It was Friday, the day before the three-day Labor Day weekend. When I finally pulled out of the teachers’ parking lot, it was 5:10 – an hour and twenty-five minutes after my contract hours and almost two hours after students were dismissed from school. What is unusual and notable about this is not that I was at school that late, or that it was a Friday before a three-day weekend. What is notable – if not extraordinary – is that there were ten teachers (out of a staff of 36 teachers), one administrator and the school secretary who still had not left school.
This was not a rare occasion or a beginning of the school year phenomenon. On any given day, over a third of our faculty and staff arrive well before contract hours, and the vast majority leaves well after contract hours. Some are “repeat offenders”. They get to work early each day and leave late each day.
I recently wrote a letter to one of our state representatives. The letter was in response to one he wrote to me after reading a Guest Column piece I had written for our local newspaper. In his letter, the representative challenged my opposition to the new teacher evaluation system – a system which uses student test scores to determine 50% of a teacher’s overall evaluation. At the end of his letter, he asked the following question, “Do you think 97% of all teachers are ‘satisfactory’?”
My immediate response was, “Yes”, but his question struck a chord with me, and I began to think about all the teachers I have worked with over the past 21 years. I have worked at four different schools with approximately 250 teachers (I rounded down to make the math easier). Of those 250 teachers, I could only think of a few – less than a handful – who were “unsatisfactory” in their performance year in and year out.
Perhaps age and a sense of kindness and generosity to my current and former colleagues had clouded my memory, so I doubled that number to eight. Over the past 21 years, I have worked with eight unsatisfactory teachers – teachers who were unprepared, unprofessional, and incompetent and/or whose classrooms resembled a circus rather than a learning environment. That left 242 out of 250 teachers, or exactly 96.8%, who were “satisfactory”. They did their job. They came to school prepared to teach. They worked with students. They supported students. They encouraged students. They graded papers. They turned in grades. They filled out IEP’s, AIP’s, 504 plans, IPDP’s, etc. They met with administrators. They attended workshops. Yes, 97% were satisfactory.
Anyone who has ever had children (or spent any time around a school in the last 30 years), knows that teaching is about much more than being satisfactory, or effective, or highly effective or even exemplary (or innovating the term used in the new measurement system), and it’s about more than one man or one woman’s ability to get a group of 22 to 25 students to “show learning gains” on one test. Teaching is about understanding and tending to the needs of children – their academic, developmental and social needs.
The new evaluation system has sixty teaching characteristics or elements. They are all “observable behaviors” of an effective or “satisfactory” teacher. They include descriptors such as “provides clear learning goals” and “establishes classroom routines” and “demonstrate value and respect for low expectancy students.” All these characteristics can be measured on a scale or evaluated with a protocol, but do they truly measure the characteristics of a good teacher?
How do we measure dedication – coming to work early and staying late? Where is the rubric to evaluate a teacher who spends an hour and a half of her own time each night (if not more) – away from her own children – to find “just the right” story, book or lesson to spark interest in that one disconnected child? What score do you give to a teacher who stays after school to listen to a child sob because her parents are divorcing, and she doesn’t know where she is going to live? How do you evaluate the “with-it-ness” of a teacher whose students could care less about “world cultures” when their own culture consists of gang violence, teenage suicide, bankruptcy or foreclosure?
One of the least effective teachers I know – in terms of “observable behaviors” – is also one of the most effective teachers I know – in terms of “with-it-ness” and “meeting the needs of students”. His lesson plans are sketchy – at best. His record keeping leaves a lot to be desired. He operates under the “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission” mantra most of the time. But he knows his subject area better than most college professors. His vocabulary, writing and critical thinking skills are unparalleled. More important, he knows how to relate to his students – from the nerd who sits alone in the back of the room to the loud-mouthed girl who is taking care of three younger siblings at home. He makes learning meaningful and relevant, and they remember the life lessons he teaches them – as well as the subject area lessons – long after they leave his classroom. His effectiveness cannot be measured by a protocol and certainly is not accurately reflected based on how his students perform on one test.
The question is not “Are 97% of all teachers ‘satisfactory’?” The better question is “How do you measure learning gains when learning is about more than questions on a test and teaching is about more than documenting observable behaviors?”