kitchen table math, the sequel: "bad teacher" - bad parent?

Monday, March 5, 2012

"bad teacher" - bad parent?

I AM a special education teacher. My students have learning disabilities ranging from autism and attention-deficit disorder to cerebral palsy and emotional disturbances. I love these kids, but they can be a handful. Almost without exception, they struggle on standardized tests, frustrate their teachers and find it hard to connect with their peers. What’s more, these are high school students, so their disabilities are compounded by raging hormones and social pressure.

As you might imagine, my job can be extremely difficult. Beyond the challenges posed by my students, budget cuts and changes to special-education policy have increased my workload drastically even over just the past 18 months. While my class sizes have grown, support staff members have been laid off. Students with increasingly severe disabilities are being pushed into more mainstream classrooms like mine, where they receive less individual attention and struggle to adapt to a curriculum driven by state-designed high-stakes tests.

On top of all that, I’m a bad teacher. That’s not my opinion; it’s how I’m labeled by the city’s Education Department. Last June, my principal at the time rated my teaching “unsatisfactory,” checking off a few boxes on an evaluation sheet that placed my career in limbo. That same year, my school received an “A” rating. I was a bad teacher at a good school. It was pretty humiliating.


When the assistant principal walked in, one of these students, a freshman girl classified with an emotional disturbance, began cursing. When the assistant principal ignored her, she started cursing at me. Then she began lobbing pencils across the room. Was this because I was a bad teacher? I don’t know.

I know that after she began throwing things, I sent her to the dean’s office. I know that a few days later, I received notice that my lesson had been rated unsatisfactory because, among other things, I had sent this student to the dean instead of following our school’s “guided discipline” procedure.

I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?

In my three years with the city schools, I’ve seen a teacher with 10 years of experience become convinced, after just a few observations, that he was a terrible teacher. A few months later, he quit teaching altogether. I collaborated with another teacher who sought psychiatric care for insomnia after a particularly intense round of observations. I myself transferred to a new school after being rated “unsatisfactory.”

Behind all of this is the reality that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my “bad” teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job.

In fact, I don’t just want to get better; like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.

Teaching was a high-pressure job long before No Child Left Behind and the current debates about teacher evaluation. These debates seem to rest on the assumption that, left to our own devices, we teachers would be happy to coast through the school year, let our skills atrophy and collect our pensions.

The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.

Worst of all, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach. When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent. One week, my assistant principal wanted me to focus on arranging the students’ desks to fit with class activities, so I moved the desks around every day, just to show that I was a good soldier. I was scared of losing my job, and my students suffered for it.
Confessions of a Bad Teacher
Published: March 3, 2012
As far as I can tell, there are two approaches to accountability: roughly, top-down and bottom-up.

Top down means state tests, substantially reduced teacher autonomy, and lots and lots of principal observations.

Bottom up means professional learning communities.

At least, that's the way it looks to me.

I gather from some of palisadesk's comments that top-down can work. At the same time, I've spent the past 6 years of my life trying to function as a parent inside a tiny district headed by a top-down superintendent, and those were six long years. I never want to hear the words "work up the chain of command" again ever. Or "Thank you for your ongoing cooperation and support." I don't like being thanked for my ongoing cooperation and support. I feel that if there must be ongoing cooperation and support, I would like to be the person receiving the said cooperation and support at least occasionally.

Anyway, blood over the dam, but my point is: I don't think top-down makes for happy teachers, and I know for a fact that top-down in my district produced a very large cohort of unhappy parents.

I'm reading that in Finland teachers function as professionals, and it looks like maybe that's going to happen in my district.

I vote for teachers as professionals.

And I vote for Richard DuFour's "professional learning communities" as the best way to get there.


Allison said...

how do you make a PlC for a middle school math teacher in a school that has exactly one middle school math teacher? across schools doesn't really work. what would work?

Jean said...

I sympathize with Johnson, but at the same time--it feels like he's ignoring the plain fact that there are actual bad teachers. Cruel, bullying ones, or ones who are burnt out and don't care, or whatever.

Yeah, it's not much help to blame teachers who are doing their best with too many kids and too few supports. But I think many people are very disillusioned by the way truly terrible teachers are protected by the system. It's hard to support a system that protects awful people who are hurting your child. And the result is that there is a *lot* of resentment that is turning into demands for more teacher accountability, which is a very difficult thing to measure.

Which is why yet another friend of mine is giving up this week and pulling her child out to homeschool, after 4 years of trying to work within the system--and she's a teacher herself. A few years ago she was leery of my choice to homeschool and thought I was kind of crazy. I have a sadly long list of these friends, who go into the school system as believing, supportive parents and come out jaded and disillusioned.

Catherine Johnson said...

Allison - yes, that's my question - BUT Kris Harrison, our incoming super, **has** apparently set up PLCs across districts. His district is tiny (just 800 kids) and teachers from other districts have joined their PLCs.

I can imagine cross-school PLCs working for middle schools ---- administrators would have to make them work (schedule time, etc.) --- but it doesn't strike me as an impossible task, and it could be even more helpful given the 'outside' perspective --- (?)

Catherine Johnson said...

Jean- agree completely.

I think the reform movement (which I consider myself part of) has ended up, somewhat paradoxically, repeating the mistake of the 'non-reform' movement, which is focusing on the grown-ups, not the kids.

The new teacher evaluation system here in NY (basing this in the last I checked into it) is going to be a DISASTER. It will be miserable for the grown-ups, expensive as the dickens for the taxpayers, AND it will do nothing for children.

That was Richard DuFour's revelation: he was a hard-charging principal who was endlessly evaluating the teachers and serving as an "instructional leader."

Nothing changed.

He finally had a revelation: he needed to stop thinking about teaching and start thinking about learning.

Basically, he flipped the model (and, no, we're not talking about Salman Khan's flipped classroom!)

He decided to focus everything on kids learning, NOT on what he thought of any given teacher's performance.

This meant that not only did he create a means for teachers to function together as professionals, but he also invented "RTI": his school developed a plan to intervene systematically and proactively when kids weren't learning.

When the focus is directly on the child's learning, the mean teachers start weeding themselves out.

Now, how this would work with severely disabled kids, is a little more of a question to me --- BUT I think the model is applicable.

Hainish said...

Catherine, good luck, I hope your district sees some positive changes.

Meanwhile, here is an article by a math teacher who is against (!) spiraling instruction.

SteveH said...

My reaction to the commentary is that there is more to the story.

There is the issue of competence (of teachers and of administrations) and there is the issue of whether one administrative technique works or another (top-down versus bottom-up). I don't want bottom up when it comes to curriculum, but top-down gives us things like Everyday Math. Then there are issues over whether kids are separated by ability.

I can't see how a philosophy of learning (ensuring mastery?) over teaching could evolve from the bottom up even if administrations gave teachers that flexibility. If administrations don't have the power to enforce much, I can't see how new ideas could develop if you have a school with a number of strong personalities.

Besides, you haven't added the expectations and needs of parents into the mix. I don't assume that PLC's will automatically create what I want from a school in terms of academics. In our lower schools, it's the administration that's struggling to force teachers to ensure basic skills and raise expectations.

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, I should add that I don't know how DuFour (and others) handle teacher evaluations ---

The idea of a superior evaluating a subordinate's performance is **somewhat** contradictory with the idea of a horizontal, professional organization.

However, I do know that department chairs at Adlai Stevenson do lots of classroom observations. (I know this because I emailed with the chair of the math department there.) Also, department chairs at Adlai Stevenson seem to have administrator status -- although there's a general tone & feeling on the website suggesting that department chairs should be seen as 'first among equals,' or some such.

The point is: I really don't know what role teacher evaluations in the old-fashioned sense of administrators visiting classrooms and evaluating teachers should play (or could play).

In terms of value-add and student learning, I'm **somewhat** certain that state tests per se (especially the tests we have here in NY) aren't going to do the trick.

We need ongoing formative assessment of the kids, AND teachers need a way to figure out **quickly** what to do differently when their kids aren't doing as well as the kids in the class next door.

The beauty of PLCs is that same-subject teachers create a set of tests (or assessments more broadly defined) that they give to their students on the same day and then meet to go over. When they find discrepancies in the results, they help each other adopt the 'best practices' others in their group have developed.

If everyone's score is below where teachers want them to be (I don't know how often that happens), teachers have a team of colleagues to help them figure out what's going on.

PLCs produce consistent formative assessment across classrooms and a built-in, scheduled way for teachers to collaborate to raise student achievement.

Catherine Johnson said...

I don't assume that PLC's will automatically create what I want from a school in terms of academics.

That, for me, is an open question.

Catherine Johnson said...

In our lower schools, it's the administration that's struggling to force teachers to ensure basic skills and raise expectations.

right -

That has crossed my mind, too. Say you've got a district filled with teachers who think that group Powerpoints are the pinnacle of 21st century skill ---

I don't think you're going to see a lot of "continuous improvement."

I do think there are a few built-in 'biases' towards high achievement in the PLC approach.

First of all, in DuFour's concept of PLCs, teachers aren't deciding what the curriculum is; the state and/or the administration does that.

Teachers use the curriculum documents from the state and/or district to decide exactly what they're teaching and when. (I **think** that DuFour **does** give teachers leeway to decide not to teach some topics if they believe there are too many to be mastered in one year.)

Also, teachers write assessments they give to all their kids -- and I tend to think that the writing of assessments biases you towards real tests and real paper topics ..... although I'm not exactly sure why.

I guess the bias comes from the fact that an administrator is overseeing things, and the administrator wants to see evidence that students are moving ahead.

Basically, I think -- I'm guessing -- that the PLC set-up in and of itself pushes schools toward content & mastery and away from 'process' and non-mastery.

But I could be wrong.

Last but not least, DuFour created PLCs in a high-SES high school. High schools have more 'content' pressure (built-in pressure to teach content) than K-8, I think.

Nevertheless, from what I gather, PLCs have been successful in K-8.