When is Spring Break not a vacation?
When teachers spend it stressed about the future of their profession, their careers, tenure, pension, health benefits, ability to pay their mortgages, send their kids to college, feed them.
Yeah, it is that serious, because a storm is gathering, the elements are coming together, and when it really hits, it will already be too late.
And too many teachers are not doing a thing about it.
From a perspective of a former journalist turned New Jersey teacher, that storm looks ominous indeed. Let’s start with the weakening of tenure laws. On their own, many teachers will agree that truly bad teachers exist, and they tarnish our own hard work. Improving the process of weeding out the demonstratively poor employee is a reasonable course of action. But, in the wrong hands, this becomes a way for an ambitious administrator to prove his/her mettle, to make an impression, to strengthen his/her resume, to rule through fear. It can become too easy to go from weeding out the few bad apples to staging a witch hunt. And then a good thing for education, for our kids, becomes a weapon of terror.
Next, let’s consider the so-called approved teacher evaluation tools. There are suddenly many in existence. All of them seek to do some good. All of them go off the rails at some point. In an effort to be all things to all people, these tools continue expanding expectations for teacher performance until the tool cannot possibly work in reality.
Essentially, these evaluation tools profess to ensure student progress and improvement. Basically, teachers will be evaluated on student growth; students will be measured at the beginning of the year to estimate what they know, then again at mid-year, and once more at year’s end, to measure what they have learned. The expectation is that students should grow significantly each year. Most teachers applaud this as a concept, goal, and idea. The problem again comes in execution.
How exactly will students be measured? In many cases, we don’t know yet, but implementation is moving forward. Who will create these evaluations and what kind of time will be allotted to make sure they are of quality and effective? Again, we don’t exactly know yet, but are expected to move forward. Will the measure be a sliding scale? Will Special Ed kids be expected to grow as much as and in the exact same way as mainstream kids, or Non-English speaking kids, or emotionally disturbed kids, or kids battling a severe illness, or gifted kids who score really high right out of the gate? How much growth will be considered effective for each of these groups? Supposedly, the average will be measured. Which one? One size does not fit all, so, are we planning for all these individual testing needs? How? Once more, we don’t really know yet, but are expected to move ahead.
Further, at least one of these evaluation method calls on all teachers to know each students’ cultural background (admirable), reflect it in the classroom (alongside student work and messages of positive support and best practices, that’s a daunting task), and incorporate it all into lessons every day (awkward at best), while incorporating dozens of other demands in an attempt to create classroom nirvana at all times in all classrooms everywhere.
Again, admirable, again awkward to impossible to achieve while engaging students in a dynamic lesson (asking Joe how his Mexican heritage can be reflected in Act II ofHamlet is going to create more uneasy silences than it will generate progressive conversation any day). Teachers are expected, under this evaluation tool, to engage all students in this way, every class – how weird is that going to be? Worse, educators are going to be evaluated based in part on such elements.
This reveals an uneven playing field for which these tools fail to compensate. An elementary school teacher with 20-30 students will be able to know much more about her/his students than a high school teacher with 90-120 students. Yet, the evaluation tools lay out the same expectations for each. How is that a fair assessment?
While again an admirable concept, this is another unrealistic expectation. In the right hands, an administrator will note a teacher’s ongoing effort to make each classroom reflect the students’ world, but in the wrong hands such over-the-top requirements all but guarantee no teacher will be given a highly effective assessment. Again, this becomes a temptation for the career climber, a way to show strength and expertise, whether denigrating teacher performance actually gives evidence of their administrative skills or not.
And examples of such unrealistic, unfair, and possibly illegal requirements abound in these evaluation tools. One such tool requires teachers to stay for events after contractual hours without overtime compensation (even if they have kids who need them at home), pay to belong to professional associations (at upwards of $100 or more per year) out of pocket without reimbursement, anticipate every question students can possibly ask for each lesson, and reflect that anticipation in all lesson plans, and generate emails, progress reports, newsletters, and website updates for parents often, all just to be considered effective. When does teaching come into the equation?
One more time, these are all beautiful ideas for a perfect world, but taken together they collapse under their own well-meaning weight. And, again, in the wrong hands, become lethal weapons, especially when combined with weakened tenure laws, and ever-tighter education budgets. Put the three of them together and the wrong administrator can find any teacher anywhere with any track record and assess them as suddenly suspect, ineffective, in need of losing tenure, and ultimately, their livelihood.
And none of it is clearly delineated yet, but progress toward making it policy, forcing it to become part of past practices, eventually making it all law and the new reality, continues.
Here is where the sky darkens. How can teachers, or any set of professionals, be expected to sign off on a work agreement that has not been clearly defined? Would you order off a menu that failed to clearly explain what you could expect to be eating? Would you buy a ticket for a movie with an advertising campaign of darkness and silence? Would anyone agree to work a job with a description of responsibilities that is significantly incomplete, especially when job security is tied to performance of those undefined duties? No one in their right mind would. But teachers are expected to do so freely, and quickly, before adequate planning and reflection can occur.
The storm clouds gather and the kids have been left outside…
Christopher Ryan is author of City of Woe, available on Kindle and Nook, and in print. For more info, click here.