Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What Do We Do About Bad Teachers?

I believe bad teachers exist. I believe that on any given day, in many schools in this country, there's a person standing in a classroom doing a lousy job. I just spent a chunk of bandwidth explaining that I don't believe Find and Fire is the correct policy response to bad teaching. So what do I propose instead?

The Heart of the Problem

I'm going to spend the least amount of time on the hugest part of the problem, which is identifying the Bad Teachers. I've actually laid out my teacher evaluation plan elsewhere; if you want to start me off on a consulting career, give me a call. In the meantime, I'm going to talk about some of the reasons that it's hard to do useful evaluations, because wrestling with those difficulties helps us figure out what we need to do about our Problem Educators.

What Do You Want Them To Do

Here's what teaching feels like some days. You show up on a work site, and then a supervisor hands you a hammer and points you at a pile of lumber. "Build something," he says. "I'll be back in a few weeks to tell you how you're doing."

One of the more subtle things that reformsters have quietly done is to simplify education. Common Core redefines education as simple vocational training, and various VAMs redefining teaching as test prep. If we thought a teacher's job was just to get kids to get a good score on the Big Test, it would be easy to measure job performance. But that would be a stupid definition of a teacher's job, and so student test scores are a stupid measure of teach effectiveness.

Before you can judge teachers, you have to decide what you want them to do. That turns out to be rally complicated and difficult and wildly varied from parent to taxpayer to administrators to bureaucrats. It even varies within families-- what I want you to accomplish with my oldest child may be way different from what I want you to accomplish with my youngest.

Because this is so hugely difficult, we mostly just don't do it. We collective wave our hands in the general directions of students and say, "I don't know. Go do teachy things." If you want to evaluate people on job performance, you have to decide what job you want them to perform.

Teachers Are Humans

My point is NOT that humans are frail and flawed. My point is that humans are dynamic, growing, changing persons. You cannot take a snapshot of a person at one moment and say, "Well, that's who they are all the time forever."

I mean-- that's the whole premise of schools. If we handled students with the same Find and Fire method reformsters like for teachers, we would sit down in October and say, "Well, Chris and Pat don't appear to know very much, so let's just fire them." That would be crazy! (Well, unless you're a charter school. Then it would be standard policy.)

No, we say that if Chris and Pat are problematic, we will find ways to teach them.

People change. If you have taught for more than a decade, you have probably worked with some or all of the following teachers:

    -- The teacher who was great for most of a career, except for a couple of years when they hit a rough patch and took a while to bounce back
    -- The teacher who was pretty mediocre at first, but eventually caught on and became quite good
    -- The teacher who started out pretty strong, but just kind of lost interest after a few years
    -- The teacher who stayed a few years too long
    -- The teacher who was awful from day one and couldn't be helped
    -- The teacher who was awful from day one, but really wanted to get good, and so did

The smaller your sample (a single 30-minute observation, a 10-minute video clip), the less true your evaluation. Teacher performance varies over time. Teachers can get better or worse. Teachers are humans. Humans change.

Teaching Is About Relationships

Teaching is about the relationship between the teacher and the student. Not every relationship will be the same, and some of them will not be good.

At various times in my career, I have been exactly the right teacher at the right time for particular students. At other times, I have been exactly wrong for a particular student. Don't get me wrong-- I can teach anybody up to a certain point. I'm a professional, and that's my job. But I have no doubt that there are students out in the world telling their "Worst Teacher I Ever Had" stories about me.

So. What Do We Do?

We don't give up on finding and addressing weak areas. I said finding bad teaching is hard. I didn't say it was impossible. So let's pretend we did it, and discovered a pocket of bad teaching in Room 147. Now what?

First, we try to fix it.

I know reformsters want to just fire folks left and right. That's wasteful, and just means we'll have to start from scratch with a new trainee anyway. Let's see if we can salvage the investment of time and money we've already made in this teacher. After all-- some bad teaching is done by good teachers.

Coaching. Support. Team teaching. An experienced teacher works with Room 147 every single day. We know how to do all this, and we even know that it works. We just don't like it because it costs money, and districts are really fond of teacher remediation programs that don't cost a cent. Well, you get what you pay for. And if you fire and replace, you're going to have to pay for a mentor teacher again anyway. Maybe you'll hire somebody who is super-duper awesome all on their own from day one. But probably not.

Not everybody will be salvageable, and we will have to let those go. But for the rest-- isn't this just another version of our mission to educate and help young people become their best, most capable selves?

There are a handful of people who will be excellent teachers from day one (in thirty-five years, I've met exactly one), and a handful of people who will somehow get a job even though they will never get good at doing it (again, exactly one in thirty-five years). Most will fall somewhere in the middle and will either rise up or drop down depending on the random factors that fall across their path-- the particular teachers they fall in with, the classes they draw, the help they do or don't get in their first years teaching.

We don't have to leave the careers of those people in the middle up to chance. With support and mentoring and gentle pushing, we can make decent career teachers out of them, and isn't that a hell of a lot more use to the world than one more unemployed supposedly not-very-good teacher?

1 comment:

  1. The problems with "An experienced teacher works with Room 147 every single day" are multiple:
    1. The experienced teacher could her/himself be having a bad day/week/year.
    2. Experience isn't an indicator of excellence - as reformsters will happily tell you.
    3. An (excellent) experienced teacher's teaching and working styles may or may not jibe with the (poor) experienced teacher.
    4. An (excellent) experienced teacher becomes quasi-administrative if s/he is to provide input to evaluations. If s/he's not going to do that, her/his assistance to the (poor) experienced teacher may be pointless.

    This list could go on and on, so I won't, but as a final thought: In my experience as a union rep, a (poor) experienced teacher will NEVER (in the eyes of administrators) get better.