Thursday, November 24, 2011

Something to Be Thankful For?

"We're failing." I wonder how many times I've heard that. "As a failing school, there are some changes that need to be made around here." All five schools I've worked at (in four states) have devoted significant time and energy to avoid the label.

At my current school, clear expectations for "improvement" have been communicated to the administration. Those expectations are communicated to staff on at least a weekly basis - although possibly less clearly than whence they originate, maybe a little more sugar-coated.

And so the tension is with us again. It's always with us. What does it mean to improve our school?

The district will provide us with paid time to work on their version of improvement. It means thinking about data, the kind of data that most teachers either don't trust or don't understand. And, most importantly, it means thinking about how to change the data that count to the state or the feds, the data that can change funding and freedom.

Teachers wonder when they'll be paid to change the school in ways they see as meaningful: lesson study, collaborative teacher support groups (called critical friends groups at my current school), time for curriculum development, or sharing and evaluating common assessments and student work. The buy-in for district ideas about improvement is generally low. Just another item on the month's calender, just another hoop to jump through before you can go home or get back to real work.

It's somewhat ironic, I think, that the same ideology that has imposed this quasi-Orwellian state of teacher work on schools has also spent lots of cash on bringing in lots of ambitious, young, type-A personalities into the profession (although, to be sure, not for the long-haul.) As my former AP put it, Teach for America made teaching sexy; it made it cool for privileged college students to help poor kids. But these type-A personalities, as teachers, are expected not to think long and hard about education and its nuances, but to raise the numbers.

I'm just now reading Working by Studs Terkel, the 1972 oral history of working men and women from across the country. It's made clear to me the fate of teaching in this country that I hadn't, for some reason, quite understood. In the introduction, a farm worker complains that "the careless worker who turns out more that is bad is better regarded than the careful craftsman who turns out less that is good." A fierce commitment to decisions of the free market have been destroying the creative side of humanity that needs to take pride in its work since the eighteenth century. Education, neither producing material goods nor part of the private sector, has only recently begun to suffer the symptoms of an ideology immune to nuance.

On Thanksgiving day, I can nevertheless be thankful that teachers in the state of Washington are not suffering these symptoms nearly as severely as teachers in other parts of the country. While we are jumping through hoops and complaining about demands made on our time, we are not being held responsible for data we have very little control over. We're not yet being threatened with our jobs for failing to write the day's objective in the administratively approved objective box in the upper right-hand corner of the white board, nor are we being berated for not engaging five different learning styles simultaneously, or not updating our word wall on a daily basis.

NLCB says we're failing. But to ourselves and to our colleagues, it looks more like we're doing the best with what we have.


  1. Actually --- very big sigh --- teachers in Seattle *are* facing those things. Evaluations consider student growth in test scores (MAP, even though the test publishers do not consider it valid for such purpose) and several teachers can attest that their daily goals need to be printed in big letters on the white board, or the education director, a former TfA with one year experience as principal of a school with 50 students, the boss of the principal, complain to the principal.

    There's going to be a big push for charters in the next legislative session, even though the state is broke and wants to cut four days of the school year. How in the world can we afford charters?

    But I shouldn't rain on your Thanksgiving. Keep up the good fight and the hard work in the classroom. We need you.

  2. That's true, Dorothy. I, for some reason, completely forgot about Seattle.

  3. Please don't give up to soon. Those of us in "the middle land" between districts and teachers need strong minded teachers with the work ethic that provides change. I know it's not enough and we are seeing kids fall through, it's more than it was ten years ago. Keep on plugging on ... I appreciate you. ~an "anonymous" administrator