone who used to be a teacher. “Yeah, right, Jim—no matter what a teacher does, as you’ve outlined it here, you will find a glib way to make it seem okay. That’s precisely the lack of accountability which has led to teachers and their unions being perceived as status quo guardians who couldn’t care less about how well our kids learn as long as everyone accepts that they know best. There has to be a way to determine if a teacher is capable of performing your so-called ‘art’ well enough to justify the huge salaries you believe they should earn. You’ve already praised tenure laws and unions despite their protecting the incompetent, and you have ceaselessly denigrated the only objective means of assessing teacher quality—standardized tests—as poor measures of student learning. With that kind of impenetrable protection, incompetent teachers can continue to be horrible their entire careers, leading to the mediocrity we’ve endured ever since collective bargaining laws gave teachers and unions preferential treatment. And don’t get me started on your obscene pension plans, of which you are currently benefitting! C’mon!”
Okay, that’s quite a lot for me to cover, despite its being a self-created rhetorical barrage which should normally consist of a lot more softball questions. Believe it or not, I do have responses to all of that, but there’s no way I could adequately discuss them in a single blog entry. (And I have countered those criticisms before in other blog entries—many of which you could find on this site.) However, in the near future, I will try to deal with the key issue analyzed in this particular essay—how can you differentiate between a good teacher and a bad one. There are unmistakable characteristics that, despite all my emphasis on different teaching styles being valuable, should be absolute necessities and which are observable, thus capable of being assessed in order to rid the teaching profession of those who shouldn’t be in it. Of course there are bad teachers; and to address another of the points my hypothetical critic made previously, school districts have four years (in Illinois, and multiple years in most states) to determine if a new hire has what it takes to be a good teacher.
Be that as it may, we’ll take a look at some characteristics we should expect from all teachers next time.
For those of you unaware of the momentous goings on a couple of weeks ago, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state championships in Speech were determined on February 19 and 20 in Peoria. Individual winners were crowned in fourteen events, with the Mt. Prospect Knights winning the overall state championship. I know all this because my senior daughter was there and has participated on her high school’s speech team for the past four years.
Speech is one of the more arcane high school activities as it is based on competition, as raw and unvarnished as any football game or volleyball match, coupled with intellectual prowess and acting skills. In a typical speech competition, competitors in each individual event are divided into groups of six to present before a single judge in a high school classroom. Each speaker performs his/her/their (in the case of two-person events like dramatic or humorous duets) piece within a proscribed time limit. The judge scrawls comments on a score sheet and tallies various criteria before, finally and most importantly after all six have presented, ranking them one through six based on the judge’s experience and opinions. This happens three times at most tournaments, after which the top performers, based on the judges’ rankings (those with the lowest scores—if you’ve been ranked first in all your preliminary rounds, you have a score of 3, which is as good as it gets), “break” or move to the finals. (The two-day, larger events will result in your breaking into the semi-finals where more competitors will be culled out before the finals.) After each finals performer has done one last speech, the tournament then culminates with an awards ceremony in front of the assembled teams where medals are presented and an overall team winner is announced. One slight difference for the state meet is that it is held in the Peoria Civic Center, rather than at a high school.
The competitions themselves are unusual by most high school standards: All the teams gather at the host school so that the speeches can begin by 8:00 A.M., typically on a Saturday. In order to get there in time to warm up and establish your home base in the host school’s cafeteria, most teams try to arrive well before eight, which means they must be at their home schools ridiculously early—my daughter had to arrive by 6:00 A.M. for most of her tournaments. But you also should understand that the uniforms for speech events—business formal with blazers and skirts for the girls and vested suits for the boys—aren’t something kids just jump into when they stumble out of bed. Basically, my daughter had to be up by 4:45 A.M. to get her outfit, make-up, and hair (she had to curl it for her first two years) together after which I would drive her to school at 5:45 A.M. so she could give speeches at least three and, if all went well, four times (or double, even triple that when she was entered in multiple events) before she would get back to her school, usually by six or seven that evening.
Then there’s the stress of the competition itself. If you’ve never attended one, they are fascinating and bizarre. All these teenagers dressed like Gordon Gekko or Hillary Clinton are running up and down the halls, clacking away in their dress shoes and heels, pacing back and forth in front of rows of lockers as they quietly go over the rockiest bits of their speech in one last desperate attempt to get it down before they’re in front of a judge. In the competition rooms, everyone sits politely, attentively, and applauds quietly (my daughter was fit to be tied one time when I had the temerity to whistle after her speech). There aren’t usually many, if any observers besides the person evaluating your performance—looking for flaws that will help to make it easier to rank you lower—and the other people competing with you who have a vested interest in your doing poorly. I went to a few of my daughter’s individual event performances, and my wife and I were generally the only “audience” in attendance. Essentially, you perform your speech for a hostile crowd with only the judge being neutral (but extremely judgmental).
Then, there are all the rituals and customs which have evolved over the eons. Despite all the creativity required for the speeches themselves, many aspects of the performances must rigidly conform to standards or established traditions. In one of my daughter’s events, Prose, where the speakers would read famous pieces from a notebook; how one introduces the piece, turns the page, and carefully closes the binder to clasp it to one’s breast all have to be done exactly the same way by each competitor. Her other main event over the years was Original Oratory, where the kids research a topic of their choice and give a persuasive, documented presentation. Again, much originality and individual effort go into the construction of the speech, but its five basic parts—introduction, explanation of problem, causes, solutions, and conclusion—must be delivered from different places in the room: You start in the middle for your intro, move stage right four or five steps for the problem, back to the middle for causes, move four or five steps stage left for the solutions, and then come back to center for the big finish. And, no, you can’t reverse the directions or stand in the same place for two parts of your speech. Or you can, but then you probably won’t break.
And should you be “double entered” (performing in two events), you have to ask permission to leave the room after you have given your speech, and you’d better be sure you say, “Good luck, everybody!” in the properly cheerful (if generally hypocritical) tone of voice.
And like figure skating or gymnastics, the evaluation of your performance is in the hands of a human and is based largely on a subjective opinion of how you did. Yes, anyone can see that you closed your binder correctly or hit the right five spots in the room for the five parts of your speech, but how can you make sure scientifically or objectively that your Original Comedy was the funniest? You can’t cross the finish line first or score the most points in Poetry Reading or Oratorical Declamation. And since each team competing has to supply a certain number of judges for each competition, the expertise and experience of those judges can vary widely, not to mention their attention to detail. One time, my daughter barely missed breaking into the finals in one of her events. On Monday when she got to look at the judges’ sheets, she was shocked to see that on one of her sheets her ranking was sixth, four or five places lower than her other rankings, despite no negative comments or suggestions for improvement. A closer examination of the paper showed that the “6” written in the ranking box on her sheet was in black ink, compared to blue for the comments, and the “6” seemed to be different handwriting from everything else on the page. We’ll never know for sure, but it’s entirely possible that this judge lost track of my daughter’s sheet, ranked the other five kids, turned in the sheets, and when somebody else realized the judge’s oversight, that person just put the only rank left on my daughter’s sheet.
So after reading all of this, you would be forgiven if you thought it absolutely idiotic for any kid to spend hours and hours participating in a highly competitive activity where you get little positive feedback, your efforts are judged by those who sometimes have little understanding of what you do, and you work tirelessly only to have a subjective evaluation dash your hopes of success. But that’s where you’d be wrong. Speech is an amazing learning opportunity for high school kids.
Every extra-curricular activity in high school will provide its participants with some beneficial skills. Teamwork, cooperation, dedication, and responsibility are required for just about anything you might join. That’s why it’s so important and life-altering for all high school students to have at least one or two outside-of-class activities if at all possible. Additionally, extra-curriculars will provide participants with other avenues for specific talents which often have few other outlets and are incredibly meaningful to many kids. Most people understand the physical dedication and athletic skills required of sports, not to mention the renown and even college scholarships sometimes granted to the most talented. In sports, you can also learn about physical fitness and become proficient in a game you can play for the rest of your life (golf and tennis being two like that). Musical, artistic, journalistic, and business interests can be followed in band, chorus, photography, art, newspaper, yearbook, and DECA, to name just a few. And there are more than enough other clubs, activities, and teams to join in most suburban high schools, with all providing participants many positive opportunities. But I believe speech is in a class by itself in the training it provides in dozens of incredibly useful ways that can pay off forever in all facets of a person’s life.
Since “Speech” is its name, you automatically get experience in one of the most difficult activities for the vast majority of people: Public speaking. Whenever surveys are done on the things people fear most, giving a speech ranks near the top every time. Normally rational, intelligent, lucid people often fall to pieces at the prospect of making a presentation to an audience of more than one. Yet, these teenagers are required to memorize seven-minute speeches (When was the last time you had to memorize anything?), knowing that they will be penalized for every slip, stumble, or failure to move in the correct direction at the appropriate time. You think that kid’s gonna have any trouble dazzling a business meeting with the help of notes, PowerPoints, laptops, and projectors? Speech team veterans will understand how to present themselves physically (good posture and eye contact), speak loudly enough for all to hear (to “dominate the room with your voice without yelling” as I would instruct my English class students), have no annoying body movements or gestures, be free of grating vocalized pauses habits (“like,” “ya know,” “okay,” or –my personal demon– “all right?” [For all my projected confidence, my vocalized pause kept betraying my need for understanding and approval. And you didn’t know how psychologically revealing your vocal patterns can be, did you?]), and exude a quiet confidence that will make all believe that in the event of some catastrophe, they would easily be able to rescue everyone, without mussing a single hair.
Speech kids also have to learn how to find good stuff on the internet. For that Original Oratory speech my daughter would write each year, she was required to take a researchable subject; stake a position out with which others could disagree; find support for her position with data, credible experts, and examples; insert an exact quotation or two from those experts into her speech; and organize the essay/speech which would include an introduction that needed to be riveting to a captive audience, clear explanations of all that might be unfamiliar to someone not well-versed in the topic, and end with a rousing call-to-action on whatever issue she had chosen. She would then commit it to memory, practice her movements as she was speaking it, and then rehearse it until she could do it all within the seven-minute time limit, which translates into a speech of three-to-four thousand words. Yeah, that’s a lot to be able to do well, all of which will be useful in college and beyond.
There are many other valuable lessons that speech taught her: Working extremely hard for not much credit or even attention, accepting the unfairness of being ranked on subjective criteria, learning that hard work would often have to be its own reward since the fruits of her labors wouldn’t always result in any immediate pay-offs, and generally having to deal with all those “adult” kinds of issues that competing in a subjective universe teach all grown-ups once they enter the working world. No, that’s not as much fun as hoisting a basketball state championship trophy over your head or getting a standing ovation at the end of a play or recital, but speech kids are primed for success in many ways that are more important, and all of which promote maturity.
So although her season didn’t end the way she wanted, she did get to participate in the only group activity at the state speech tournament (the only time this event is run), Performance in the Round, where a group of kids perform a fifteen minute play. And her group did a phenomenal job, finishing sixth overall after competing in the regional, sectional, and state meets. But long after the excitement over doing so well that Saturday in Peoria has faded—it already pretty much has for her—and for the rest of her life, she will be using the skills she developed during her four years of speech team participation. It is definitely one of the tougher activities for a high school kid, but I know of no other extra-curricular that gives its participants more. And you all will appreciate what speech has done for her as she is brilliantly delivering her seventh State of the Union address, sometime later this century. No, it’s not as glamorous or exciting as many other extra-curricular activities, but every high school freshman should consider going out for speech.
Soon, the Supreme Court will hand down its ruling in the case of Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association in what many in the press are terming a case that could be “the end of public employees unions” (see The Atlantic for a news analysis with that headline). As someone experienced with the issue in question, I tend to be much less pessimistic about how this case could harm organized labor in general and teachers’ unions specifically.
The particulars are as follows: In an important case from 1977 (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, hereafter referenced as “Abood”), the court ruled that non-union members in workplaces with unions had to pay what has become known as their “fair share” of the costs of the union’s representing them. You see, a union which is the “exclusive representative” for a group of employees has to provide services for all of them, whether or not they are union members. Should a school board try to fire a teacher or if someone feels the contract is being violated and wants to file a grievance, the union must provide legal assistance, regardless of their membership status. Similarly, the effort and expense of negotiating a new contract is borne by the union as well, with the resulting deal benefitting all employees, again including those who haven’t joined. So the Abood ruling determined that non-members should contribute to the expenses of negotiating, grievances, and legal representation to which all employees were entitled. “Fee payers,” as non-members forced to contribute became known, were NOT required to contribute to the political activities which unions fund, however. It was the same basic principle that mandates you pay your taxes despite your objections to some of the activities in which our government engages. Just because you opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq didn’t mean you got to withhold your April 15th responsibilities.
But that comparison is not exactly the same as unions are hardly identical to governments, bargaining a contract is not really like police protection, nor is defending someone from unfair job discipline totally similar to going to war. Hence the controversy which has surrounded Abood ever since it was in place. Keep in mind another dissimilarity, at least here in Illinois: Public unions had to negotiate “fair share” language in each individual contract before it would be in effect for any one employee group. The first school district in which I worked did not have any fair share language in its contract while I worked there from 1979-1987, and my second district (Hinsdale Township High School District 86) did not have fair share when I started there in 1987, but did bargain it into the 1993-1996 agreement. (Yes, I was a part of the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association [HHSTA] bargaining team which negotiated that contract.) In other words, the only school districts in Illinois where fair share exists are the ones in which employee groups have negotiated it into their contracts. As the Illinois Labor Relations Board defines it on their web page, a fair share clause is, “An agreement between the employer and an employee organization under which the employees in a collective bargaining unit are required to pay their proportionate share of the costs of the collective bargaining process, contract administration, and pursuing matters affecting wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. Fair share fees may not exceed the amount of dues required of members.” Nobody forced Hinsdale 86 to put fair share language in its contract; the majority of employees felt it was…well, fair, and the school board agreed to the language in the contract, where it exists to this day.
But conservatives have always seen the Abood ruling as an infringement on others’ right to work; that “closed shop” (the term some have used in reference to Abood applications) was a classic illustration of unions bullying their way to what they wanted at the expense of workers’ freedoms. And so now its merits have once again been debated (the ruling has been upheld by the court at least four other times, according to legal scholars much more informed than I), with a ruling to be announced in a few months.
But whether or not fair share violates workers’ first amendment rights or if Abood should be overturned is not the key point I would make on this court case. (You can read much more, as I have, in the Washington Post, USA Today, The Center for Education Reform, American Enterprise Institute, The San Diego Union Tribune, and many more if you do a Google news search for Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association.) I believe that reports of the demise of public sector union’s death, while worthy of note—especially by those who benefit from public sector unions—have been greatly exaggerated.
In Chicagoland suburban school districts, teachers unions have done quite well for their members over the last thirty years. A high school teacher with advanced degrees in Darien, Highland Park, Downers Grove, Glenbrook, Schaumburg, Des Plaines, Hinsdale, and many other towns can look forward to a salary in excess of $100,000 per 185-day work year (after twenty years and an advanced degree or two), good insurance benefits, and an excellent (if under constant attack recently) pension plan. For them, the few hundred dollars union membership costs is hardly a financial burden, and they’re the ones acclimating the new kids into the field, generally encouraging them to join their schools’ unions. And since it’s unlikely the fair share ruling (assuming it overturns Abood) will automatically apply or trigger mass membership exodus. Peer pressure is still powerful in all workplaces, and most experienced teachers will strongly endorse their unions and use their influence with those who don’t understand the unions’ value to do the same.
Because union membership is a great benefit at an extremely reasonable price. For your dues, you get legal representation for job-related issues should you need it, you have people to help you should your boss refuse to honor certain terms of your contract or harass you without just cause (See “Know the Law” for more on that), you have paid lobbyists and legislative experts to watch out for your interests in Springfield and Washington, and you can even get discounts and deals on various consumer products (auto insurance and travel, for example) from marketers. Mostly, however, you develop a sense, in this era of experts and politicians taking cheap shots at teachers while laying many of America’s problems at their feet, that somebody’s got your back. A subjective, not provable feeling, perhaps, but in the time of people ignoring all of the obvious glaring flaws in political candidates because they seem “authentic,” you cannot discount how people feel.
Should Abood be overturned, you could also expect national and state teachers’ unions to refocus more of their resources on the rank and file, rather than political machinations. Some would argue that as unions have gotten more influential and powerful, there has been less attention paid to members’ needs and too many forays into issues that have little to do with education and more to do with political alliances. Even endorsing candidates can be perceived more as a necessary evil than a key function for public sector unions. The conflicts of interest that occur when an employee organization is helping to fund the campaigns of its potential bosses—as is the case when a local teachers union endorses school board candidates, for example—has always made some union advocates uncomfortable. I’ve always felt it would be better for unions to educate their members on the candidates’ various positions without making any recommendations, allowing members to make up their own minds. Let teachers see just where Sanders, Cruz, Trump, Clinton, and Rubio stand on public school issues; it will be perfectly clear which candidates support teachers more emphatically, without the union then being perceived as an enemy of the unendorsed winner, with whom the union is expected to work regardless. Would that strategy have made Governor Rauner less adamant about wiping unions out? We’ll never know because the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers were quite clear in their support of Pat Quinn, the incumbent Rauner defeated. In case you didn’t know, both national teachers unions have already endorsed Hillary Clinton for 2016. And where will that leave them should America choose to feel the Bern?
Then too, school boards have a way of making unions seem much more valuable to teachers. My old union, the HHSTA, has constantly struggled to get teachers more involved, but participation soared during the fall of 2014 when a quartet of school board members (which is a majority) tried to take away many of the rights and benefits which the teachers had achieved over the decades in a single power grab. Increased attendance at meetings, more willingness to help out, and a surge in HHSTA pride all led not only to a reasonable contract settlement, but motivated both the teachers and the public to work to rid themselves of this more extreme element. And in the April 2015 school board elections, the three candidates who vowed to continue the war on the union were routed, getting less than half the votes of the three more moderate candidates, and another of the “gang of four” resigned shortly after the election. Should Abood be overturned and public school governance see that as a sign to go after unions, you can bet that union membership and, even more importantly, active participation would increase significantly. When I was HHSTA president, I used to tell my fellow advocates that our best membership organizer was a bad school board. Although I meant that as a joke, there is a solid foundation of truth in the idea that dissatisfaction is one of the best ways to push people into action. Instead of devastating unions, Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association could lead to a backlash of teacher advocacy.
So although there are some who see the possible end of the Abood ruling’s allowance of fair share language in contracts as a death knell for effective public sector unions, I believe it could actually have the opposite effect. Good unions function to protect and serve their members, which most teachers associations have done well over the years. And as the cliché goes, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger;” so too some stress to the ease with which public sector unions have been able to garner dues from teachers whether or not they were members could lead to more effective, stronger on-site organizations. Like much in our convoluted world, Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association might have the opposite effect of weakening or destroying teachers unions; it could actually lead to their renaissance.
For much more on the importance and limitations of teachers’ unions, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.
“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
Leave it to Albert to characterize in two sentences the key tenet of education which has been ignored for decades. (No, I didn’t know him at all, so it is presumptuous of me to address him by his first name. But like most bloggers, I’m just assuming that one day—perhaps eons and eons in the future—the shining brilliance of my observations will make everyone equate the two of us as intellectual peers. It could happen…maybe.) With each passing educational reform and political election we seem to move further away from the correct model for public schools in general and teachers in particular: Teaching really isn’t about a teacher’s skill in dumping knowledge into students’ heads; it’s about how well they provide students with opportunities to learn.
Inherent in Einstein’s comment is a shared responsibility. Both parties have duties to perform if the desired end result—educated people—is to come about. Teachers must understand the material they are presenting, create activities which will lead students to understanding the concepts being presented, organize/sequence those activities well so the students can grasp the parts as they build to the whole, assess student understanding of what they were supposed to learn, review key concepts that seemed to elude the majority of the students the first time through (should the results of the assessment show review is necessary), and self-assess the way the lesson went so as to improve both delivery method and learning activities in the future. That’s an immense undertaking in and of itself.
But there’s even more: Teachers also have to motivate, discipline, and to a certain extent, entertain—or at least be interesting. And don’t forget organizational skills, book-keeping ability (Lord help you if you screw up in entering grades!), or political sensitivity—you’d better not make a mistake in how you address anybody or slip and let a joke out that some might find offensive. I still think it’s funny to wonder aloud why there’s a national holiday to honor the pain of giving birth (Labor Day), but while I’ll probably drop that one annually on my poor family, I never risked making someone angry by saying it to any of my classes. (However, I never failed in the first week of November to make a big show of writing sixteen slash marks on the board; to congratulate my freshmen that they had achieved a huge milestone; then to erase one of the sixteen lines; and finally to explain that now that their first quarter had ended, they only had those fifteen slash marks to go to graduation.) Regardless of what I thought was funny, teachers have more than enough to do without having the unwarranted task of accepting responsibility for their students having done what they needed to do to digest everything that had been presented.
That’s impossible for teachers to achieve, by the way. Outsiders often decry the ability of teachers based on student behavior or test results, but every parent should understand the unfairness of assuming poor teaching/parenting based on the “impetuous” actions of students/children. Just because a student demonstrates some gap in his knowledge of subject/verb agreement in no way proves that the teacher didn’t explain the concept, provide worksheets to practice, review the material, and then test the student’s knowledge. Yet, often as soon as the test is over, that very student will loudly remark to his peers, “This don’t matter cuz each of us have mad skillz.” (And be careful about pshawing that “This don’t” is too obvious a mistake to be more than conversational carelessness; there are two agreement errors in that sentence: “Each” is singular, so even if the object of the preposition [“us”] is plural, it doesn’t matter. It should be “each of us has mad skillz.”) As one who spent many hours trying to eliminate “who/whom” confusion over the years, I can attest to students being drilled endlessly on various concepts but never accepting the knowledge which was so generously being offered to them.
And standardized tests are even less useful in showing how much impact a teacher has had on students. Often, students couldn’t care less. (Remember: If you say “could care less,” what you’re actually saying is that it is possible for your concern to be lower than it currently is. You need the “not” adverb there to indicate that it’s not feasible for you to have less care about whatever’s being discussed. You know, like your interest in having me point out all the grammar traps that lurk in the rest of this essay.) No matter how many times authority figures explain that these tests could impact students’ futures or reflect on their schools, if the score isn’t going to affect their report card grades (Yes, you generally use “affect” when you need a verb not the noun form, “effect”…okay, I’ll shut up about the grammar now.), then the tests don’t matter to a good percentage of them.
Which brings us to the students’ duties in the educational process: Effort would be number one. If teachers have done their part—understood the material, presented it clearly, provided appropriate practice, and assessed wisely—really all the students have to do is try their best and results should follow. Nobody’s saying effort is easy, of course. Motivating yourself to do the things you don’t want to do but would be in your best interests is probably the key to success in our world, and we all know how often we fail in our quests. From weight control to investing wisely to household chores to physical fitness to…well, just about anything, it’s tough to make yourself do what you know will be unexciting and challenging regardless of how clearly you understand how much you will benefit should you complete those tasks. With kids, that motivation is even harder since they rarely comprehend the slightest benefit in reading Shakespeare or solving quadratic equations until many years after their public school days are over. That said, however, effort is a student responsibility everyone seems to ignore when assessing how public education is doing.
As we shift more responsibility for student outcomes away from students onto teachers, the goal of educated students recedes even further into the distance. Of course, individual parents can and do instill a wonderful work ethic into their kids, but modern America seems to place little onus on our youth for poor educational results. It’s much easier and more satisfying to blame the schools when our kids don’t learn, even though students regularly don’t succeed because they won’t put forth enough effort to do so. It should hardly surprise us that we’re not getting the results we want if we won’t recognize how important it is for students to care about their education and give it their all.
Hand in hand with that effort is acceptance of responsibility. Again, our modern lives seem to have aided us in shirking this as well. Nobody seems willing to admit to the slightest flaw and face failing; it’s always somebody else’s fault. Our courts are full of people who did idiotic things and then blame someone else: Of course, McDonald’s should be held liable for its hot coffee, not the woman who placed a cup between her legs as she was driving and wound up scalded. No, Donald Trump need never concede that he could be wrong about anything; only “losers” do that. Tom Brady had no clue the footballs had been deflated, Hilary shouldn’t be expected to use the email server everybody else is supposed to use, and obviously it was Obama’s fault that Sarah Palin’s son beat up his girlfriend. Again and again, we see public figures dodge responsibility, so it should come as no surprise that our children mimic that behavior. Yes, historically we have all used excuses to avoid blame, but it does seem like blame evaders used to feel much guiltier about their tactics. (Sorry about sermonizing there, but you true Colbert fans will recognize there’s more truthiness than truth in that statement and treat it accordingly. And terrifyingly to me, this paragraph also reeks of the “back when I was young” nonsense we all roll our eyes over when our grandparents bore us with it.)
But don’t let my nostalgia for a past that I can’t be sure existed distract you from the fundamental truth of Einstein’s comment on teaching; he is absolutely right that it takes two to learn. The accountability movement which began in the 1980s rightfully pointed out that perhaps the schools had been given too much latitude while all of the responsibility for learning was placed on the students and that teachers needed to be called to task for not accepting their fair share of the educational load. But the pendulum has swung way too far in the opposite direction today, creating the belief that only teachers are at fault for any and all poor outcomes. And that has led to the proliferation of outside interferers who attack teachers in order to take over their classrooms, which has in turn led to more standardization which has NOT educated our children. Everybody has a stake in public schools creating educated students, so we should never forget which tasks fall on which parties. Teachers have the duty to ensure that each and every student has the opportunity to learn, but students must accept their responsibility to do the actual learning.
In a couple of past entries (see this one and this other one), we went over the issue of teacher independence in the age of “Everybody Knows What Teachers Should Do Better than Teachers Do.” By now, I’m hoping you are at least considering my premise that the only way for any public school to improve is through the efforts of teachers who have made curricular, assessment, discipline, and procedural decisions for themselves based on their unique circumstances (school districts, schools, classrooms, students, materials, expertise, skill sets, etc.). Please understand that I’ve never suggested those teachers shouldn’t get lots of input on the standards to which they should hold their students (although teachers need to be in on, if not leading, those discussions), nor am I against their being exposed to any and all interesting ideas that come from outsiders (experts, politicians, and even billionaires occasionally have worthwhile things to offer).
The problem of the last couple of decades in American education has been that these outsiders have tried to push their agendas to become standard operating procedure for all teachers, regardless of how ill-suited some things are to specific schools and circumstances. From No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top to Common Core (and probably the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act), not to mention all the state initiatives these federal programs have spawned, big mandates have done little to improve our children’s education while wasting many dollars which could have been used in much more effective ways, if only we’d allowed teachers to make decisions based on their particular situations. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear likely that the nonsense foisted on our schools by politicians and wealthy hobbyists is going to end any time soon, so I believe teachers need to take issues into their own hands to seize control one classroom at a time.
What this means is that teachers should accept responsibility for what happens in schools and refuse to let anyone else get to their students’ brains without their approval. The ultimate authority on what works or is worth trying in any class is the teacher of that class, and she needs to believe that herself. Once that fundamental tenet is absorbed, the next phase is to assert that power. Power, though, is something that requires some experience to understand and to wield effectively. Given the hierarchical nature of school systems as well, asserting teacher independence isn’t something new teachers should be too quick to do.
Inexperienced teachers are…well, lacking the experience to understand how all the variables that go into their classrooms interact to a significant enough degree so they can be sure the choices they make are the best ones. For me, it took at least three years, and probably more like five, to have learned enough to assume the independence to decide for myself what would be best for my students. No, I hadn’t achieved anywhere near a 100% grasp on the mysteries of public education, but I had gained enough insight to surpass anyone else’s ability to evaluate what would function most effectively for the classes/students I had been assigned; my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher; and the environment/resources available from my school, district, parents, and community. It’s impossible to measure objectively or precisely at what level that understanding was—and again this will vary for everyone—but I’d probably put it at about a 35% grasp after three years, 50% after five, and at my peak, maybe I had a handle on 75% or so of my teaching world (about average for the teaching profession, from my vantage point). It takes a few years to learn enough to understand what works.
Yet, even that puny 35% figure is miles and miles better than anybody else could have done in my classroom. Teachers are the only ones who have the slightest idea what should happen in their classes with their kids. That truism is the key to the kingdom of better schools, if only the ones with power over (control of the purse strings for) schools could accept it. Actually, you could also say that the only way for schools to improve (and the reason our best ones do reasonably well) is when teachers are the ones in charge. That we’re moving in the opposite direction, however, with teachers’ control declining, is the whole reason for this series of articles.
As to the second reason new teachers need to be cautious about asserting their independence (after lack of knowledge of both their personal teaching skills and their schools’ cultures): They can be easily fired. For the first few years in states with collective bargaining laws that grant tenure and have unions (some states don’t have collective bargaining laws at all), newly hired teachers can be let go without any reason being given, either written or orally. (Before you start quoting all the propaganda you’ve heard regarding the evils of tenure, I’ve already gone over, a couple of times, why I believe tenure is beneficial to the educational process. The most in-depth explanation can be found in my e-book, Snowflake Schools, and if you’d like to check it out, you can read some sample chapters at this site.) Right now regardless of what tenure haters think—and for a long time to come, I would hope—tenure is granted in Illinois, and our probationary period is four years. Because of the arbitrary nature of firings during that probationary time, this is the most delicate period of teachers’ careers, the phase when they are fearful that the slightest mistake they make or disagreement they have with one of their many bosses could cost them their jobs.
And like all exaggerated concerns, there is an element of truth to those fears. When you don’t have to be given a reason for being let go, you can’t be sure why it happened. Maybe it was the time you disagreed with your department chair, your principal saw you leaving early, or a parent complained to your superintendent about the grade her darling earned in your class. So the first key to reaching the point where independence can be asserted is to follow the rules and be cooperative when you’re new, period. There’s just too much insecurity, especially in school districts with many applicants for every job. To give you a personal example, I took a tennis coaching position I really didn’t want at the beginning of my second year teaching high school (my tenth year overall). I knew it would be hell given my teaching assignment coupled with the many extra hours coaching would consume every school day, not to mention some Saturdays, but since I was up for tenure at the end of that year (it only took two years to reach tenure back then), I had absolutely no desire to wonder, should I get fired, if this one assignment refusal had cost me my job. And it turned out that two of the other four non-tenured English teachers in my department were released at the end of that year. Did coaching tennis save my job? I’ll never know for sure, but I’m very glad that I agreed to do it. It just makes sense to be as compliant as possible when you’re vulnerable with few rights.
Also understand that almost all teacher firings in Chicago’s suburban areas will be publicized as resignations. Often, administrators will “sell” teachers who are to be fired what is supposed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement: If the teacher resigns, rather than being terminated (“contract non-renewal”), then (they are told) the administration is free to give the ex-teacher a positive recommendation to future employers. It will appear, ironically enough for this series of articles especially, that the teachers in question made their own choices and independently determined that they no longer wanted to work at their schools; however, the reality is that most of them were forced to resign. I’m not sure why so many school districts insist on “resignations” as opposed to “dismissals,” but it does prevent the resigning teacher from claiming unemployment benefits. I would speculate as well that it makes administrators more secure when teachers they recommended in the first place resign “voluntarily” rather than terminations appearing on administrators’ records as evidence of poor hiring judgement. Anyway, for clarity’s sake, keep in mind that when a first or second-year teacher leaves a good school, it’s generally these forced resignations or because of declining enrollment which meant positions had to be cut. Of course, there are some new teachers who leave of their own accord, but for most of those, it’s because they don’t like teaching and want out. And some of those “resigning” teachers go on to become excellent instructors somewhere else—the learning curve in teaching is steep, and it just takes some longer to get the hang of it or for their immediate supervisors to recognize how good they are.
Need a scarier example? Okay, there was a first-year teacher I knew who had elective surgery done while school was in session, missing several days just one week before winter break. Yes, this person had every right to plan an absence when it worked best for that individual and no, it didn’t have to be over the holidays when no substitute or sick days would have been used; but needless to say the bosses were not happy with this decision. Was it a coincidence that this otherwise competent teacher was axed at the end of that first year? Nobody ever suggested taking time off right before break was the reason or even a contributing factor, but the non-tenured are held to different standards than the tenured since it is much easier to get rid of them—and they would be wise to keep that in mind. No, how someone reacted at a golf outing when an errant ball cracked a car windshield or how someone else might have been significantly inebriated at a school (staff only) social gathering should not have been a factor in either dismissal, but you know how persistent some of these stories become when two events merely by the oddest coincidence, coincide. (I have more inside knowledge on these topics than most teachers because of my different roles as a union officer; especially as grievance chair, I was privy to most of the job difficulties teachers in my bargaining unit were having.)
New teachers, therefore, need to be obedient and precise when it comes to all the objective factors of the job: Regular attendance, parental issues, promptness, agreeing to administrative requests, paperwork, submission of grades, student discipline, and getting along with your fellow teachers are just a few of the many public education rapids new teachers have to learn to negotiate. Take too many “psychological” sick days, have lots of parents calling your boss to complain, show up late often, refuse to be on committees your principal is forming, ignore or turn in late any of the endless forms others will demand you fill out, be extreme (high or low) with your grade distributions, send kids to the dean’s office too regularly for disciplinary reasons, or irritate those with whom you work every day; and you will increase the likelihood that you will get bounced from your school quickly. During my time, I witnessed otherwise decent young teachers fall prey to all of these examples. I’m sure this isn’t different for new people in any work situation; “fitting in” with the job culture of your specific workplace is an important task, especially when you’re the least senior employee.
My guess is that many of those emotional “I’m leaving the teaching job I love because the system is so messed up” articles we see every year come from younger teachers who just couldn’t play the low-person-on-the-totem-pole game that everybody has to endure. However, “I loved being a sales rep for an office supply company, but no one respected my creativity or new ideas so I quit” articles never get published since most readers would rightly consider the author of such a piece an idiotic prima donna who got exactly what he deserved. Maybe it shouldn’t be this way, but accepting the challenges of being new on the job and being smart about how you present yourself to those who make firing decisions are how things work everywhere, and public education is no different.
Thus, lesson one in becoming an independent teacher is to learn to be a good employee. (Granted, one of my favorite movie quotes of all time comes from Night after Night, when a hatcheck girl comments to Mae West, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” to which Mae responds, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” You can watch the scene here if you’ve never seen it.) As shown in that potential problems list above, where actual pedagogical ability never came up, it’s not really about teaching skills when you’re new; showing up, being on time, not leaving early, not making waves, and acting interested and smiling whenever one of your bosses deigns to speak to you will not turn your struggling students into Advanced Placement scholars. These are hardly educationally crucial or brilliant insights, but you’d be surprised how often people simply ignore common sense and adopt a pre-Copernican view of the cosmos (that the universe revolves around them) when it comes to their jobs. Especially before they have established themselves as reliable or achieved tenure in places where it is still granted, younger teachers need to be perceived as steady and compliant. And that “steady” necessity is true for all teachers who want to be less compliant as their careers go on.
Once teachers have learned how the system works (not to mention earning tenure in places where that is applicable), it is then time for them to take more charge of their worlds. In upcoming articles, we’ll begin detailing how teachers can be masters of their domains, regardless of the silly, wasteful, expensive, and/or destructive procedural, political, and/or technological hail storms they will inevitably have to endure.
In this article from the blog section of the American Enterprise Institute, Nat Malkus describes a study he worked on while at the National Center for Education Statistics which found that teacher autonomy has declined in the last ten years. From 2003 to 2012, there was a statistically significant drop in teachers’ perception of how much control they have in their classrooms. In 2003, 18% of teachers felt they had low levels of autonomy, 65% responded they had moderate autonomy, and 17% believed their autonomy was high. By 2013, those numbers had changed to 26% low, 61% moderate, with only 12% claiming a high degree of autonomy in how their classes were run.
As we’ve been discussing for the past couple of blog entries (see this article and this one), teacher independence (another term for autonomy) is a crucial factor in making public education succeed. The trend, of course, has been for outside, non-teacher influences to grab more and more decision-making authority from teachers, attempting to reduce teachers to little more than clerks who follow the orders of those “smarter” than they. Micro-managing school boards, state mandates, federal programs, media stars, and wealthy hobbyists have all taken shots at trying to take control of classrooms, with varying degrees of impact. None of them has succeed in making education better, however; only dedicated, enthusiastic teachers who believe in what they are doing can inspire our kids to learn and achieve. But studies such as this one make it clear that the outsiders are succeeding in one thing—discouraging teachers.
It’s important also to consider the source of this particular blog—the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of the most conservative, pro-business think tanks in the country. Among its stands include challenging the veracity of human-induced climate change, supporting voter picture ID legislation (which has been shown to decrease minority groups’ participation in elections), and opposition to minimum wage increases. Normally, you would be safe in assuming that I would be on the opposite side of any AEI position; when it comes to political thought, I have very little in common with this group. But that polar opposites like AEI and me can agree that the trends on teacher autonomy are alarmingly negative speaks loudly to the problems that public education faces.
An overused and not always applicable modern cliché is that until you recognize the problem, you can’t begin to address it, but with an issue as large as teacher autonomy/independence, it does take a long time to affect practices and acknowledging the issue has to be where we start. Because of the glacial pace at which the thousands of public school districts/bureaucracies in the U.S. can implement any changes to how things are done, we have to hammer home certain basic truths over and over until a large enough majority can exert its will to try to push the massive bulk of school systems in positive directions. For the last twenty years, most of the pushing has been toward more centralized decision making, into the hands of fewer people.
In the case of public education policy, the power to make changes in the form of laws and mandated procedures has become increasingly concentrated with politicians, who are in turn influenced by large campaign contributors. And in the last few years, campaign finance law has devolved to the point that money is considered a form of protected speech when it comes to contributions to SuperPacs and the like. Single individuals can, and have, summoned Presidential candidates to their homes for auditions not unlike beauty pageants to determine who merits their largesse. One person can donate enough money to keep any candidate in the election process, despite lack of interest from actual voters. Hence, many public education government programs in recent years have been influenced by these wealthy contributors. Granted, the corrupting power of money has always been part of American politics, so this process is hardly new, but the degree to which our current laws have impacted how our system works has been significant. I happen to believe it’s significantly awful and would love to see the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission overturned tomorrow. I’ve wandered a bit, as you can see, but Citizens United is just one more point where my view is the antithesis of what AEI would advocate.
Which leads us back to our rare area of agreement: Declining teacher independence is hurting public education. Unfortunately, few others have acknowledged this as a key issue affecting our schools. This lack of awareness has led me to the conclusion that the best way to fight this erosion is for teachers to take back their power, one classroom and one teacher at a time. Yes, this will entail disobedience, stealth, and work arounds; but the stakes are too high for teachers to ignore the issue or quit teaching entirely. That teacher shortages are starting to crop up in some areas of the country (see this for more) suggests that frustration in the faculty room is boiling over. But leaving the profession doesn’t solve the problem; I believe it only makes it worse as the replacements for those who quit will be in an even worse position to do anything about it. What we need is a strategy that teachers can implement on their own, without the permission of those trying to steal their authority, who would never willingly allow teachers to assert themselves.
This quiet revolution starts with teachers recognizing that many of the problems in their work lives come from others trying to control what they do and their beliefs that they know better how to educate their kids. Teachers not afraid of the inherent challenges of teaching have to be able to separate those necessary hard things (like grading papers or dealing with uncooperative parents) from those imposed by outsiders that have done nothing to improve public education, only adding futile workloads on the backs of teachers (standardized testing emphasis, Common Core mandates, and Response to Intervention components of No Child Left Behind). Even those negative programs have some saving graces—some of the standards proscribed in Common Core have led staffs to look more closely at existing standards and revise them for the better—which only proves that teachers are willing to listen to ideas from others, adapt them to their unique situations, and move their students forward.
Nobody here is suggesting that outside influences and input should be eliminated from public schools; instead, those wanting to help need to understand their goal has to be to convince teachers of the worth of their concepts. Simply buying enough influence to get puppet politicians to enact legislative mandates is not only the wrong way to effect change, but ultimately a waste of money as those changes won’t last as resentful, uncooperative teachers will undermine and eventually kill any program which they find not in the best interests of their situation. We’ve gone over and over the truism that until teachers are on board, nothing really positive or lasting can take place, but that basic lesson seems impossible for these brilliant, wealthy, politically connected people to understand. Even if these programs do have some value—of which most of them do have at least a scintilla—unless teachers believe in them as well, they will crash and burn. Then, the brilliant outsiders (with some justification) will blame the teachers for the waste of time and money, and then attack teacher rights, such as collective bargaining and unions, leading to the dysfunctional mess we have been creating for many years now.
All sides need to work together, to cooperate, and to accept the importance of each player’s role in the process before public education can function as well as it is supposed to work. Right now, teachers have been relegated to a minor, walk-on, no-lines parts in the public education movie; and many of them are just walking off the set. Periodically throughout the next year, we’ll suggest ways for those underappreciated extras to start pushing back, to help their kids without caving to idiotic procedures and unworkable programs created by the well-intentioned but ignorant non-teachers who believe they know all because they have accumulated billions of dollars or millions of votes. Eventually, the tide will turn and teachers won’t have to sneak, rebel, or resort to passive-aggressive behaviors. Until that time, however, we all need to work to help them hang on to what autonomy they still have and to encourage them to find ways to educate our kids that work best for the unique situations in which they all exist.
We’ll be back in the new year, but until then, Snowflake Schools would like to wish you and yours a safe, happy holiday season. And if you’re looking for a last-minute stocking stuffer for the public education fan on your list, you can always check out Snowflake Schools, the book, excerpts of which can be found here. Thanks and we’ll see you next year.
Last time, I humiliated myself by parodying one of America’s most important documents, the Declaration of Independence, changing it to reflect some of the concerns teachers have in the age of accountability, corporate reform, and billionaire hobbyists. As the outside forces of federal mandates, state edicts, media stars, and business moguls (who believe the complex issues of educating a diverse population can be reduced to the simplicity of supplying mosquito nets to malaria-ridden areas of Africa) continue their various campaigns to “improve” education by wresting control and decision-making authority away from teachers, I do believe (all deference to Thomas Jefferson aside) that the time has come for teachers to take matters into their own hands. Although I am no longer in their ranks, having retired in 2012 after teaching English for thirty-three years in a junior high (eight years) and a high school (twenty-five), I feel qualified to comment on this issue having spent my career confronting or working around those who felt they knew better than I did how to run my classroom.
Those qualifications have to remain somewhat veiled out of respect for my bosses still in education with whom I worked (I wouldn’t want to get them in trouble) as well as not wanting to come across as overly arrogant about my “accomplishments.” Suffice it to say that I regularly publicly disagreed with my department chairs, assistant principals, principals, assistant superintendents (including human resource heads), superintendents, and school boards. There were also many times that I engaged in more hidden passive aggressiveness, where I would tacitly agree to something I had absolutely no intention of doing by not voicing my disagreement or intent of non-compliance at a meeting or institute. I am neither proud of my public stands nor ashamed of my unvoiced opposition—I did what I thought was in the best interests (in absolutely this order) of myself and my family, my students, my fellow teachers, my school, and my profession. I had no desire to be a heroic martyr, and I was always aware of the need to protect myself from disciplinary actions, especially those that might lead to my dismissal. I tried to walk the line between unflinching advocacy and fearful compliance, sometimes with more success than others.
So I get angry when I read about good teachers who have abandoned teaching because of the current environment, which they find toxic. Yes, I’m miffed at the silly procedures and ridiculous attacks these teachers say led them to quit, but I’m mostly pissed at them for giving up. After they leave, their students still need strong advocates who will fight to provide them with the best education possible. When they’re gone, those idiotic mandates and goofy evaluation procedures will still be in place. Their being in a different profession won’t change the Common Core, low salaries, administrative harassment, tenure elimination, standardized test mania, or erosion of collective bargaining/union rights. If anything, their quitting will make all of that worse since their replacements won’t have either the savvy or the experience to do anything but say, “Thank you, may I have another,” as public education’s reformers continue to paddle teachers relentlessly. I can understand teachers who left so they can provide for their families better or if they just hated teaching, but it especially irks me when they write of what wonderful teachers they were and how much they loved teaching, but the big, bad (fill in the name of whatever educational villain you prefer—standardized tests, outside interference, Koch brothers, or administrative meddling, to name a few) pushed them out.
So what we need is for dedicated, hard-working, skilled teachers to stay in the profession, not run away just because Bill Gates or Arne Duncan or their ambitious principal or their unreasonable school board isn’t being cooperative. Teachers need to recognize that this is a battle that has been going on since the “good” old days when some of their early ancestors had to board with a different school family every week, were forbidden to marry, and had to get permission to leave the school community on weekends (see these historical documents from a school district in Iowa, circa 1905, for more). Teachers have had to advocate for better treatment for hundreds of years, so we need to understand that this is a long-term battle and every soldier lost makes our side that much weaker overall. We need teachers who are willing to stand up for what they believe and push for school systems to do the right things, or at the very least, teachers who will work the system so they can quietly do what they think is best.
But first teachers need to believe that they are the key to public education, and that their unique skills and personalities should be allowed to mix with all the other factors that go into a classroom in ways that allow those skills and personalities to help kids learn. Of course there need to be standards, responsibility, and transparency; but first and foremost, there has to be recognition by everyone that there are as many ways to run an effective lesson as there are teachers. Outside experts and politicians have worked hard in the last decade to perpetuate the myth that single approaches or methods will work for all situations. Teachers must challenge that lie every time it rears its misshapen head to interfere with the truth: Teachers know better than anyone what is best for their students, and that “best” will be different for every teacher. Anyone who does more than suggest what teachers might do or insists that one way is the only way is an enemy of public education, pure and simple.
Yes, we need lots of new ideas, techniques, technological advances, theories, and whatever else we creative humans can think of in order to help children learn in our ever-changing world. That will never stop being necessary, but teachers must be allowed to act as gatekeepers for what is allowed through into their classrooms. Just because something works for some teachers doesn’t mean it will work for all. How much more evidence do we need that top-down directives will not work, given the failure of every single school reform movement that didn’t provide the option for teachers to pick and choose, to adapt and modify, to make concepts their own?
Obviously, there is no amount of evidence that will prove this to the zealots who “know” just what needs to be done; thus the need for teachers to do what they know to be best, experts be damned. The road to quality public schools begins with Teacher Independence, and teachers need to demand that independence for themselves.
Unfortunately, this won’t be easy for many teachers who flourished as students, doing well on standardized tests, obeying their teachers, and in general being what in my generation was called “a goodie goodie” (or kiss-up, brown noser, suck up, or whatever current idiom works for you—and yes, I was Exhibit A of this genus). When you’ve historically been teacher’s pet and then become a teacher, your first inclination is to stick with what worked when you excelled in the elementary grades, high school, and college—don’t make waves, do as you are told, and be as agreeable as possible no matter what the teacher or professor says. As a union activist for most of my teaching career, I can’t tell you how many times I struggled to get teachers to stand up for their rights. And regardless of the strength of the union’s position, there would always be a significant number of teachers who wouldn’t step forward to help out because to do so might make administrators and school board members “mad.”
Most employees seek approval from their bosses, but my sense is that teachers are especially prone to avoiding as much controversy as possible, despite many having significant protections against job discipline in the form of due process. Be that as it may, the road to improving teacher independence has to begin with teachers confronting their own need for approval and challenging themselves to speak up on their own behalf. As I’ve already pointed out, I do have some experience with this personally, but there’s no magic formula for transforming approval-seeking mice into assertive lions. (For me, that transition occurred when I was given a termination letter four of my first five years in teaching, despite excellent evaluations, just so the school board wouldn’t have to rush to determine if my position would be necessary the next year, even though they were about 99.9% sure it would be. The first time they did this, nobody could even be bothered to call to let me know that I would have a job the next year when they finally decided I would.) I do, however, have many suggestions, ideas, and techniques for helping the assertively challenged which we’ll go over in the months ahead. To warm up for now, I would ask teachers to consider my basic premise—Nobody knows better than you how to run your class. Repeat that a few dozen times every day. If that doesn’t work, then review all those pointless, worthless “tips” some supposed expert has provided for you to reinforce how clueless those clowns are, and we’ll continue with Teacher Independence 101 next time.
For more on helping teachers to assume their rightful place as the leaders in any school improvement movements, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools. You can read excerpts at this website.