A Nation of Amateurs

I was so happy to get out of the “professional development” day on Friday that I left my notebook with notes at school.  I had wanted to use the notes as a jumping-off point for this article but I will have to rely on my mind-numbed brain’s memory.  Any detailed examination of this entire once-a-month-Fridays-for-professional-development would prove it to be the farce that it is in less than a minute. Instead of any real, in-depth professional development that would help us in our teaching we are given PD on IMPACT and the Teaching and Learning Framework, something that seems quite self-serving in regards to downtown.  Perhaps in Michelle Rhee’s mind these PD’s are one and the same with substantial, informative and instructive professional development – the kind of PD  that a teacher actually learns something from, is engaged by, and is able to make an effective part of their classroom – but I don’t really think so.  She is not naive and she would have to be either naive or deluded beyond redemption to believe that.

What did I learn on Friday?  I learned that  IMPACT is just as arbitrary as I believed it would be, that it is no less arbitrary than the old PPEP was and it will be used in just as arbitrary a fashion as that old evaluation system.  The difference is that where the PPEP forced teachers to “game” the system with a dog-and-pony show once or twice a year, IMPACT forces them to do so five times a year.  The statements made by a number of teachers at my school about their evaluation conference experiences only reinforced this belief.

Some teachers were told by their Master Educator that regardless of whether they already had done something before the ME arrived for the 30 minutes they should “drop it back in again” so that the ME would witness it.  In one instance the teacher was well into their lesson when the ME arrived, manipulatives had been used already, the students were towards the end of their lesson, the ME gave no credit for the fact that materials were out and obviously used. Not having witnessed the use of the manipulatives was equal, to this particular ME at least, to nothing being used whatsoever.  The ME told the teacher that next time they should just “drop it back in again” to insure that the ME sees the manipulatives being used.  Several other teachers had similar stories to tell, basically that it was better to almost start over if the ME walks into the room having missed the crucial aspects of your lesson – the parts that score high on the rubric.  If they missed you stating the objective then, regardless of whether you had stated it 10 times before they arrived, and equally regardless of whether your students demonstrate their understanding of that objective by the way they are working, state it again and have the students state it as well – it never hurts to make sure. In other words, hit the replay button when the ME walks into your room to ensure their witnessing the essentials of your lesson – the hotpoints – because that is all that IMPACT really cares about.

And this is the inherent problem with IMPACT. It is not designed to authenticate good teaching nor to help teachers be better teachers, it has been designed as a system to “catch” teachers at being bad.  It is like a radar gun on the highway. Many speeders will be caught but those using the proper equipment or methods will slip by.  Teachers will learn how to game this system pretty quickly. They will be forced to create a false environment or face getting a poor evaluation.

Not all the Master Educators are being so dogmatic and rigid. Some are coming in, getting a feel for the room, the teacher and the teaching style and trying to be fair in the way they score the teacher. But still, there are elements of IMPACT that simply don’t allow for judgment calls to be made by the ME. It is either/or; there or not there at the moment of witness, evidence be damned.  I think with such check-off lists the most fair-minded person could find themselves constrained.

IMPACT has some very good parts to it. There are those sections based on best practices, much of it coming from The Skillful Teacher by Saphier and Gower, that deal with management, motivation, high expectations, use of time, etc., stuff that should and can be evaluated.  But this is mixed in with a lot of bean counting – how many students have their eyes on you, how many times you orally encourage students, how many times… well, you get the idea.  I find it interesting that differentiated teaching is expected in terms of how we, as teachers, instruct our students but the student responses are expected to be uniform – lambs looking up and baaing to their shepherd. It matters not that the student may take in information differently, staring at their desk but hearing every word you say, able to give back to you, verbatim, what you said, if the student’s eyes are not glued to you than all is naught. Some Master Educators have said as much, stating to various teachers that while they saw evidence of non-verbal encouragement and of students obviously having heard the lesson despite seeming as if they were not in the room the ME could not record that because there was nothing in the rubric for non-verbal communication.

What IMPACT does not measure are the intangibles. The indefinable aspects of a teacher’s craft that can be witnessed but not measured: the feel of the room, the rapport between the students and their teacher, the way the students respond to questions, how parents feel about the teacher, how colleagues feel about a particular teacher, the philosophy that exists inside that classroom. These things make up the art of teaching and it is hard to put on a check-off list. The Reflective Educator covers this subject quite nicely in his current post over at Filthy Teaching.  In What Makes a Great Teacher RE goes into excellent detail about what real teaching entails. The only thing I would add to what he has to say is what I said in an earlier post on this blog:

For me teaching is a vocation. A calling.  It requires of me the same degree of commitment that faith requires, a commitment that does not waver regardless of the number of trials that rattle the windows and shakes the foundations.  The title of this blog comes from a quote by William Stafford, a great teacher and poet, He says “I’m a priest of the imagination, and when I go to class my job is conducting the inner light of those people to wherever it’s going…” That for me is the essence of what I do daily. I am conducting the inner light, the inner intelligence, of these children. I am their guide, helping them to find their way, setting up signposts for them to be able to read and make their way, to chart their own course. Some may not realize it right away. Their appreciation for what I do may come at a much later time in their lives. For right now they will fight and curse me and consider me the bane of their existence.  In some cases that realization will never come. For some, though, I see the recognition in their eyes that they understand and even appreciate what I am doing.  The parents of these children are no different. I am grateful for those that see this and appreciate what I do and a little sad for those that do not.  But neither defines who I am or what I do.  (from Why I Teach, August 9, 2009)

Michelle Rhee’s plans calls for a teaching force that somehow can sustain a constant influx of teachers every 4 years or so.  In several interviews she has stated that she does not see why teaching needs to be a lifetime profession such as medicine. Why not have people put several years into teaching and then move on to something else.  The people Ms. Rhee has surrounded herself with are all examples of this – they teach for 3 or 4 or 5 years and move on.  Many of their views on teaching seem to be short range. It seems as if they do not at all see the danger of having an inexperienced staff  because, after all, exuberance and enthusiasm more than makes up for experience, at least according to their philosophy.  This is why IMPACT is so short-sighted, it isn’t out to improve teachers and keep them in the system longer, it is a plan that drives teachers out – good and bad – to make room for more teachers both good and bad.  Even those who will get good marks on IMPACT will find themselves chaffing under the demands of this system and its cold-hearted evaluation of what teachers do. IMPACT is the creation of people who see teaching not as a calling but as a job that anyone can do as long as they hit all the right buttons.

And, after all, if we are saying in every speech and interview we give that teaching does not need to be a lifetime career like medicine, then it is only natural to believe that anyone can teach.  It boggles my own mind that this could be the philosophy of someone running a school system, that this is what they would want.  Most good teachers that I know and respect are pretty consistent about one thing: that it takes at least 5 years to begin to be a really good teacher; to know what is necessary and what is a waste of time; to be effective more often than not; to be more concise.  I found this true for myself.  I know few people who disagree with this. The people I have met that do disagree with this, that believe that a teacher can be outstanding in their first two years, have almost always, to a person, been so filled with their own self-worth that they seemed to think they had nothing to learn from anyone else.  Amateurs.

In Russia, just before World War II, Stalin had purged most of the experienced officers of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Civil War of 1921.  If a man had been an officer in either war they were purged – either shot or sent to Siberia, 35,000 in all.  Germany attacked Russia in 1941 and had a series of quick and almost devastating victories.  Leningrad (St. Petersburg) was under siege and the German line stopped not far outside of Moscow.  Stalin quickly “rehabilitated” any officers and soldiers in the camps still alive and in condition to fight.  Experience was needed. These experienced soldiers stopped the German advance and, with the aid of the Russian winter, helped defeat the Germans.

Before I am accused of comparing Ms. Rhee to Stalin (I am not nor do I believe she is anything like a dictator – despite her own words) I would like to say that while enthusiasm and youth have their positive aspects neither can really trump experience.  Experience is what carries you through the most difficult parts of any task, experience teaches you how to succeed.  I don’t want to see our system become a system where our oldest veteran teachers have only 4 or 5 years experience. I have heard that positions for mentor teachers were being advertised on the DCPS website and that the requirement for this position was “at least 2 years experience teaching”.  This is what I am talking about. A teacher with only 2 years experience acting as “mentor” to a teacher with no experience.  That is the blind leading the blind.  It reminds me of when I first started teaching, the mothers of many of the 3rd and 4th graders were in their early twenties, which meant that they gave birth when they were in their early to mid teens. “Kids raising kids” the old veterans would say, shaking their heads in sorrow and disbelief.  When inexperience becomes the teacher of inexperience we end up with a nation of amateurs.

6 thoughts on “A Nation of Amateurs

  1. I agree with everything you say. While I believe IMPACT has its pros, the way it is implemented across the district (I fear out of practical necessity) is often a detriment to good classroom practice. I can say, however, that I appreciate the discussion it’s generated regarding exactly what good teaching is. It helps to remind me that there are things I could be doing better on a daily basis, but also that in our quest to reform inner-city education, we’re forever driven to provide results. Unfortunately, the only way to provide results people outside of education can attach meaning to is to quantify them. As you pointed out, not everything (nor, I would argue, even most things) in education can be quantified.

  2. I, too, am galled — and offended — by the job descriptions posted by DCPS and DCTF: 2 or 3 years is all it takes to become an instructional coach, mentor, fellow adviser? This explains why those positions spend so much time in training, presumably learning theories and strategies they should already know about. Wow.

    But I try to take a larger view of Impact, mainly because I chafe at either/or scenarios, which educational pundits resort to a little too often, IMO. Impact is a tool *both* to remove teachers *and* an attempt at defining what effective teaching looks like. (I say “an attempt” because I think much of it is either misguided, for the reasons you state, or poorly executed, perhaps even unexecutable, but that’s another discussion.) For the teachers who have had no pedagogy courses or prior teaching experience — even student teaching experience (which is much of the DCPS force at the moment) — this is at least an attempt to describe what is important in a holistic way.

    Unfortunately, the devil is in the details. While engaging students, for example, should always be an ongoing goal of teachers, how Impact states they should do so is too narrow in scope and geared toward elementary grades.

    All that said, I can’t imagine this system being railroaded through other school districts like it has been here. Can you?

  3. Hey, Lodesterre – you got a mention at city paper’s “loose lips.” That’s what brought me here, though I’ve been to your site before.

    Great post – wouldn’t it be nice if teachers could actually do something about IMPACT?

    Reflective Educator – I disagree with one thing you said, “Unfortunately, the only way to provide results people outside of education can attach meaning to is to quantify them.”

    It can certainly seem that way, what with our “data-driven” Chancellor and the national “Race to the top.” But people are also affected by miracle stories (another problem) and, on the good side, many people seems to have a lot of common sense about teaching, realizing that teachers simply are not completely responsible for educational outcomes. Blaming teachers is easy, but it won’t solve the problem. And the only problem that constant teacher turn-over solves is how to keep teacher recruitment outfits in business.

  4. “It boggles my own mind that this [advocating short careers for teachers] could be the philosophy of someone running a school system, that this is what they would want.”

    But it makes sense if the goal is busting the union and profiting from teacher turnover. Of course, that’s mind-boogling too, but it fits in light of IMPACT, doesn’t it?

  5. Great article. I will encourage all my friends and coworkers to read this post. At a time when teachers feel as though we are losing our minds with IMPACT and MEs, you really set things straight for me.

    Thanks, I feel like I can survive this maddness and will no longer take this as a personal attack.

  6. Kat, I don’t think I make it an either/or scenario in terms of IMPACT. I also think that the larger picture shows many more flaws than positive aspects, you seem to see this as well. A flawed document, such as this, will “drive” people out because of its flaws, not because that is what it was “designed” to do. Equally, it will not define what effective teaching looks like also because of those very same flaws. This year should be a pilot year with the evaluations not counting. It should be a year in which this document is treated as the fluid thing it needs to be, changing with input from teachers, principals, ME’s and anyone else who has a say in improving our system. The Zen monk Yuanwu said: “Who has no faults? to err and yet be able to correct it is best of all… Thus human actions have many faults and errors – this is something that neither the wise nor the foolish can avoid – yet it is only the wise who can correct their faults and change to good, whereas the foolish mostly conceal their faults and cover up their wrongs.” There is still time for this administration to show itself the former and not the latter.

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