Teachers and schools are currently in the midst of a terrific national debate about what should be done to improve schools and who is at fault for the state they are in. The curriculum is blamed. Teachers are blamed.
What’s interesting to me about this debate is who and what are not blamed. Poverty is sometimes mentioned, but never in the mainstream media. Is it too painful to admit? That amidst our plenty, at least one in five of the nation’s most vulnerable members don’t always know where there next meal is coming from (National KidsCount Program)? That we are a rich nation with an awful lot of poor people in it?
Second, leadership is never mentioned. Teachers are blamed, but never principals, never superintendents, never schoolboards, and certainly never the public—and it is the public who elects the bodies that ultimately hire and oversee teachers.
If you haven’t been paying much attention to education news, you probably won’t know that the way in which teachers are evaluated has been pinpointed as part of the problem, and that the next great thing in education reform is to begin to evaluate teachers in a way that is mathematically dubious and demonstrably unfair. (But that is not really the point of this piece, so I won’t dwell on it here.)
What frustrates me about this is that teacher evaluation is on the table, but not how principals are evaluated. And yet if we have ineffective teachers, it may just be because not all principals provide the proper oversight, guidance, and vision to the teachers on their staff. Having taught in three schools under five or six principals, I can attest to this being a strong possibility.
I have taught in schools where the principal visited my classroom on a regular basis—enough to understand what and how I taught—and was able to make thoughtful and perceptive comments that helped me to develop as a professional.
I have also taught in schools where the principal never visited my classroom unless it was time for a formal evaluation, and sometimes not even then. And when the principal did come, she seemed almost entirely ignorant of effective teaching practices or how to recognize them beyond pat responses I might find in a textbook for beginning teachers. (And this was not just one principal at one school, but multiple principals at more than one school.)
I am not trying to grind old axes here—I had no real issue with my less than stellar principals as long as the classroom had lights that turned on and four walls and I could do my job. However, it does make me wonder if we haven’t thought this all the way through.
And I do know that principals often complain that it’s very difficult to remove ineffective teachers, but there is a process for this. It’s just that you need to go through the process—you need evidence that the teacher is ineffective, that you have tried to help, but the teacher has not shown progress. In other words, you need to have done your job.
Further, in California at least, a teacher can be dismissed at the end of the school year for any reason or no reason for a full two years. If you as a principal have ineffective teachers in your school and can’t get rid of them, it’s because someone else didn’t do it when they could have with a stroke of a pen.
Again, I’m not blaming principals. There are some really fantastic, hardworking, inspiring ones out there. But if it’s time to look at teacher evaluation, it seems like it’s also time to look at how we evaluate those who carry it out.
Third, in all of this debate about the causes of our less than stellar schools, no one looks at the structure of schools themselves. And, yet, I would be very surprised if many of us did not look back on school—especially high school and middle school—as places where those in authority neither knew us too well nor cared about us that much, where we felt in many ways dehumanized and, above all, disengaged and bored.
There is, of course, always that one teacher or even that handful of teachers who really did manage to connect with us, that startled us, entertained us, and to whom we truly mattered. They are the stuff of feature films, and they are noteworthy mainly because they are the exceptions.
They shouldn’t be the exceptions. Nearly all teachers enter teaching because they like young people. They like their subjects, but they also like kids. So how is it that people who like kids manage to make so many of those same kids feel left out, unimportant, and disconnected?
I’m a math teacher, so for me it seems to come down to math. In 59 minutes, I have 35 students who all need to be taught a desperately important subject required for graduation. I do this three times a day. The other two periods, I have a smaller group of 26 students with intense academic, social, and emotional needs. Most teachers do it five times a day, and some of them six. So, on average, most of us see at least 175 fresh young faces a day in groups of 35 t0 40 for the space of 45 to 60 minutes each a day..
Every one of our students have unique personalities, unique needs, unique experiences. How do we even begin to know them all? How do we take into account what their minds need–where they are academically, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what learning experiences they need next to advance? And how do we come to know their souls?
My suspicion is that we don’t. That many of us decide where the class is as a group, or where different academic strata of the class lie, and teach to that. We notice the collective personality of the class–and all classes develop a group person–and respond to that. But it takes a colossal memory and tremendous powers of observation to really know and connect with each student.
Academically, this may be good enough. Interpersonally, it is not. Above all, we are teaching children, and their main job throughout the day is to learn how to be a person and how to function well in society. At school, I worry that what we are teaching them is that they don’t matter, that authority is not interested in them, and what they mainly need to do to get along is be quiet, suppress their real personalities, and do what they are told.
Consequently, we now have several generations of individuals who have experienced school in this way and are angry now. Low academic performance is a cover. The real problem is that they want to get back at a system that treated them like cattle.
National Kids Count Program. (2012). Children in Poverty. Retrieved from: http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/acrossstates/Rankings.aspx?loct=6&by=a&order=a&ind=43&dtm=322&tf=38&gclid=CMWmvNGXkrICFUheTAodZkcA1Q