Before the start of the new school year, I made a short video which intended to send a message - a humorous one - that I was aware of all the new expectations for teachers which were part of the contract they agreed to and will eventually tie their evaluations to any pay raise. I told our teachers that we would get through the school year together, that I would be there to support them and that we would merge initiatives to ensure that everyone would do satisfactorily on their final evaluations. Now, as we approach the end of the third quarter, I realize that I was being a Pollyanna rather than a realist.
I have been in education for over 40 years, and I believe that teachers are essential to the future of our state, our nation, and our world. I have worked with and supervised hundreds of teachers, and almost all of them believed they can make a difference for their students. For them, teaching is a calling, not just a job. They care about their students; they work long hours to plan lessons which will help their students to progress, and they do their best to be "good soldiers," to do what is expected from their school and their Department. The truth is that our teachers and our administrators are overwhelmed with so many responsibilities and expectations. Schools realize the need to change, but too many new initiatives at once is not productive and not research-based.
That is why I was so appreciative to read this blog post from an attorney who used to be a teacher. Valerie Strauss writes from experience and shares an important message: Teaching is hard work, and it takes a special, committed person to make education their life-long profession.
I remember my first day on the job as a Head Start teacher. I was excited and thought I was prepared; after all, I had my teaching degree. I had never set up a classroom - I did my student teaching in the spring so the class was already set up - but I spent a lot of time and managed to make the classroom neat and inviting for my class of 3 and 4-year-olds. When little Eddie started taking the numbers off the calendar, I told him - very nicely but firmly - not to touch the calendar. Then I put the numbers back up. While trying to console Darren who was crying for his mommy, I heard a scream from a little girl. Rushing over, I saw Lisa with a bite mark on her arm. Eddie looked at me with his big eyes and said, "I told her not to touch it but she didn't listen." My first day of work, and something totally unplanned for happened. Luckily, I didn't quit, and my supervisor didn't give up on me. She asked me what I had learned from this experience. Since that first day, reflection has been an essential part of who I am as an educator.
Very few of the teachers I've worked with are not committed to improving. They take courses, join professional learning networks, share ideas with their colleagues, and spend their evenings and weekends checking assignments and giving feedback, searching for activities that might grab their students' interest in a topic, and reflecting about how they might help that child who has been a challenge.
No one becomes a "perfect" teacher because our students are not perfect. Some years are more difficult than others, but that makes us stronger and gives us more tools in our toolbox to work with challenging students or those who think out-of-the-box. Our job as educators is to work with the families and the community to give our children roots and wings, to provide them with a strong foundation so they can have the confidence to blaze their own trail and be contributing members in this ever-changing world. It is not just the school's job to prepare our students for their future.
And that is why I am concerned with the new expectations for teacher evaluations. Do teachers need to be observed by an administrator? Should students be learning in the classroom? Should the classroom be well-managed? Should students like their teacher? Should we have expectations for teachers? The answer is "yes" to all of these questions. However, it's the "how?" that needs to be clarified.
It is the relationship and trust between an administrator and the teacher that will make the difference. When a teacher is hired at our school, my job as the principal is to help that person to be a confident, reflective teacher who continually seeks to improve his/her practice. This is a team effort with the school community providing support and assistance. It doesn't happen overnight and there is no magic formula to becoming a great teacher; in fact, no one ever reaches a level where there is no room for improvement because we cannot predict the challenges our students may have or what their attitude towards school and learning are. Every day is different, and every class is different, and every student is different, so teachers need to have more than book knowledge; they need to care and be willing to build a positive trusting relationship with every student in his/her class to enable him/her to succeed.
Our world is changing, and the skills our students need to be successful in the future are far different from when I was growing up. We need innovative, creative teachers who are able to motivate their students to ask questions and search for their own answers. We need teachers who are able to guide students to understand how to apply the skills they learn in class to real-life problems. We need teachers who understand that every child is different, and we need to be flexible with our curriculum in order to address each child's individual interests, strengths, and challenges.
As a principal, my worth to the school is diminished when much of my time is spent on required tasks that tell me what I already know. I know which teachers are doing well and which teachers are struggling. I know when a class is particularly challenging and which teachers need more support and affirmations. I know which teachers are reaching out to ask for help and which ones are hesitant to admit that they are struggling with a few difficult students. Rather than spending my time documenting evidences that I met with teachers to complete their required tasks, I would prefer to have more opportunities for unplanned observations or meetings or to have informal conversations with teachers about successes or challenges in their classrooms. A trusting relationship between students and their teacher and between teachers and their administrator can lead to risk-taking, confidence, and learning from failures as well as successes.
Our teachers are good soldiers; they do what they're expected to do even if they don't always agree with the task. I fear, though, that as time goes by and teachers realize that they may not reach their targets, we will see less innovation and creativity and more time spent on bringing scores up to indicate that students made the required growth targets.
This is supposedly a "practice" year that does not count for most of our teachers, so I am hopeful that our education leaders will ask for feedback from those in the field in order to revise the expectations for teacher evaluations. Teachers and administrators need to be consulted; after all, we are the ones who have the expertise and who know what kind of impact - positive or negative - these expectations have on the entire school.