Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Yes, I'm Alive, Yes, I Still Love Teaching, and Yes, I'm Still Very Opinionated.

My poor mother.  All she wants from me is a blog update, and I fail her daily.  I don't like writing if I don't have something worthwhile to say, which I usually feel like I don't.  Sometimes, I feel I don't have the time to craft something.  Well, that is until I get on Facebook, see a discussion I feel the need to get involved in, and end up writing something I'm actually pretty proud of (in a comment window in ten minutes).

I am proud to be a teacher.  Some of the people I've worked with, some I've studied with, and some of the unbelievable women in my family have shown me what it means to be a teacher.  It disinclines me to make many excuses for my profession.

A few notes: My writing was part of a conversation that spanned a day or two, so I've preserved it as such, removing names.  Also, I have edited out a few choice phrases and rephrased a couple things in my own writing for clarity.  No changes to content.  Please remember this is Facebook, where conventions of writing are applied creatively.

My friend R: YES - Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers
[Note: I have yet to actually read the article; all my comments were in direct response to others.]

R's friend D: "Many more teachers are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. Maybe they'd get more respect if the truly bad teachers were let go."
Girl, I hate this article.

R: haha, must have missed that part when i was reading it between classes this morning. but i've seen firsthand too many schools where AWFUL teachers will never be fired... something needs to change.

Me: AGREE!! If teaching is supposed to be a profession, then the bad professionals don't get to keep their jobs.

D: Here's your problem -- How do you determine a "bad" teacher? Test scores? Because that's currently the way the public school system judges teacher performance, and it's piss poor. Teachers shouldn't be punished for students who are bad testtakers. Furthermore, teachers shouldn't be encouraged to teach to fit a standarized test instead of teaching so that students can learn the material.
And the answer of a drastic teachers shortage in the United States shouldn't be the mass-firing of teachers.
R: no, i'm not talking about standardized tests. bad teachers - the ones i've seen and/or heard about - are the ones who show movies everyday instead of teaching (true story: some of my students have watched Borat and The House Bunny during other classes). they're the ones who are teaching middle school literature & language arts, and cannot even write a paragraph of their own that is free of grammar and spelling errors. they're the ones that have no background in math or science and yet are allowed to teach advanced courses in these areas to high school students. i know that this type of stuff can't be easily quantified, but we need to find a way to increase accountability. i wouldn't mind staying an extra 25 min everyday and eating lunch with the kids once a week.
Me: (R, I'm sorry I'm ranting on your wall.)

Two things - One, As R points out, the teachers at that school in Rhode Island *refused* to put in any extra time because it wasn't in their contract. Contract my hind foot.  It's your JOB to help these KIDS. Teaching is plagued by indifference and an obnoxious martyr mentality (although it also has so many gifted, enthusiastic, giving people), and I have no qualms or hesitation saying they need to get the hell out of the classroom.

Second, the undeniable difficulty in quantifying good teaching does not mean we can shrug and let troops of indifferent non-teachers stay in the classroom. Some teachers are objectively, obviously BAD, and they should not have a job. Yes, many of the current teacher evaluation systems leave much to be desired. Find a better way to evaluate teachers. Do it case by case. No excuses for anyone, teachers or administrators (or students, but that's a separate issue).

Some states are experimenting with new ways of using test scores to evaluate teachers. First, they're evaluating individual teachers instead of whole schools. Then, they're measuring individual student *growth*. For example, if a teacher has a kid who comes in two grade levels behind and then tests half a grade level behind after having that teacher, the teacher get rewarded for the time-and-a-half gains of the student, not punished because the student is still behind. Even if a kid is a bad test taker, she should still show gains. It's not perfect. But it's better than nothing.
My friend B: You're both right that it's not easily quantifiable. But anyone in education can tell you that it's EASY to qualitatively distinguish a good teacher from a bad teacher. Just spend an hour in the classroom and watch what happens. 
D: And qualitative evidence is inherently subjective. Your version of a bad teacher won't look like mine. And who draws the line when a teacher becomes "unacceptably bad"? How many people have to agree?

And Andrea, actually I'd argue that using test scores as a measure of a teacher's ability is actually worse than the current system, because test scores really have ****-all to do with whether the kids are actually learning or not.

And who decides that teachers are obligated to do everything they can to help kids? Last time I checked, parents need to step in at some point. Teachers' employment contracts don't obligate them to become babysitters, psychiatrists, etc. Maybe if teachers are compensated like lawyers and accountants, you can expect them to put in big law firm hours. Until then, to obligate them to do whatever they can to help a student, and branding them a "bad" teacher if they want to actually stick to their work hours, is insane. Their job is to come in prepared, teach lessons, give grades, and manage parents. They aren't nannies or afterschool care providers.
R: sure, the job is to come in prepared, teach lessons, give grades, and manage parents. (a) what about the teachers who don't even do those things? the ones who are unprepared, let the kids goof off for 50 minutes, then bolt as soon as the final bell rings (even though their contracts require them to stay another half an hour)? those are the ones i would like to label as "bad" teachers, and the ones i would like to see fired. or at least given SOME kind of consequences, because there are currently none. and (b) i think this article is pointing out (and i would agree) that the teachers who get the best results are the ones who go above and beyond this job description and actually care about their students and their learning... no way that teachers can be required to do this, of course, but it's nice to dream. 
Me: (Sorry again, R!)

B! I miss you. Well put. Sure, there are problems with subjectivity, but sometimes (...too often) it's SO OBVIOUSLY BAD, it's easy to see a particular teacher needs to go. Yeah, there's a gray area. But we KNOW what good teaching does and what it looks like (and it can look a lot of ways). We're educators -- we're supposed to know how to set objectives and create rubrics for evaluations. Why can't we do that for teachers? You set a standard, you stick to it, and the professionals will work to meet it.

D, you're saying we need to use quantifiable data to assess student learning, but tests (usually) aren't reliable indicators of student learning. I agree on both counts. The solution is to fix the way testing is conducted, used, and thought about (which ABSOLUTELY needs to happen, esp. in public schools), not ditch testing all together. How else can we assess how well our children are learning? That's an honest question; if anyone has a better idea, please speak up because testing it fraught with serious issues. It's also effectively our only option.

Perhaps the biggest problem in education today is that educators don't think of themselves as professionals -- and neither does anyone else. The way many teachers perform and the way they talk about their work, I can't blame the general population. There is one real, credible way to fix that: act like a professional. Act like what you do is more than a set of tasks and obligations to check off. Act like it matters. Teaching is not like any other occupation. Multiple studies in the last couple of years have shown that the single greatest influence on a student's learning is the teacher -- not the school, not the money spent per pupil, not the parents. Teachers don't deal with bottom lines and action items. We deal with people. Children. Not just their brains, either, the whole kid. So I don't buy that teachers aren't obligated to go the extra mile. No, we shouldn't kill ourselves -- we truly can only do so much. But we should be willing to work pretty damn hard.

Then maybe the rest of the country would take us teachers more seriously, eh?
Me (again): R, I think we were typing at the same time. Yes -- there's an ideal, and there's a minimum, and there's all the teachers who don't even try. Great is preferable, but good is still good. Outstanding may be rare, but awful is still awful.


Tony said...

I think I agree with your mother...I enjoy having something to slack off and read first thing in the morning :-)

I don't know how it works in education, but when I took my Senior Design course, there was discussion about the fact that engineering isn't just a job, but a profession. It's probably too early in the morning for me to have the cognizance to remember the difference (I suppose a higher commitment to the public good and a greater sense of responsibility and purpose).

I think teachers may be able to even take it a level higher: viewing your profession as a vocation (this is a Catholic-ish blog, right? ;-) ). Again, not sure on the semantics of the distinction (that's why I'm not the English major). But perhaps teachers need to be imbued with a sense of how much responsibility their profession/vocation holds or how it is a whole-life calling.

Or something like that...

Mama said...

I hear angels singing! I looked at your blog and saw a NEW entry! wooohooo! Love the conversation...agree with you completely. And, btw, I don't want any more smack talk from you about how my facebook entries turn into a chat room! ;) Love you!

Siné said...

I was reading an article today that seemed appropriately related to your discussion about teaching. The author, John Taylor Gatto, was a school teacher for 26 years and was considered to be excellent at it. He has since retired from teaching and has an awful lot to say about it. Check it out:

Andie said...

Tony: Yes, teaching is absolutely a vocation, at least in the sense that it is more than a job and something you do nine to five. I had to avoid that language, though, because in more secular circles the word "vocation" stirs up entirely different imagery.

And I am happy to serve your procrastination needs. I'll try and be more diligent about my duties. :)


Siné: Oooh! More reading material! Yessssssss. I will look at that today.

Kathy said...

Well put sweetie. Teaching is a calling, not everyone can do it, and even then, do it so well that a student remembers the teacher for their not only for their knowledge but how they held themselves and their humanity and grace.