Friday, May 8, 2015

Teachers Policing Teachers

Should teachers be calling out, or even reporting, their fellow teachers? Should teachers be responsible for policing our own ranks?

After all, when Mr. McStumpnugget sits in that room, sucking relentlessly for years, the rest of us suffer. We pay a price because, for many people, Mr. McStumpnugget becomes the face of teaching and every time there are contract negotiations or discussions about teacher accountability, people are thinking about how much they want to stomp on him. And if he teaches next door, or upstream of us in the same department, we end up teaching downwind of the Pig Farm Poop Lagoon. Outside of his students' parents, I'm not sure there's anybody who would like to see Mr. McStumpnugget shape up and/or ship out more than I.

So why am I not out there working the problem? Here are a few answers to that question.

Actually, I am

I have a good relationship with my principal, so I can bitch about Mr. McS. I might even have a good enough relationship with Mr. McS that I can easily say, "Dude, if you show one more movie, I am going to jam gum in all your room's power outlets." I may be helping and supporting his students. I might even be teaching parents how to most effectively register their complaints (because their complaints will always carry more weight than mine). I may even be having regular face-to-face confrontations with Mr. McS.

None of this is happening out in public. Maybe you have a burning desire to have M. McS publicly shamed, but I don't see any value of it.

And to tell the truth, it will be a long road before I get to this point. When it comes to calling out my fellow teachers, there are several things that make me slow to stand up and start whaling away.

Different strokes

It's hugely important to distinguish Teach Well from Teach Just Like Me. I can point to teachers who have a classroom approach completely different from mine. They are so authoritarian or loose or personal shary; they spend time on things I don't think deserve classroom time. They run their classrooms in ways I would not in a million years. But before I start bitching about how awful that teacher is, I had better ask a simple question-- are students thriving and succeeding in her classroom?

And here's the thing about that question-- the answer is almost always, "Yes."

An awful lot of the reformster program seems bent on standardization, on having teachers who work pretty much the same way. That strikes me as completely backwards. The more your building is packed with different styles, methods, approaches, temperaments and techniques, the better the chance that every child who passes through the building will find at least one teacher to connect with in a meaningful way.

That also means most students will find someone they don't connect with at all. Walk into any building in the country, and you cannot find a single teacher that was not, at some point, profoundly and deeply hated by several students.

The test remains-- do some students thrive in that teacher's classroom. What "some" means is always going to be debatable, but this is still the most important question. And based on that question, there are many teachers with whom I disagree, but that doesn't mean I think they need to be fixed.

Rough patches

Teachers, like all humans, have lives. I would love to believe that while my previous marriage was melting down that I was still bringing my A game to the classroom, but I think it's safe to say those days were not my professional peak. Nor do many of us look back at our first few years and think, "Boy, I wish I were as good today as I was back then." We have all been there. So when a colleague is hitting a rough patch, the tendency is to try to help her through it, not get up in her face.


Because most schools have no formal structure in place for dealing with colleague issues, much of this comes down to administration. Not everyone has a working relationship that allows her to walk into the principal's office and say, "I am concerned/frustrated/pissed off about Mr. McS." In fact, if you are working in a school where the principal personally hired Mr. McS, expressing professional concerns about him may simply be a quick path to professional self-immolation.

Meanwhile, even the most reasonable principal on the receiving end of negative input about a staff member must now decide whether he's listening to a useful professional observation or an angry squawk born of some real or imagined slight.

The Missing Link

As I just suggested, the missing link is some sort of formal process. My hunch is that almost no schools in America have any sort of mechanism in place for teachers to police their own ranks. The oft-stated notion that teachers have their own thin blue line or code of silence about fellow teachers that "everybody knows" should not be in the classroom-- that perception is fed by the fact that even if a teacher wants to call out another teacher, there's no real way to do it.

So what's the fix?

The power structure of a school is a weird thing-- it looks basically like a really big pancake with a cherry on top (the cherry would be the building administration). Unions have long resisted the idea of letting teachers do any sort of evaluation of other teachers because they have (rightly, I think) sensed that allows power dynamics to potentially run amuck and tear the pancake to tatters. At times, the relationships and group dynamics in my building have been toxic enough; had we thrown a teacher's power to police other teachers into the mix, we would probably disappeared in a chalk-colored mushroom cloud.

But-- teachers have information about other teachers that nobody else has. Let me tell you a story...

Years ago I worked with a woman who most people thought was a flake. Her room seemed chaosy. She seemed frazzled much of the time. Her own students thought they were just wasting time and screwing around in her class. But I taught directly downstream of her, and year after year, I would inherit her students and year after year, when we pre-assessed a unit, they would Know Stuff. I would ask them how they already knew those things and they would scratch their heads and say, "Well, I guess we learned that last year from Mrs. NotHerRealName?" They hadn't thought she was getting the job done. I'm not even sure she knew if she was getting the job done. But I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that she was getting the job done.

Of course, there was no formal avenue for me to say so. Just as there is no formal structure in place for me to file a professional complaint about Mr. McS. We don't have a system that allows either. I can only bitch and moan unofficially, which is its own set of problems.

So what's the answer to getting teachers to police other teachers? The answer is

That's the wrong question

The goal should be to create a system that includes teachers, students, administrators and community members is an ongoing process of helping each teacher be the best that she can be.

One of the many, many, many, many problems with teacher evaluation systems like Andy Cuomo's two-observations-and-a-test-score approach is that they won't even find the problem teachers you're looking for. All Mr. McStumpnuggets has to do is land some test scores and not suck for two observations and he can go on being a nightmare for the entire rest of the year (especially in Cuomo's model, which expressly forbids including any other information in the teacher evaluation).

Finding bad people and throwing them away is backwards, both for teachers and for students. The goal is for everyone to become the best they can be. If someone's Best They Can Be is not suitable for teaching, then let's deal with that. But let's not be surprised by it after a single observation or a sudden negative report from a fellow teacher.

Teacher evaluation ought to be about helping teachers improve and grow, not about trying to play gotcha with the people we suspect of suckage. The beauty of a system that works to lift every teacher up is that it models what we should be doing in the classroom-- working together to lift everybody up. Our goal should not be to try to catch people being bad, but help them more often be good.

I would be interested to read about any models out there of such a program-- I'm sure such things must exist where teachers and administrators collaborate to create an atmosphere of excellence where everyone has the tools, support, and help they need to thrive and grow. In such a school, having teachers "police" each other would be both unnecessary and beside the point.


  1. I have always said If you want I to know who isn't doing a good job find out which teachers other teachers avoid for their own children. Or which teachers they angle to get their kids assigned is frustrating to spend all tHis time,money and stress on a system that won't do anything about inadequate teachers. It is doubly frustrating when admins keep letting people slide without doing the hard work of helping them get better.

  2. I wish I had positive examples of models of teacher evaluation.
    Instead I have examples of every negative tendency you discuss in this post.
    There are as many ways to teach as teachers, and as many ways to learn as students.

  3. It took over 150 years for public education to realize that not all students learn the same thing in the same way and at the same time. Thus began the differentiated classroom to address this reality. Will it take another 150 years to come to the same realization about teachers--that we don't all teach the same thing in the same way and at the same time?

  4. Peer evaluation is a very good idea, but there is a great deal of resistance from teachers. One teacher told me it is unethical to report another teacher for poor teaching (the particular example was a public school science teacher that taught creationism as biological science). Until it becomes unethical to tolerate poor teaching, peer evaluation may not be possible.