Education Reformers’ Alternate Reality

I sometimes wonder how long it’s been since education reformers have been in an actual high-needs school.  Perhaps they visit occasionally, but it’s hard to imagine them sticking around long enough to see how their theories actually play out in the real world. Reformers’ ideas, based on a number of incorrect assumptions, have been so damaging to high-poverty schools that it’s almost as if their proponents are blind to the realities. It’s like reformers live in an alternate universe.

This alternate reality is one in which a bunch of ineffective teachers managed to infiltrate our neediest communities and hoodwinked district officials into hiring them to teach the kids there. That they are awful teachers is obvious. One need only to look at test scores for proof. The kids don’t know diddly and it’s the schools’ job to teach the kids diddly and the individuals whose job it is to teach the various forms of diddly are the teachers. Ergo, if the test scores suck, it’s because the teachers do too.

The reformers want this fixed. And who could argue with that? They want poor kids to receive just as good of an education as middle-class kids and rich kids.

How best to do it?

Well, in their alternate reality (which seems suspiciously like the business world, even though business and education don’t share the same goals or incentives) the solution is to force districts to evaluate these cruddy teachers and remove barriers like tenure, unions, and due process so the districts can more easily fire these uncaring heels and replace them with better teachers. Oh, and if the schools have low test scores for too many years in a row, then reformers would like someone else to take the schools over, tear up whatever contract teachers have, take a cleaver to the budget, starting issuing educational decrees like Professor Umbridge, and close some buildings.

Because that ought to attract better teachers.

In the real world, where real students actually attend real schools and are taught by real teachers in real communities, reformers’ ideas have zero chance of improving teacher quality and therefore have no chance of raising student achievement.  In fact, their ideas have and will continue to do the exact opposite.

Here’s how things work in the real world:

A community is made of individuals and some of those individuals have kids. In some communities, many of those kids are growing up in poverty. They’re missing a bunch of stuff that other kids growing up in different circumstances have that make it easier for those kids to behave, pay attention, and ultimately learn. Nevertheless, we send them to underfunded schools and pretend they’re playing on an even field.

Teachers, who have college degrees and have passed certification tests and who are some of the few people in society who are actually willing to spend large chunks of time with children, apply to schools in these poor communities, even though they know full well that the job is going to be damn hard. Some apply despite the fact that they could work in other districts where the challenges will not be so great because other schools are located in other communities where parents aren’t so poor and are able to provide more of those things that help students behave and learn.

They do this for lots of reasons, none of which is money, fame, political aspirations, perks, or any other self-serving motive.

It’s hard to figure out why these people do what they do. It’s almost as if they’re acting altruistically, volunteering to work in the most difficult educational environments out of a sense of idealism. These are people who choose to work with the kids who are hardest to work with.  They’re like those doctors who go to war-torn nations to administer care to those with the greatest need. They’re like the lawyers who do pro bono work in the most downtrodden communities.

In the real world, we are extremely lucky people like this exist.

But instead of being grateful and thanking them every day for taking on such a monumental task, reformers force these teachers’ employers to evaluate them using their students’ test scores.

And now these teachers, who have already sacrificed and who are working in a district that can’t even fill all their open positions, and whose friends have gone off to teach in well-funded suburban schools where they don’t really have to worry about their kids passing the state test or being laid off due to budget cuts, get to teach kids who have a harder time learning while worrying about whether they’ll be able to keep their jobs.

Jobs that most people won’t even apply for.

And if they do in fact come up short on whatever silly tests the district decides to use for their evaluations, or if their principals, who call themselves leaders even though the truth is many of them couldn’t hack it in the classroom, decide they don’t like a teacher’s classroom management, or the phrasing of the learning goals on the board, or the occasional deviation from the junky canned reading program that the district purchased with money it should be spending elsewhere, or any number of other things that probably won’t make a difference one way or the other, then that teacher gets rated poorly and has the pleasure of fearing for her job.

A job most teachers don’t want in the first place. 

And if the district, blindly marching to the beat of the reformers’ drum instead of recognizing the damage such reforms have already caused and figuring out ways around them, decides to fire that teacher, they will soon be searching for another young idealist they ought to be grateful to find, but to whom they will subject the same shoddy and illogical treatment the following year.

If they can find anyone to take the job, that is.

And one has to marvel at the fact that they just might.

 

 

Drawing Lines in the Sand

The beginning of the year can be a dangerous time for teachers, especially those starting their careers or starting over in a new building or district. You’re refreshed from summer and raring to go. The positivity among your colleagues is contagious, and everyone wants to put their best foot forward.  You want to be a team player. You want to impress the people you work with and for. You want to do whatever it takes. In such an environment, it’s easy to agree to things that you will later regret.

The choices you make in the first few weeks of the new school year will affect how stressed out and exhausted you will be later in the year. No matter if you’re starting at a new school or just starting a new year in an old one, the beginning of the year is the time to draw lines in the sand that will protect yourself for the remainder of the year. These lines are for you, but they’re also for the people with whom you will interact from September to June.

I recommend drawing four lines, one for each group of people who have the potential to dampen your enthusiasm, stress you out, and drain your energy.

Draw Lines for Administrators

Nothing will frustrate and exhaust you faster than committing to a bunch of extra work that won’t make a difference for your students. How you respond to early requests of your time will set the tone for the rest of the year and beyond. It’s not enough to say no to an early request, although showing that you’re willing to do so will go along way toward earning your supervisor’s respect.

The problem with a single no is that it’s easily defeated. Come up with an excuse to not sign up for the science committee and you invite negotiation. Your principal may offer to send a sub in your place for those two dates you claimed had a conflict. Or he may return with the offer to join a different team, at which point, having already turned him down once, you’ll feel obligated to join.

Claim you can’t make it to math night and your principal will attempt to guilt you into attending a different after-school event, using your colleagues’ willingness to volunteer against you.

Instead of saying no, draw a line in the sand at working for free. Instead of “no,” say “I don’t.” It’s more powerful and leaves you less open to arguments and follow-up requests.

Read more about saying “I don’t.”

If you’re worried how this line in the sand will be received, then you may need to elaborate. Say something like this: “I’m fully committed to being the best teacher I can for the kids in my room and I vigilantly protect against stretching myself too thin because that will harm my teaching. That’s why I don’t do unpaid committee work.”

Read: Do Not Join That Unpaid Committee

Draw Lines for Colleagues

If you want to get home at a reasonable hour (and you should, read this and this) then you are going to have to take full advantage of every minute you spend at school. This means coming in a little early and it means maximizing whatever planning time you have. It also means not squandering that time by chatting with colleagues.

Draw a line in the sand with colleagues by closing and locking your classroom door when you’re inside working. Hang a Do Not Disturb, Planning in Session sign on your door so they’re sure to get the message.

That may seem anti-social, but it beats the alternatives, which are being annoyed that you’re being interrupted and not fully participating in conversations, while hoping to bring them to a quick close, or being perpetually waylaid and consequently having to spend more time on work after school, which will eventually lead to a whole host of other problems.

It’s important to socialize and build relationships with your colleagues. Teachers who make connections with other adults are generally happier at work. Use lunch for that, not your planning time.

Read More: Optimize Planning Time

Draw Lines for Parents

Give some parents an inch and they’ll take a mile. Decide right now when and how you’d like to be contacted. Tell parents up front what they can expect in response. Just as you do with students, set expectations early, explain them clearly, and then do what you say.

If you’re sharing your cell phone number, be clear about how you would prefer parents get in touch. Let them know if you’d rather be texted or called. Tell them if you won’t respond over the weekend. Draw a line at how late you’re willing to reply.

If you’re not sharing your cell number, then be clear about the best way to get a hold of you and how quickly they can expect a response. We live in a world where everyone is immediately available. But teachers can’t just stop teaching to answer a call. Unlike many professionals, most of us spend very little time at our desks. Explain the reality, that you will likely not see their emails for hours, and tell them to call the office is their message is time-sensitive. Don’t assume parents understand how busy teachers are; tell them up front what to expect when it comes to communication.

Draw Lines for Students

While teachers like to say that the things that really frustrate them are factors outside of the classroom walls, the reality is that the kids can ruin your school year. Behavior can drive teachers from the classroom, so you’ll want a good handle on classroom management. But you also don’t want to be the only one in the room doing the work. In his book The First Days of School, Harry Wong describes an all too familiar situation:

“The reason teachers are so tired at the end of the school day is that they have been working.  If I worked as hard as many teachers do, I’d be as tired too.  But have you ever noticed what happens at 3 o‘clock when the students leave? “Yea, yea, yea!’  Why are they so full of energy?  Because they have been sitting in school all day doing nothing while the teacher does all the work.  The person who does all the work is the only one doing any learning!”

The kids are there to work, so draw a line in the sand with students early: You will not help them the second they ask for it. Let them struggle a little. That’s when learning happens.

It’s important to send this message early. This past week, a number of my students wanted help on a math assignment and raised their hands. When I went to check on them, they hadn’t even attempted the problem yet. So a rule was instituted: You cannot ask me for help unless you can show me how you tried to solve the problem. Kids are smart. They can figure stuff out if we aren’t there to bail them out the second they encounter a snag.

Protect Yourself

Every year, teachers burn out. Some walk out the door, never to return to education. Others press on, subjecting students to uninspired teaching for years. Teachers must get better at protecting themselves and it starts with being clear about what you will and won’t do.

Draw lines in the sand that you refuse to cross and that send clear messages to others that you are in control of your career, and that you will do what it takes to ensure you remain effective the whole year and for many years to come.