Teachers, Stop Saying You Work All Summer

I know, I know. Some of you actually work. Some of you really do plan lessons, attend conferences, renovate your classrooms, teach summer school, or even work a part-time job. Some of you do all of the above.

But most of you don’t. I’ve been teaching seventeen years now. I know a LOT of teachers. Most of my friends are teachers. Hardly any of them work much in the summer. One teaches summer school for three days a week for about six weeks. Most of us do some planning for next year (“vaguely thinking about” would be more accurate). We might read a teaching book or two this summer (might I recommend Happy Teacher?). Almost all of us will, at some point before the year starts, head into our classrooms a few times to get everything in order. But most of us aren’t doing much work. Don’t believe me? Check out the Facebook pages of the teachers you know.

So can we please stop pretending? Can we stop lying?

Stop Being Defensive

I was on Facebook earlier today when I came across a video a friend had shared. You’ve probably seen it or one like it. It was about how teachers get no respect and how there’s a shortage in teacher prep programs. It listed some of the reasons teachers feel disrespected.

The first comment under the video trotted out the very tired, “Teachers have three months off” argument. Evidently, the commenter missed the part about teachers quitting and young people avoiding the profession. That would seem to argue that those three months off aren’t the incentive people think they are. The commenter was beset, of course, by teachers claiming, as they always do, that no, actually, we work those three months!  That’s not a vacation! We take classes and plan lessons and work other jobs because of our shitty pay. Reading them, you would think that most teachers are busting their asses all summer. We aren’t. I sure as hell am not.

And I won’t apologize to anyone for that.

Teachers Don’t Waste Time

I work hard during the school year. I work harder than a lot of people. I may not work the same number of hours as someone in another profession, but the hours I do work are not wasted. I’ve never participated in a Cyber Monday. I’m there the Monday after the Super Bowl, without a hangover, doing the same job I do every day. A 2014 survey from Salary.com found that 89% of workers admitted to wasting time at work. 31% waste 30 minutes a day. Another 31% waste an hour. 16% waste TWO HOURS each day. How are they wasting time? Well, Bitly found that traffic on Twitter peaks between 9 am and 3 pm, Monday through Thursday, and that Facebook spikes between 1 pm and 3 pm midweek. Those are curious times, aren’t they? It’s almost like people in cubicles are not really working that much. Usage drops off at 4 pm, when all those hard working business people go home.

Teachers don’t get to waste time. We don’t have the luxury of buying crap online while students are watching our every move. We can’t check Facebook six times a day to see how many people liked our cat photo from last night. We’re not getting into Twitter arguments at 2 pm. In fact, if you’re a teacher who tweets you know that educator chats always occur at night. #edchat runs from 7-8 pm on Tuesdays. #edtechchat from 8-9 pm on Mondays. #tlap is scheduled at Monday at 9 pm. When do Twitter chats for marketing professionals take place? #ContentChat is Monday at 3 pm. #BufferChat is at noon on Wednesdays. #BizHeroes is at 2 pm on Tuesdays. Must be nice to have tweeting considered “work.” If teachers waste time at school, it simply means we have more work to take home. Other professionals might work more hours than teachers, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing more work.

Stop Apologizing

Teachers, let’s just be honest: Summer vacation is perk. No one else apologizes for their work perks. Why should we?

I’ll start feeling bad for enjoying my three months off when business people start feeling bad about their hour-long leisurely lunches at restaurants (that some write off as business expenses), their corporate junkets to Aspen, free tickets to sporting events, paid air travel and hotel stays that allow them to see the country on their company’s dime, high salaries, the ability to take a week off in October to vacation during non-peak times, workdays that permit (even encourage) dicking off on social media, paid water cooler conversations about last night’s episode of “The Bachelor,” and lots of other perks I don’t get as a teacher.

But since that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, I’ll just enjoy my three months off. Every glorious, sun-filled, relaxing day of it.

The Best Way to Thank Your Child’s Teacher

School is out for the year in most places. Teachers are sleeping in. Parents have arranged for child care. Students are snapping chats, or playing Fortnite, or getting in my way at the zoo (I don’t really know what students do with their free time. I used to watch Matlock in the summer). Many teachers received gifts from the parents of their students during that last week of school. I saw them on Facebook, and I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t greatly appreciate them. In a world where genuine appreciation is as rare as political bipartisanship, even a token thank-you stands out.

Gift cards, coffee mugs, thematic baskets, chocolate, and thank you cards are all great, but there is one way parents can thank their children’s teachers that beats them all. Few teachers receive this gift, even though it costs nothing, takes only a few minutes to put together, has lasting positive effects, and you can do it at any point of the school year, even now, when it’s over.

What is this wonderful, simple gift?

An email to the teacher’s principal.

Teachers Get Evaluated

Many parents may not be aware that teachers are evaluated yearly now. This is a relatively new thing, at least in practice. While there have always been teacher evaluation systems, the old ones were mostly formalities. The principal would let the teacher know he was coming, the teacher would teach, the principal would fill out a quick form that usually lacked teeth, and they’d all go on their merry ways.

Then, for lots of mostly bad reasons, politicians decided teachers were the main cause of society’s failures. They decided to weed out the bad ones. To do that, they needed some kind of system to identify the duds. They wanted to use test scores because test scores produce numbers and people like numbers. They seem objective. But then the forces of good convinced them that including principal observations should be part of the system, too.

So what does all this have to do with writing an email to the principal?

Principals Are Human

The system described above is meant to be objective, but it isn’t. Humans are involved. Humans have values and prejudices and feelings and all kinds of other humany things that make objectively evaluating others impossible. Two principals watching the same lesson will judge that lesson differently. Two principals will measure the value of teachers in their buildings differently.

In practice, the system actually works like this:

– For various reason –some good, some bad — principals like some teachers more than others.
– Principals bring their biases with them when they observe teachers.
– Charitable view: Although principals tell themselves they’re being fair, their preferences for certain teachers show through in their ratings.
– Less charitable view: Principals decide beforehand which teachers are going to get lower scores and then, no matter what they observe, they rate teachers accordingly. In other words, they say to themselves, “Well, if the district is going to lay people off this year, I better make sure they lay off the teachers I’d rather not have around. One way to do that is to rate them poorly on observations.”

Humans Can Be Influenced

It is human nature to complain about things that annoy us and keep quiet when we’re satisfied. That means that if principals hear anything about the teachers in their buildings, it’s likely negative. The feedback principals receive about teachers either confirms or challenges their opinions.

Fortunately, positive feedback works the same way. Most principals are unaware of much of what happens. They can’t be everywhere all the time. They may not know anything about how a teacher communicates with parents, or how a teacher inspired Timmy to read more at home, or the way a teacher makes learning fun. A principal might not notice the rapport a teacher has with her students. But if he receives three emails from parents praising the relationships their children have with their teacher, he’ll start to.

All of us are influenced by the opinions of others. It’s what makes hit songs, bestsellers, and blockbusters. It’s why one restaurant thrives while others close. It’s why I don’t admit to people that I don’t care for Monty Python, Wes Anderson movies, or Meryl Streep. When you hear from lots of people about how great something is, you start to think you’re the weird one. You keep those opinions to yourself. You question them. You look for evidence you’re wrong.

That’s why parents who are happy with their child’s teacher should email the principal. The more a principal hears good things about his teachers, the more likely it is he’ll start to believe them or at least question his own opinions.

Don’t Just Tell the Teacher

Most years, I get a card from a parent thanking me. Often, the card will say something like, “Ivy really enjoyed being in your class. She was nervous to have a male teacher but she had a great third-grade year.”

I love getting these cards.

But I’d also love my principal to hear what parents appreciate about me, too.

Principals who hear good things about teachers will be less likely to evaluate those teachers poorly or consider moving them to a different position in their district. Upsetting parents who have proven they’re willing to write emails to school administrators is one thing most principals are reluctant to do.

So if you think your child’s teacher did a good job this year, write an email to the principal saying so. It’s fast, easy, free, and will help the teacher more than anything you can buy from a store.

_____________________________________

Feel like reading more? Try these:

10 Things Parents Just Don’t Understand About Teachers

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation

Evaluations are in. All of your good intentions, hard work, and personal sacrifice have been boiled down to a number and a label. Are you “highly effective” or “innovating,” or merely “developing,” like you’re an insect in its larval stage instead of a professional educator?

Whatever your label or your number, you shouldn’t take too much pride or allow yourself to feel any disappointment or shame over it. Your evaluation is meaningless.

My district uses Marzano and everything is entered into iObservation. The last step in the evaluation process is for me, the teacher, to go in and “acknowledge” my scores. Why this is necessary is a bit of a mystery, since I am in no way allowed to question or challenge my final score. The state of Michigan gives districts total power when it comes to teacher evaluations. No due process. No appeals. No presumption of effectiveness. It’s all very democratic, and obviously designed to help teachers get better (he said sarcastically).

Once I acknowledged my rating, I was then provided the opportunity to leave a comment. I guess this is iObservation’s way of throwing teachers a bone. We may not be allowed to tell our principal, “Actually, the stupid learning goal was on the board. You just didn’t see it,” but we can sound off in the comments section. As a reminder, that’s the section nobody reads.

Nevertheless, it was my only chance to offer any thoughts, so here’s what I wrote:

I continue to find the evaluations arbitrary, based on questionable data, and demoralizing to the profession. That 75% of any teacher’s evaluation is in the hands of a single individual should be cause for concern. That that individual, however well-meaning and effective he or she might be, bases most of his or her evaluation on a small sample size of a teacher’s instruction is also concerning. It’s a flawed model, operating inside of a flawed system, foisted upon professional educators who were given little opportunity to provide input to the flawed legislators who pushed for more accountability based on the flawed belief that American schools, and therefore the people who work inside of them, are failing. The whole thing is nonsense, and I therefore put no stock in the above numbers, whether they be high, low, or somewhere in between. It’s a shame that principals have to waste so much time on it.

To add to the above and to put everything in list form, here is why your evaluation is meaningless and therefore not worth hanging your head or puffing your chest over.

Your evaluation is likely composed of two parts: administrator observations and student growth data. Both have major problems.

Student Growth

  • The student growth portion of your evaluation is likely based on cruddy assessments. Mine was based on screeners, which were never intended for teacher evaluations.
  • Students are not held accountable for their performance on the cruddy assessments, which makes you wonder how much they really care about them, which makes you wonder how hard they try on them. (I’ll give you a hint: two of my students were done with the 30-question reading test in 10 minutes.)
  • In my district,  growth scores are harmed by students who start the year with already high numbers. They have the least room for improvement, and that lack of growth lowers teachers’ ratings.
  • The whole thing sets up terrible incentives, which I try my best to ignore. Teachers in my district joke about getting students to bomb the fall screener to show more growth. You could actively lobby for the lowest students to be on your class roster to have a better chance of showing growth. There’s no doubt that some teach to the screeners, so kids get the idea that reading is really about saying words super fast. The list goes on.
  • Those students who missed more than 20 days of school? Doesn’t matter. It’s somehow your fault they didn’t learn as much as they should have.

Observations

  • Most of the evaluation is based on principal observations. I had two.  If we only needed two songs to evaluate a band, Tesla would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  • Observations are only as good as the people making them.  They’re meaningless if principals across buildings and districts evaluate their teachers in different ways, which they do.
  • Observations are only reliable if we assume that principals can shelve their personal biases when observing a teacher and rely only on their training (assuming they received any).
  • Evaluations lose their meaning when those being evaluated are judged against different criteria. The current system assumes districts have at least a somewhat similar approach to evaluating teachers. They don’t.  My wife’s district handles the whole thing differently than my district. An “effective” teacher in one district won’t necessarily be effective in a neighboring district. Some districts make it nearly impossible to be “innovating,” while other districts start teachers out there and only lower them for cause. That makes the system junk.
  • Basing a significant part of a teacher’s evaluation on an administrator’s observations makes the system ripe for abuse. Observations might be an honest appraisal of your skills or they could be the result of office politics or personal grudges. If it’s the latter? Well, there’s always the comments section.

And why only observations and student growth, anyway? I’m a teacher, a service professional. Why don’t parents get a say in this? Why don’t the students?

I don’t mind being evaluated. I just wish my evaluation actually told me something, anything, about how well or poorly I do my job. Until it does, I find it hard to care. You should too.