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Tom | March 18, 2012

Stage Five: Acceptance


Elisabeth-Kübler-RossBy Tom

There has been a fundamental shift in the teaching profession over the last ten years or so. Previously, the focus was mostly on what the adults did. Now the focus is primarily on what the students are doing. Ten years ago, teachers went to college, entered schools of education, took the classes, passed the tests, got jobs, went to workshops, and generally did what they were supposed to do. Nowadays, it doesn’t much matter whether or not you went to a school of education. Nor does it matter whether you go to any workshops. What matters now are results: measurable indications of student learning. Everything else is just…everything else.

Like most teachers, I had trouble adjusting to this change. I was in denial. When No Child Left Behind passed I chalked it up to something ridiculous coming out of a Republican administration. It would soon blow over, letting us go back to doing what we did before. I denied the fact that it was actually a bipartisan bill, supported by many lawmakers who had traditionally been strong backers of teachers and their unions. “This is Bush’s law,” I thought, “and as soon as he’s gone, it’ll go away.”

But Bush is gone and NCLB isn’t. Not only that, but the new administration, the one the teachers’ union helped elect, came in with a vision of public education that is just as focused on student learning as the previous administration. If not more so.

My reaction, like that of many teachers, was anger. How can anyone expect the same results from a classroom of poverty as from a classroom of affluence? Why isn’t it enough for a teacher to put in an honest day’s work and let the results speak for themselves? If I plan engaging lessons, execute them with precision, and score my students’ work with specific feedback, what more can anyone ask of me? If the students – and their parents – don’t do their part, while I do mine, how can I alone be held accountable?

There’s obviously a lot of merit to this argument. And a lot of educators will go to their retirement making this argument. But it’s not an argument they’ll win. The fact of the matter is, there are teachers who are motivating the “unmotivated.” There are schools that work in places where they “shouldn’t.” As long as that’s true – and it is – teachers will be expected to teach anyone, anywhere; with teaching defined in terms of student learning.

We tried bargaining. We tried electing lawmakers with a traditional, anti-reform view of education. We’re still trying that. But the change that’s coming is still coming. We might be able to defeat this teacher evaluation bill here or that charter bill over there, but if you look at the big picture, education reform is moving forward, not backward. Teacher evaluation is becoming more results-oriented; not less, and the number of charter schools is increasing, not decreasing. Most importantly, the number of major political parties that support education reform has gone from one to two. Bargaining to delay or reverse education reform is a lost cause. A more productive approach would be to negotiate a more sophisticated way of measuring student achievement.

Like it or not, things are moving along. I’ve known this for at least a year. I haven’t been particularly happy about it. I’ve even been depressed from time to time. Why shouldn’t I be? I work my butt off and no one seems to care.

What matters is whether or not my students learn.

And that’s something I’m ready to accept. In this day and age, results matter. What I do, in and of itself, doesn’t. And that’s not going to change.


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"Acceptance is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else." David Foster Wallace

To add on to Mark's comment, teachers seem to lose all credibility when they question any form of school reform. It's like a pitcher complaining that the strike zone is too small or a batter complaining that the mound is too high.

(yeah, I'm ready for baseball season)

Kristin, I agree with so much of your comment. I think that part of our need, too, is to find the way to communicate the complexities of education without coming across as complaining. I don't even have an inkling of what that would look like, though. A long time ago on this site, before I was a contributor, I remember getting in an argument with another commenter (not a classroom educator) about where the disconnect happens in education... his perspective was that if teachers simply communicated expectations clearly, then students would comply. In other words, he though students were not performing because no one told them how to perform. Okay, perhaps in some situations, but it is far more complex than that. That complexity is what makes talking policy to noneducator-policymakers so challenging.


Hmmm. You always make me think. Thank you for that.

I guess I think it's up to us whether society thinks we alone are responsible for producing results.

I think a lot of people agree that we're not. You're a parent - is that what you think about your children's teachers? Of course not, and most of the people I know feel the same way. Coaches, counselors, youth group leaders, troop leaders, even my neighbors all feel they share the burden of educating the children they know and helping them be successful and responsible. We could do a better job of uniting and utilizing the web of support each child has and by so doing, not only show those who hold only teachers accountable that we're not the only factor in child's journey to adulthood, but we'd probably increase the chances a child's skills improved between September and June.

For example, there are ways that encourage more support for kids and ways to alienate that potential support. I spend ten minutes a week sending an email to the families of my students, giving them a heads up on what we're doing in class. It took me 20 minutes to set up a distribution list with 160 emails. As well as using the district's contact information for families, I ask kids who's important to them, and if there's a student for whom I need to rally support I'll google coaches, facebook them, or do whatever I can to say something like, "John needs to find a little time to do homework, can this happen before practice or between events at the swim meet?" or "John wrote an amazing essay today! Ask him about it." It takes less than a minute, and it's a minute that saves me hours of trying to get through to a student on my own.

I find that little emails and phone calls make my life easier in a thousand ways, but I've heard teachers who simply draw a line there and expect their students to be totally responsible for communicating with home.

Teachers and schools can be pretty hit and miss when it comes to collaborating with parents and other important adults in a child's life. I hear "parents are responsible too" way more than I hear "I found this great way of getting parents to help me do this." My daughter's kindergarten teacher sends home a weekly newsletter. It helps me. My other daughter's teacher said, "I don't send home cute newsletters. Your child needs to learn to write things down." Well, okay, but it means I can't help as much.

If we're being told we alone are responsible, we're partly to blame.

I have found legislators to listen to teachers, but too few teachers, I think, are willing to look for solutions. If legislators are saying, "Schools need to show results" and teachers are saying "We need more money," then I don't think either side is listening to the other.

Mark has committed to communicating with his legislators. I think that's the place to start. Not waiting for the WEA or your local to do it, though that's certainly a vehicle for advocacy, but for individual teachers to communicate with their elected officials. When one of the earlier versions of the "change seniority based layoffs" bills was introduced, it had a stipulation that any teacher without an evaluation was first on the chopping block. My administrator, at that time, hadn't done my evaluation. I wrote to Senator Tom and pointed this out, and received a really nice email from him thanking me for my input and letting me know the bill had been revised to change that. I was heard, but I didn't simply send some email ranting that the bill should be thrown out.

When people say, "This isn't working as well as it needs to. We need a solution." Teachers should try to help find a solution, not just say, "It's not our fault. Fix poverty. It's not our fault. We're underfunded." I don't really blame people who have stopped listening to that. How can we do what we do better, using only what we have? People all over the world have to find an answer to that question every day, and I have a lot of faith that teachers can find an answer to it, too.

I pretty much agree with everything you wrote, Kristin, except for two things:

1. I think job security is going, if not gone. I don't think anyone will be valued because of how long they've taught, but for how well they LAST taught. In other words, you're only as good as your last lesson. Literally.

2. I would like to think that NBCTs - or teachers in general - would have a voice in the deciding which student assessments are used to evaluate teachers. I would like to think that, but in order to do so, I need evidence that policymakers CARE what teachers think. I haven't seen that evidence. Have you?

Like you, I don't think the whole world is coming down on teachers. I think that some people are, though, and I think it's fair to say that teachers are held accountable for more than their share of the multi-step equation that equals student learning. What I was trying to get across in my post, though is that is the new reality. Teachers, and teachers alone, are required to produce student learning. It's no longer acceptable to merely "work hard."


I think the trend is moving away from strict one-shot assessment data and toward "student growth" data, and I think NBCTs have a real opportunity to speak up about the many ways a teacher can provide evidence of student growth.

We all know that student growth is best measured in a way less concrete than a test, and that way is with examples of student work. This is a way to prove a child's learned something whether that something was about art, or technology, or literature, or math.

I fully support that any teacher taking a paycheck and holding a position should be able to say how her students have improved, what she did to help them improve, and what the next step is.

I agree, Tom, things are changing. You once wrote in a post that while people entered the teaching profession for a number of noble reasons, job security was another reason. I think job security is fine, as long as teachers are doing their job well.

Instead of using our numbers to resist any expectation that we can prove our students have learned something during their time with us, we should start pushing to have a say in how we prove what they've learned, and we should use the National Boards process as a model.

I don't think the whole world is coming down on teachers. I don't even think it's happening in our country. Communities and our larger society still highly value good teachers, and teachers who work their butts off and who care. I think - though I'm not accusing you of this - that educators need to let go of the martyr's position. We're valued, but we're expected to be really good at what we do because what we do matters.

"A more productive approach would be to negotiate a more sophisticated way of measuring student achievement."-EXACTLY! With this caveat: real teachers have to be involved in creating said measure. Otherwise is is just a windfall for publising houses at the expense of students and teachers.

Two things:

First of all, effort usually produces results. When I work harder, my students generally learn more. But that's not always the case. There are places in American, Mark, where teachers are working just as hard as I am and getting very little results. And there are places in America where teachers are working half as hard as I am and getting much better results. That used to be acceptable; now it isn't.

Your second point is huge: right now our data on student learning is horribly unsophisticated. In fact, we don't even have student learning data for 70% of our teachers, including anyone who teaches third and lower and anyone who teaches secondary outside of language arts and math. Not only that, but the data itself comes from tests that weren't designed to measure teachers: they measure different skills at different grade levels. That has to change, and I'm sure it will.

Whether or not your students learn has always mattered to you, Tom, and that is why you are a good teacher.

What cannot be agreed upon by topdowns is (1) what it is that proves a child has learned and (2) what to do when it is evident a child hasn't learned. For me, the argument about #1 will matter more when the answer to #2 doesn't knee-jerk to punishing schools and teachers.

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