7 Ways To Bulletproof Your Teaching Career

Many teachers I know live with fear. They fear failing their students. They fear angering vocal parents. They fear the judgment of their colleagues. But above all, many teachers fear a poor evaluation from an administrator that leads to the loss of their job and puts their teaching career in jeopardy.

This fear is why so many teachers are nervous when their principal walks in the room. It’s why they can’t sleep the night before an observation. It’s why they keep a close eye on the economy, state funding, and the financial health of their district. And it’s why so many teachers are afraid to speak up about harmful policies, unrealistic expectations, the misuse of data, and systemic exploitation.

Teachers can never fully bulletproof their careers. Because we work for a government entity that receives funding from the state, we’ll always be at the mercy of recessions and budget cuts. Because we work for other people, we’ll always be vulnerable to petty tyrants, budget-slashing Superintendents, and office politics. Still, there are simple things teachers can do to protect themselves from poor evaluations, dismissals, and layoffs. Here are seven things every teacher can do to make their career as bulletproof as possible.

1. Provide Uncommon Value

You don’t need to sign up for every committee and attend every after-school event to ensure that your principal values you enough that you’re never vulnerable to layoff. You don’t need to be a yes-man or a suck-up. But if you want to bulletproof your career, you should stand out from the crowd by providing uncommon value. When supervisors think of their building without you in it, they should wonder how you’ll be replaced.

Perhaps you’re the go-to person for making the specials schedule and the job would fall to your principal if you didn’t do it. Maybe you’re the disciplinarian, dealing with student misbehavior so the principal doesn’t have to do it all. You could have one major project that you do every year that is valued by the school and the community, such as Career Day or an annual Make a Difference Day project. Become known for one important extra and you’ll make it much harder for your principal to envision a day when you’re not there.

2. Be Likable (or at least not unlikable)

Most people hold the erroneous view that competence is what determines career success. They believe that those who are better at their jobs will be rewarded and those who don’t get results will be dinged on their evaluations. But research suggests that it isn’t true. While everyone would love to work with a charismatic star and no one can stand an incompetent jerk, things get murkier when it comes to choosing between capable assholes and lovable slackers. Professors Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo found that while many employers say competence matters most, their actions reveal the opposite. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, the professors stated:

“Personal feelings played a more important role in forming work relationships—not friendships at work but job-oriented relationships—than is commonly acknowledged. They were even more important than evaluations of competence. In fact, feelings worked as a gating factor: We found that if someone is strongly disliked, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people won’t want to work with her anyway. By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer. And this tendency didn’t exist only in extreme cases; it was true across the board. Generally speaking, a little extra likability goes a longer way than a little extra competence in making someone desirable to work with.”

Researchers have also found that the more likable a physician is, the less likely he or she is to be sued for medical malpractice, and that you’re more likely to get hired if you focus on being liked by prospective employers than if you highlight your skills. People want to work with likable people. If it comes down to laying teachers off, it won’t matter how good of a teacher you are if everyone despises you.

3. Make Students and Parents Happy

The more liked you are by students and parents, the riskier it will be for administrators to let you go. Schools hate negative press, and nothing generates negative press like when students and parents pitch a public fit over the loss of a popular teacher. News organizations eat that stuff up. To bulletproof your career, focus on pleasing your “clients,” the students and parents you serve, to such an extent that they will show up at Board meetings to speak on your behalf. Be the teacher who garners the most parent requests. Be the teacher who, if let go, will engender an emotional response from the community and lead to Facebook rants and news stories. Be the kind of teacher who administrators wouldn’t dare fire because they know what kind of hell will rain down on them if they do.

4. Complain Laterally

I thought about writing, “Don’t Complain” here, but I’ve been a teacher for 20 years and I’ve only met about three teachers who never complained, which leads me to believe complaining is probably rational, unavoidable, and maybe even a healthy way to alleviate stress. Given the state of public education today, I also have to wonder if those who don’t complain are paying attention.

All that said, nobody really likes a complainer. That includes principals. And if principals have to decide who gets kicked off the island first, you can bet they’ll want to remove the complainers. The paraprofessionals and janitors in your building don’t want to hear about your teacher problems either; they have their own, and some of them are worse than yours. So when you complain, do it laterally. Complain to your colleagues. You’re in this thing together, after all, and sometimes it’s nice to know that you’re not alone in your frustrations. In this way, complaining can actually bring coworkers together.

5. Handle Your Business

Most principals will tell you that they are there to make your job easier. They might encourage you to enlist their help to remove any barriers you’re facing to effective teaching. They may even work with the staff to develop a list of behaviors and consequences, some of which will include office referrals. You might interpret this to mean they want teachers to send students who break certain rules to them.

Be careful, and before you write a student up, consider the situation from your principal’s perspective. They are busy. They have a lot of problems to deal with. When you send them a student, you are giving them more work to do. You better have a damn good reason. While good principals will say all the right things, the reality is that no principal looks forward to having misbehaving students in their office. They especially resent it if those students seem to come from the same teacher. And they really resent it if that teacher sends her problems to the office when they’re hardly even problems. Deal with the swearing, mild disrespect, and occasional interruptions of your lessons yourself. Handle your business. Issue your own consequences as much as possible. Call the parents yourself. To the greatest extent possible, avoid sending problems to your principal.

6. Disagree in Private

I once worked with a teacher who would regularly question and criticize our principal during staff meetings. I never understood why. Of course, teachers regularly disagree with their principals, and sometimes, policy decisions must be questioned. But doing so publicly, in front of every other member of the staff, is counterproductive. While it may gain you the respect of your colleagues, it puts your boss on the defensive, a position that’s likely to cause him to dig in even deeper to save face. Publicly calling out the boss also puts the teacher and principal in an adversarial position, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when the principal, who is in possession of the full spectrum of human emotions, looks for ways to even the score. Teachers don’t want to be called out in front of their colleagues, parents, or students. If we’re going to be criticized, we want it done privately. Do the same for your principal. If you have a problem with her decisions, ask for a meeting, send an email, or make a phone call. Don’t unnecessarily make an enemy of the person who’s doing your evaluation.

7. Ask for Feedback

You don’t need to be a great teacher to keep your job. That much is obvious. In most cases, you don’t even have to be good, especially if you’re likable and don’t cause additional problems for your principal. What you should do, especially if you’re not yet one of the better educators in your building, is show that you’re trying to get there. You needn’t sign up for a bunch of conferences or constantly mention the professional articles and teaching books you’ve been reading. All you need to do is ask for feedback. Invite your principal into your room. Ask her for her honest opinion about what she observes. Ask to visit other teachers in the building to learn from them. Ask for book recommendations. Show you’re invested in becoming better at your job. I don’t know a principal alive who wouldn’t want to give such a teacher another year (or five) if they were willing to work on their craft.

Two Alternatives and Their Dangers

You could also be a suck-up. Plenty of people are. You could bend over backward to make your principal happy. You could compliment her during staff meetings. You could send him a thank-you card whenever he offers feedback on your teaching. You could volunteer for every extra bit of work the district tries to squeeze out of teachers, and you could even squeal on your colleagues in your quest to curry favor. You could ingratiate yourself with obsequious behavior.

All that might work, but the dangers are many and the payoff isn’t worth it. You’ll alienate your colleagues, most of whom you will be working with for far longer than you’ll be working for your principal. You will likely end up lonely, which is a bad thing to be in this profession. And for what? To hold onto a job that you likely would have kept anyway? Education is the one field where sucking up to the boss really doesn’t get you anywhere. You won’t get paid more and you won’t get a promotion. You’ll just get to keep doing the same job you’ve been doing, except just about everyone will hate you and talk behind your back.

Alternatively, you could follow the advice in this article, which suggests being a huge pain the ass (because supervisors tend to fire weak people who won’t pitch a giant fit if they’re let go), faking a heart attack or seizure, and claiming discrimination. The only problem with these strategies is once you’ve protected your job, you still have to live with yourself.

Bulletproofing Is Actually Pretty Simple

I know a principal who summarized much of the above with a simple story he told me. This principal has a teacher in his building who is a former professional athlete. His classroom is regularly the loudest one in the school. Walk by his room, and you’ll rarely see kids sitting quietly at their desks. The other teachers in the building complain about his classroom management and insinuate that they believe he’s not the most effective educator. But his principal told me, “I love him. He’ll never get a bad evaluation from me because students love him, parents write me letters that say, ‘My kid has never liked school and he loves it this year,’ and he never complains about anything.”

Principals are people too; it behooves teachers to remember that. Principals don’t want to hear about your problems. They don’t want to solve all your problems. They don’t want to be criticized in front of others. They like teachers who are likable. They appreciate teachers who make their job easier. They want to keep teachers who students and parents like. Bulletproof your career by being the kind of teacher you would value if you were the principal.

It’s What They Learn, but It’s Also How We Teach

The tide, it appears, may finally be starting to change. After a generation of test-centered accountability for teachers, the state of Maine has passed a law that removes a requirement that standardized test scores be used to evaluate teachers. I suspect more states will follow, if for no other reason than all educational trends eventually fall out of favor when we realize the old ways maybe weren’t so terrible after all.

No matter what other states do, the question will remain: How do we fairly evaluate the performance of teachers? There is no easy answer, and it’s largely because there are two competing beliefs about how to identify good (and bad) teaching.

I read two articles in the last couple of days that illustrate the tension at the center of teacher evaluations. The first was written by Alfie Kohn way back in 2008, but its message is often repeated today. In It’s Not What We Teach; It’s What They Learn, Kohn asserts that “what we do doesn’t matter nearly as much as how kids experience what we do.” He provides a number of examples, explaining that it doesn’t matter what an adult intends if a child interprets the adult’s words or actions differently. Kohn writes:

“We may think we’re emphasizing the importance of punctuality by issuing a detention for being late, or that we’re making a statement about the need to be respectful when we suspend a student for yelling an obscenity, or that we’re supporting the value of certain behaviors when we offer a reward for engaging in them.

But what if the student who’s being punished or rewarded doesn’t see it that way?  What if his or her response is, “That’s not fair!” or “Next time I won’t get caught” or “I guess when you have more power you can make other people suffer if they don’t do what you want” or “If they have to reward me for x, then must be something I wouldn’t want to do.”

We protest that the student has it all wrong, that the intervention really is fair, the consequence is justified, the reward system makes perfect sense.  But if the student doesn’t share our view, then what we did cannot possibly have the intended effect.  Results don’t follow from behaviors but from the meaning attached to behaviors.”

It follows, then, that a teacher’s intention to teach effectively doesn’t matter if students don’t learn anything. A teacher who says, “I taught a great lesson but the kids just didn’t get it,” is, in Kohn’s view, making an incoherent statement. There can be no teaching without learning.

So given that a teacher’s practices are irrelevant if students do not learn as a result of them, it makes sense to design a teacher evaluation system that looks only at student achievement. To people with this view, nothing else should matter.

But that’s not how teacher evaluation systems work. Although we say things like, “It’s not about the teaching; it’s about the learning,” our actions betray our purported beliefs. We want to see teachers in action, and we think we can judge their abilities irrespective of how students actually do in their classes. We want to evaluate teachers based on how they perform their jobs and not on how their students perform theirs.

Every evaluation system I know of includes observations by a supervisor.  Frequently, the observations carry more weight than student performance (in my state, it’s 75% observations and 25% student achievement data). And principals aren’t watching students; they’re watching teachers. Their checklists require them to. Marzano’s Teacher Evaluation Model includes four domains and 60 elements. Every single one uses teacher-centered language. Marzano requires supervisors to evaluate teachers on what they do, not on how their students do.

Why?

Because most of us recognize that it takes two to tango and that a teacher can only truly control one of the tangoers. An effective classroom has an effective teacher, but it also has willing learners, a point Jody Stallings makes in this article for the Moultrie News, which serves as a rebuttal to Kohn’s perspective.

Responding to a parent who espouses the belief that we should judge teachers on how their students perform, Stallings writes, “Teachers should indeed be held accountable for teaching their students. But that’s not what you’re demanding. You’re demanding that students learn, and that’s a very different issue.”

Stallings argues that we should judge teachers not on how their students do, but on how teachers perform their jobs. In other words, he sees no incoherence in the statement, “I taught a great lesson but some of the kids didn’t learn.” That, I believe Stallings would argue, is perfectly possible. It’s also — I can say as someone who’s taught a lot of lessons, some great, some not — almost always the result.

Stallings asks his readers to consider a reluctant eater:

“Have you ever tried to make a child eat something he didn’t want to eat? That’s what teaching unwilling learners is like. The reality is unless they have an appetite, you can set an entire banquet in front of them and it will go untouched. The problem is that we are slipping into a world where we don’t judge teachers by the banquet they prepare but by the appetites of the children at the table.”

To further his analogy, evaluating teachers based solely on how their teaching is received by their learners would be like evaluating a gourmet chef based solely on how diners might receive his or her ginger glazed mahi-mahi. It might be the best in the world, but some diners won’t be hungry. Some will hate seafood. Some might be allergic to an ingredient. And some will want a cheeseburger.

Stallings’s point, and it’s a legitimate one, is that you can’t judge teachers only on what their students learn because students, like diners, are different. A chef has total control over the dish, but no control over the people who eat it. A masterful teacher in one school may get horrible results in a different one, not because she’s a bad teacher, but because she is trying to teach students who are less willing, and sometimes less able, to learn.

This is a problem.

Because if teaching isn’t about learning, then what’s it about? And if we want to design a system to evaluate teachers, shouldn’t such a system, almost by definition, take into account student performance? But if we are going to consider student performance, how much impact can we realistically expect teachers to have on students, given that students are very different? How much should student performance matter, and does it matter the same amount for these students over here compared to those over there?

To further complicate matters, how many students have to “fail” before we label their teacher a failure? How many have to “succeed” for teachers to be effective? Because here is something all teachers understand: The results are almost always a mixed bag.

I’ve taught nineteen years now, and I have probably never taught a lesson where every single student hit the learning target (if I have, the target was likely too easy or students already knew the content). I have also never taught a lesson where zero students demonstrated understanding.

Results are never uniform, which suggests that it’s not the teacher who is the ultimate determinant; it is the student. And if that is true, then how can we fairly measure a teacher’s effectiveness by looking at work she does not do?

I do not have an answer, but I suspect it lies somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to be judged solely on how other people perform (especially when those other people are easily distracted by a bee in the classroom or the crooked look a classmate gave them 40 minutes ago during lunch), but I do recognize that in order to claim you’ve taught somebody there must be evidence that they learned. That said, I resent anyone who attempts to evaluate my teaching by looking at a spreadsheet instead of stepping into my classroom. For me, it’s what students learn, but it’s also how teachers teach.

__________________________

What do you think? If you could design a teacher evaluation system from scratch what would it look like? What would its purpose be? How much should student performance matter? Share your thoughts in the comments.

 

The Best Teacher Appreciation Gift

It’s teacher appreciation week and all across the country, appreciative parents are looking for ways to express their gratitude (at least, that’s what I tell myself). The best teacher appreciation gift I ever received cost the giver nothing but 10 minutes of her time. If you want to make a teacher’s day this week, do what she did:

 

1. Sit down with your children and ask them who their favorite teachers are. 

2. Ask them, “What are three things you like about this teacher?” 

3. Write an email to those teachers and tell them what your child told you.

4. Click the little CC button and enter the email addresses of the teacher’s principal and the district’s superintendent. 

5. Share this idea with five other parents.

 

That’s it. No trip to the store. No Internet searches. No dollars spent. As Bob Newby says:

A complimentary email that is copied to the teacher’s supervisors is the best gift any teacher can receive because

1. Teachers don’t get a lot of appreciation. Part of that is because employees in general don’t receive a lot of appreciation for their work. Part of it is because a teacher’s work is not very visible to anyone except students. Teachers often have no idea whether what they’re doing is appreciated by anyone because no one tells them.

2. Most principals know far less about their teachers than you think. Principals are busy people and few of them spend a lot of time in classrooms. When they do visit, they tend to come in, see a little teaching, and leave. I don’t blame them for this. Their presence is uncomfortable for both the principal and the teacher, especially when the visits are infrequent.

Because they don’t directly observe teachers for long periods of time, most of their judgments are formed from circumstantial evidence. They walk past Mrs. Clark’s room and it’s always quiet, and since Mrs. Clark never sends kids to the office, they assume Mrs. Clark has excellent classroom management. Mr. Hocking’s line on the way to gym is always disjointed and loud, so Mr. Hocking’s management probably needs work, which means his students probably aren’t learning as much as they could be. Test scores look good from Ms. Irving’s class, so they assume she’s an effective instructor. Joyce’s car is always in the parking lot before everyone else’s and she’s the last to leave at night, so she’s assumed to be more dedicated than her colleagues.

And principals hear things, from students, from other teachers, and from parents who call to complain (because more call to complain than to praise). The things they hear color their opinions of their teachers, but they’re only getting part of the story.

All of this results in a portrait of a teacher that may or may not be true. Principals don’t know a lot of what goes on in classrooms on a day-to-day basis, and unless someone tells them, they’re likely missing some important pieces. They don’t know that Timmy hated school last year but likes it a whole lot more this year because of his teacher’s winning personality. They’ll never hear how Mr. Johnson took the time to counsel one of his students about a personal issue and the difference that made. They have no way of knowing that Cassandra likes math now because of the way her teacher teaches it. They’re missing pieces of the puzzle, and unless someone gives them those pieces, they’ll never have the whole picture.

So tell them.

When you write an email to your child’s teacher and you copy the principal on that email, the principal has an opportunity to add more detail to the image she’s created in her mind about your child’s teacher. She has the opportunity to learn things she would otherwise not. When evaluation time comes around, she will be able to consider more factors into her assessment and the evaluation will be fairer. And that’s something all teachers appreciate.

 

 

Their Levers Are Destined to Fail

How do you get educators to do things differently? That is the question anybody with an idea about how to improve any aspect of education must consider.  

Such a question derives from dubious assumptions. First, you have to believe that things need changing, an assumption that probably says more about you than about what’s happening in schools. Second, you have to believe your idea will actually work on a large scale, an assumption that reveals your hubris and something teachers who have been doing the hard work for at least a few years find unlikely.

Their suspicion means that teachers won’t try your idea on their own, so you must force them to. In order to force someone to do something they’d rather not do, you must offer rewards or threaten sanctions  Rewards usually cost money, and you didn’t get to be rich enough to force your ideas on others by giving that away. Punishments must be severe enough to compel action.

It’s no secret that the success of any rollout or implementation is more dependent on teacher buy-in than almost any other factor. When initiatives fail, it’s the reluctance or incompetence of the teachers asked to implement it that’s blamed, not the idea itself. And it doesn’t matter what the reform is. You could be trying to get your teachers to use the textbook you purchased, to stress learning goals to their students, or to develop and use performance scales. You might even be trying to help them. I’m in conversation with someone at the Department of Education who wants to focus on educator empowerment. We’re brainstorming ways to educate teachers on how they can protect their wellbeing and fight for better work cultures. But we face an uphill battle because no matter the initiative, recent history proves it’s hard to get teachers to change and even harder to get true buy-in. 

First, there is the issue of time. When are teachers going to get the training? When will they be given an opportunity to look over the materials? The U.S. requires its teachers spend more time in front of their students than any other developed nation. That leaves very little time for everything else. Because they have too much to do and not enough time to do it, any new idea will meet immediate resistance. 

Second, and more importantly, there’s the issue of motivation. Why should teachers do this new thing? To be as cynical as possible (since any new initiative will have to deal with cynical teachers who have been through this a time or two before), what’s in it for me? I’m offered the opportunity to take an online class, or receive some coaching, or use my PD hours the way I want to and the first thing I’m going to ask (if I’m being cynical) is why should I?

Because it’s not as if this new thing comes without costs. There will be a time commitment and a learning curve. It will take effort. If I’m working with others or receiving some coaching, there’s some risk. There’s usually additional work involved and I’ve already got plenty, thank you. And there’s no evidence that it will work. In fact, based on my considerable experience, the evidence suggests that it will fail and be replaced by something new within a couple of years.

So why do any of it? 

Enter the levers.

Reformers (and I don’t use the term pejoratively here, but just to describe people who are trying to change the way teachers do things) love levers.

Which says something about how they view teachers. As Peter Greene writes,

A lever is a tool that one uses to force movement. There’s nothing collaborative about a lever. And you don’t apply a lever from inside the area you want to affect– you stand outside the box and bear down. If something breaks and snaps loose, it will go flying away from you.

As a metaphor, levers leave a little something to be desired.

But questionable metaphors are not the only problem with levers. The real problem for reformers is that their levers are destined to fail. 

Their Favorite Levers

 

Teacher evaluation

The thinking, I suppose, went something like this: Our test scores suck, which means our teachers must suck. To improve both, we’ll get rid of the duds. In order to identify the dead weight and make this appear at least a little bit objective, we’ll have to rate them. You know, with checklists and numbers and other sorts of data-y things. We’ll make it complicated so it’s harder to question. Anyway, the ones with the lowest ratings will be shoved out the door. The others, seeing those teachers summarily dismissed, will fall into line. Bill Gates, the champion of stack ranking at Microsoft, led this effort to the tune of a half-billion (with a b) dollars. Gates assumed that a practice that worked (except it didn’t) in the sphere where he had the most familiarity would work elsewhere. His efforts failed. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why.  

Most teachers quickly figured out that they only needed a good enough evaluation to return next year and that the odds of that happening were very high. With a teacher shortage, they could take their chances and not sign up for extra work just to earn extra points on their evaluations. History has proven that’s almost always a safe bet. If there’s one enduring lesson from the Gates experiment, it’s that billionaires and state governments may bark, but principals who have to do the actual firing won’t bite. Even at the height of the teacher evaluation craze, very few teachers received the lowest possible rating and even fewer were fired. 

Reformers hoped that the fear of losing our jobs would make us easier to control. They hoped to provide administrators with the leverage they needed to force compliance so that if they wanted to implement any of the fine initiatives being fed to them by reformers, they’d be able to raise an eyebrow, point at their tablets, and get teachers to bend the knee. When that didn’t work, merit pay was trotted out. The thinking: If we can’t threaten them into compliance, let’s try bribery!  That didn’t work, either. Most of the bribes weren’t large enough, and they were attempting to bribe people who knowingly sacrificed the opportunity to make more money when they chose education in the first place. If we cared about 500 bucks that much, we wouldn’t be teachers.

Badges (or mini-credentials)

So if teacher evaluations and merit pay won’t work, what will? How can reformers and the administrators who’ve signed on to their reforms get teachers to attend training or choose their own professional development or attend a three-day workshop that they don’t really want to attend? The latest solution seems to be digital badges. 

Digital badges are mini-credentials that teachers can earn when they display competencies with new skills or acquire new knowledge. Proponents point to their personalized nature and gamification as reasons teachers find badges better than traditional professional development. When used this way, teachers may indeed find digital badges more motivating. Used as levers to move teachers to action, however, they suffer from the same problem as other methods.

Digital badges are essentially résumé builders. As such, they only appeal to ambitious social climbers who are always looking for the next rung on the ladder.  As levers to get teachers to change, they’ll work on very few and those who do chase them will soon be out of the classroom, on to bigger and brighter things. Teachers who are content to finish their careers in the classroom have no use for them. These types of Scooby Snacks only motivate the already motivated, who would show up for whatever you’re offering anyway if they think it will help them move closer to their next job.  

Extra pay

Just kidding. This isn’t a favorite lever. Normally, if you want somebody to do disagreeable work, you pay them. Some teachers would likely trade autonomy for money. But as the response to nationwide teacher shortages demonstrates, education reformers, most of whom are right of center and proud supporters of our capitalist system, suddenly forget how the free market works when it comes to education. Few of them suggest paying teachers more as a way to attract them to the field. Instead, they look for alternatives, be they Teach For America temps,  long-term subs, or computer programs. Although many want to model America’s schools after America’s businesses, they don’t want to use the lever nearly all businesses use.

Appeals to Professionalism (Guilt)

When all else fails, reformers and the administrators who do their bidding can call on an old friend, guilt. Of all the levers, this one is most effective, at least in the short-term. “Do what’s best for kids,” teachers are told, and what’s best for kids is almost always what people who don’t teach kids think is best for kids. You’ll be reminded that you’re a professional, with the unspoken implication that professionals would never shirk their responsibilities, one of which is constant improvement. You’ve heard all the lines. They’ve probably even worked on you. And no matter how many times we’ve been burned, some of us keep coming back.

It’s manipulation, pure and simple, and it’s a lever that ultimately fails because it never achieves genuine buy-in. Guilted into doing something, some teachers will do it, but they’ll be resentful and unenthusiastic, hardly the mindset those with the idea had in mind when they imagined their brainchild in an actual classroom. Other teachers will exercise their teacher’s veto: they’ll pledge to do the thing and then go back to their classrooms and do what they know works. Compliance, however achieved, is a poor substitute for buy-in.

 

Those Damn Cynics

The only lever left might be to get rid of the cynics so the levers face less resistance. But this is a fundamental attribution error. Cynics don’t become teachers; cynical teachers are created by the situations they find themselves in. And being poked and prodded with levers is one of the causes of the cynicism reformers continually butt up against.

Cynics don't become teachers; cynical teachers are created by the situations they find themselves in. And being poked and prodded with levers is one of the causes of the cynicism reformers continually butt up against. Click To Tweet

It’s a vicious cycle. Reformers hope for docile acquiescence but are instead faced with skepticism and obstinance. To move the doubters, they pull out their crowbars, none of which work. Teachers, convinced that the reformers’ ideas are bad since they needed to be jabbed by levers in order to even try them and because every previous initiative met the same resistance and inevitably failed, have their cynicism confirmed. They become even less likely to change. It does no good to get rid of the cynics because there aren’t enough idealists to replace them, and if you keep sticking levers into them, those idealists will be cynics soon enough.

The Lever That’s Not a Lever

The only lever that will work is the one no reformer wants to use. If you want me to try your new idea, then offer me more freedom and create something useful. Say to me, “We’d like you to try this. We think it’s pretty nifty, and we want to see if it works. We’re so high on this idea that we’re sure if you try it you’ll never go back to teaching how you did. But we’ll trust you to make that decision because we know you want what’s best for your students. We also know that if you try this new thing and it works, you’ll tell other teachers and they’ll start using it. Everybody will win.”

This is how Flipgrid, Pear Deck, Google Classroom, Prodigy, and countless other products ended up being used in thousands of classrooms. Teachers didn’t need to be coerced into using any of them. None of them needed levers. They spread because they worked. 

Of course, allowing teachers to choose is not really a lever at all. That’s trust and treating teachers like professionals. And if reformers did that, well, teachers might decide the ideas they’re being pitched suck. They might not try them at all. And there’s no possible way that teachers, the people who do this teaching thing for a living, can possibly know more about what works than the people who hold the levers.

 

Peter Greene wrote about the unfortunate use of levers as a metaphor for education policy here and like everything he writes, it’s on the nose and fun to read.

Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano

If you don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter, you may have missed something revealing. Dr. Robert Marzano tweeted the above and caught hell for it from a lot of teachers. You can read the reactions here, and you should. Not unlike the teacher walkouts of this past school year, they represent a new willingness (maybe even eagerness) of teachers to speak up and push back.

For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it.

Robert Marzano has been an outsized part of my professional life for longer than he deserves, but for most of that time, no teacher would dare question him. I’ve sat in countless meetings where teachers were told to do things because Marzano said so. I’ve had to read a number of his books. I’ve sat through his training. My principal uses his system to evaluate me (which, given the above tweet, is more than a little concerning). During all of it, nary a peep of protest was heard. No teacher would raise her hand to say, “But surely you can be a good teacher without writing a learning goal on the board every day, can’t you?”

Blasphemy! The kind of which might just cause your administrator to question how serious you were about improving. So we shut up and nodded our heads, and thanks to our polite acquiescence, Marzano’s influence grew.

Today, for most teachers, Robert Marzano’s name is mud. It didn’t have to be this way. When Marzano’s first books came out, teachers recognized the value of his work. They even appreciated it. Here was a guy who cared enough about educators’ improvement that he had gone out and looked at thousands of education studies, performed some sort of mathematical wizardry hardly any teacher can understand, and then was able to tell us what things worked and what things didn’t. At that point, his heart was in the right place. He was Hattie before Hattie. 

But Marzano got greedy. He wrote more books. He offered professional development. His work was crammed down teachers’ throats by excited administrators, and once that starts happening, it’s no longer enough to provide good information. You better be one of us, lest we question your true motives.

Robert Marzano was not one of us.

There are many reasons Marzano’s tweet touched a lot of raw nerves.

First, those of us who have been in the arena for a while are predisposed to dislike whatever he has to say. Here’s a guy who barely taught, an academic who’d rather read studies written by other academics than remain in the classroom and teach actual kids, who writes books that are only possible because of the labor of other researchers (who at least visit classrooms), and who then has the audacity to tell teachers everything they’re doing wrong and what they should be doing instead. I’m not giving him the benefit of the doubt and neither are a lot of other teachers.

Second, the tweet reveals what most of us suspect: that he’s out of touch. It’s no surprise that a lot of the comments call Marzano out for not being a teacher. That’s a fair criticism. Don’t tell me how to do my job until you’ve demonstrated that you can do it.

Third, we’re sick and tired of being told that students’ failures are our failures. Not only is that frequently wrong, it’s not even desirable. Who wants to live in a world where individuals have no personal responsibility for the course of their lives, where their success or failure is dependent upon others?

Fourth, we’re really sick and tired of being told we’re failures by people who don’t have to courage to do what we do. Pernille Ripp expands on this idea in this article, which hits the nail on the head. Her conclusion sums up teachers’ thoughts nicely:

 

What Ripp focuses on is the guilt so many teachers feel and how when “experts” make statements like the one Marzano made, it leads teachers to feel like failures. It’s demoralizing, exhausting, and unfair. The fact that such sentiments are more often served up by people outside of the classroom than inside of one makes it particularly galling.  It’s the boxing announcer explaining to his HBO audience that all Tommy Noknuckles needs to do is start pounding his opponent’s body with jabs. It’s Alabama head coach Nick Saban having to put up with second-guessing from a fifty-five-year-old journalist who’s never thrown a football. It’s Lebron James dealing with social media criticism from people who can’t dribble.

It’s the voice of the critic and it reminds me of this:

 

That’s what teachers, a lot of them anyway, are saying to Robert Marzano and those like him. If you’re so smart, if you know so much, then put down the calculator and get in a classroom. Teach kids. And you know where someone like you –someone who understands exactly how to keep kids engaged — is really needed? In Detroit. In Philly. In D.C. and Baltimore. In a “failing” public school, since, let’s face it, it’s those teachers who have been most harmed by your work.

There may have been a reason to feel sorry for Robert Marzano years ago, when his research was hijacked by state governments and used for a purpose he didn’t originally intend. But Marzano was not some innocent victim. He could have said no. He could have looked into his crystal ball and considered some of the consequences of having teachers evaluated with checklists of 60 items. He could have easily foreseen how that would be received. Maybe he did and just didn’t care.

Regardless, he took the money and therefore deserves to be pilloried when he tweets stupid and insulting things that reveal a complete disconnect from the realities of the professional lives of those who actually have what it takes to teach students instead of sitting in an air-conditioned office in Colorado, reading education studies, and raking in taxpayer money by the bushel. Marzano deserves our anger. But at this point, what he really deserves is to be ignored.