I don’t know many people who have the balls to stand up in front of a group and lead them somewhere. Leadership is always hard to find, let alone leadership of kids who don’t want to go anyplace, and will be uncomfortable for significant parts of the journey.
When people who do have the cajones to try to lead kids are pushed so far from what is good, when they feel compelled to stand up and say, “Whoa, that’s enough,” there is only one way for them to do it without losing their jobs. They strike.
Losing your job as a teacher is not just losing your job. That’s awful enough. It’s also losing your kids. Your connection to all the students you’ve taught over the years. Your connection to the kids who planned to have you next year, who planned to come back and ask you questions the year after they leave you. If you’re not at the same school, they probably won’t find you. You won’t ever see them again, find out how they ended up. That is a heavy threat. I have few financial responsiblities, but I feel fearful about standing up for things that are bad for my students because I want to stay with them. Are my fears well-founded? I don’t know. I know I don’t have tenure, or a union.
Without a strike, who is going to put a stop to the bizarre notion that standardized test scores are an effective way to make reform decisions if not teachers? This weird, illogical theory has legs. Get the numbers, fire the bad teachers. No evidence it will work, but let’s try it.
My school instituted a system of bonuses for rising test scores this year. I thought, why not give it a try?
Every year I think I get better. I attend a ton of trainings, and lead trainings and conference sessions myself. All that, and then there’s the doughnuts I buy for the kids on test day.
Last year, one set of my test scores actually went down compared to my previous groups. The others were similary unimpressive.
Well, data people tell me, you can use that data to show you how to improve! Here’s what the data tells me: my students continue to struggle with everything on the AP exam, because the thing is damn hard, and the English kids struggle with the hardest parts of English: grammar conventions and drawing conclusions from texts. Well. I already knew that.
The data does not help me.
In fact, the whole situation makes me feel so powerless and hopeless that it’s a real drain on my work. It does hurt.
If I was a “good” teacher, I would be able to prove it. Right? I’d have a gold star next to my name. I’d be good at both inspiring learning and knocking out those standardized test scores. Maybe. Maybe if I don’t deserve a gold star, I should be fired to make room for someone else. We have an easy time finding English teachers– even in urban schools– because English majors are so desperate for work. Just keep rotating ’em through. Some of them will turn out to be “good” teachers.
I used to work in research, and I know how the numbers get gathered, how little things can throw subjects off, and how the numbers are regularly massaged to make them say the right things.
The other thing that confuses me is why people think the district and the city would be pro-kid and teachers anti-kid. The district and the city are the money people. They have little contact with students, little time in classrooms to see how institutional changes affect real kids. They have lots of contact with salesmen from companies that sell textbooks and standardized tests. These salesmen continue to convince them that if you just have numbers, you can prove what students know and which teachers are “good.” I don’t think they’re evil. I just know their influences and what’s in front of them.
If you use standardized tests to evaluate teachers, no one has to do the difficult work of observing a teacher and a class, noting shortcomings, modeling more effective techniques, and doing follow-up coaching. Some administrators were never effective classrooms teachers (that has nothing to do with changing jobs), so they don’t know how to model it for another teacher.
I’m going on with teaching, of course, enjoying my students talk passionately about books and write thoughtfully about their lives and their imaginings and their work. More and more meetings to fill out forms. More documenting what I do, so someone will believe I teach something, and less time reading student work and planning lessons.
Bullies are people who lack power, and want to pretend they have some. The only power in schools comes from working with students. The lunch ladies have more power than the central office. And isn’t that where we want power to be? We don’t want the most powerful, educated, adept folks anywhere but directly interacting with our kids.
Teaching is still a fun and interesting job. I still laugh a lot– which is the only good ammunition against bullies.