Every Good Morning

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Four days ago, in the Bluest of Blue states, this: Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, declared that “we have to realize that our schools are not an employment program” and vowed to press for the speedy establishment of a statewide teacher evaluation system. “It is this simple: It is not about the adults; it is about the children,” Mr. Cuomo said….” *

In his 2011-2012 budget proposal Governor Corbett wanted legislation allowing school districts to fire teachers for economic reasons; in addition, he wanted it to be explicitly understood that seniority would not be a factor in a district’s decisions about which teachers to retain. One can expect him to push for this again in his 2012-2013 budget.

The merit evaluation of teachers is heading toward public education at great speed; teacher associations, unions and school boards would be wise to embrace it now while they have a chance to influence its shape.

Inside public schools a discreet arena of information is always simmering – its continually replenished heat is an informal method of measurement, a sliding scale that sets the very best teachers at the top and the slackers and incompetents at the bottom. Teachers, administrators and parents are all involved in this constant process of evaluation. Their conversations take place behind closed doors. Students know. They talk to each other all the time about who to seek out and who to try and avoid. Guidance counselors and principals receive pressuring phone calls from parents – I want my child to have X as a teacher. Y is unacceptable. I want my child to learn something this year. Everybody knows.

However, these everyday, unofficial evaluations of teachers have no paper trail, no documentation, no methods of appraisal that are resolutely evenhanded and precise, but they still carry weight in the quiet building wide judgments about which teachers have earned respect and which disdain, about who are rising stars, wise old-timers and fading veterans, about the mean and the saintly, the briskly competent and the crazy screamers.

A recent poll by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa International reports great support for teachers as individuals:  “Just over 70 percent of poll respondents say they have trust and confidence in public-school teachers, and about three quarters also say that they would encourage the brightest person they know to become a teacher….”

However, “Forty-seven percent of respondents say unionization has hurt the quality of public education in America, compared with 38 percent in 1976, the last time the question was asked.”

This is one of the critical take aways: “I think Americans perceive that the teachers’ unions are protecting bad teachers,” says William Bushaw, executive director of PDK International. “And Americans, if anything, want high-quality teachers.”**

The public loves teachers when they know them but has much less trust in unions as the final arbiters of teacher quality. The evidence suggests that Governor Cuomo’s desire to implicitly separate the good from the not so good teachers is a desire shared by many Americans.

How can someone tell when he or she is watching a good or not so good teacher in action?

“Stoicism, flexibility, empathetic detachment, humility, curiosity, integrity, a consistent work ethic, intelligence: these are the critical qualities for any good teacher.” *** Good teachers get up every morning thinking about how they can become better. They want to complete every one of their tasks in the right way. They are aware of all the audiences who look upon their work and therefore how important it is to be balanced and fair in their professional actions. Their classrooms are orderly but not dead; they are lively places, intense places. They spend time before and after school with students. They push their students to work harder, to think more deeply; they match their rhetoric invoking hard work with their own hard work. They walk out of their buildings with lots of grading and planning to do at home.

Lousy teachers do incalculable damage to kids year after year – their lack of work ethic or proficiency in the classroom means kids are not challenged. Their skills suffer, and when they leave that teacher, they leave  unprepared for the next grade, for the next level, for college. Bad teachers kill enthusiasm for learning in their students. Their legacy to their students is one of cynicism.

Any good teacher in a high school classroom can do this: spend one period with one class where the trust level between teacher and students is high. If students trust someone as a teacher, they will tell him or her the truth. Ask those kids to describe the attributes of both good and bad teachers. No one spends more time examining teachers’ behavior and methods than their students. No one else can afford to take 45 minutes a day for 180 days to do so.

Let the students’ police themselves in terms of what items should be listed. Their common sense will not abandon them. By the end of 45 minutes of free ranging discussion, throwing out the ridiculous and keeping the sound, they will have filled a blackboard with item after item that name and describe many specific actions, techniques and personal qualities that separate the best from the rest. Another of those qualities is revealed in the example of this exercise – their kids trust them enough to be open in discussion and to tell the truth. They have no fear of their opinions coming back to haunt them and thus they abandon their traditional silence in the presence of such a loaded discussion and let go.

There is a blunt truth in all this: schools must find ways to reward talent and hard work. They must find ways to keep their best teachers, to help improve those who seek to improve and to let go those who lack the aptitude or whose work ethic is not up to the job.

The public must be assured that their tax dollars are giving their children the best chance for an education as imparted by excited, passionate, devoted, supremely competent teachers. When poor or incompetent teachers are protected, all of the teachers in the district suffer some loss of prestige.

The great fear of all teachers whenever anyone starts talking about this issue is the question of fairness and rightly so. That fear boils down to this – what is the quality of the administrators who will make decisions about who to keep, who to release? What system will protect teachers from predatory administrators and those who hold grudges, from administrators who demand subservience and breed lackeys, from incompetent, fearful, unfair, deranged, idiotic administrators? Many of the central office and building administrators with whom I worked were very good and some were bloody miraculous, but my God, the bad ones were awful and were not to be trusted in anything.

The best teachers are often leaders in their schools; their advice and hard earned wisdom will sometimes conflict with administrative opinions and actions. An unfair system of evaluation would crush the freedom of loyal teachers to speak freely, and that would be a tragedy for public education.

The day is coming quickly when current protections for teachers and systems for their evaluation will be transformed. Teachers must act now, while there is still time, to work with their administrations and boards to cooperatively design methods of performance that are fair and that encourage real excellence in their ranks. It can be done. Schools are filled with smart professionals of good will and common sense who can certainly solve this problem.

*www.nytimes.com: “Invoking King, Cuomo and Bloomberg Stoke Fight On Teacher Review Impasse”, January 16, 2012; Thomas Kaplan and Kate Taylor

**www.csmonitor.com: “Americans Love teachers But Split Over Teachers’ Unions”, August 17, 2011; Amanda Paulson

***www.everygoodmorning.com: “20,000 Words describing Every Aspect of Teaching”, June, 2011; Mike Wall

© Mike Wall

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