Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Delicate Dance that is Public Education

I remember being livid reading outsiders' critiques of public education and teachers.  People and publications would spout off about how teachers could be good, bad, or indifferent and how it really didn't matter, because the tenure system guaranteed all teachers a lifelong salary...or at least for as long as they wanted to teach. I could not identify proof of such a system, though, in my area of the country...I also didn't know any of the lazy teachers they talked about who brought the harsh axe down on the rest of us.  Sixteen years in, I now understand that my perspective was the result of a very unique set of experiences.  Alas, I have come to the conclusion that union life is, indeed, the double-edged sword in the teaching world.
On one hand, history has shown us that there are people on the management side of labor who don't understand boundaries. They are relentless and driving in their work lives and because their thirsts for achievement, recognition, and mastery are so strong, they will impose their own maniacal drive on others, bulldozing boundaries that help keep people emotionally and physically safe in their work lives. I know this is happens and that it is for this reason that unions rose up to become a buffer between unreasonable management and the workforce. This is most definitely, as history has proven, a noble and important role! Representation makes a difference in the lives of educators.  In light of stories I have heard about educators whose rights are nearly nil, I know that my local union's representation really is a blessing! We are protected from unfair working conditions, overflowing classroom sizes, and other perils. I am thankful!! ...And then, there is my other mind. My other mind tells me that any good thing put in place to give protection, safety and a sense of well-being has the potential to morph into something that becomes less than a practical expression of its ideal.
     To proclaim that my experience, having taught officially in only one school district and one part of the country in one city (albeit for 15 years) is a representative sample of what everyone is doing all over the country and in every context, would it be presumptuous and silly. I will not do that. However, I will just speak about my experience and put it out there as a wondering as to whether others have seen the same. What I have observed is that yes, many times teachers are protected in mediocrity by our system that makes it nearly impossible to get rid of them if they are not performing. It was really hard for my younger self to understand or receive this truth... But a truth it is! In my context, there is a pay scale that aligns with a person's number of years in the classroom. You move up the pay scale just by being in the classroom another year, and you move across the pay scale by earning more credentials. This part makes total sense and I am on board with it, because moving up the pay scale is not an unreasonable thing, nor is it excessive given the fact that the pay scale increases don't typically keep pace with inflation. But here's the rub: both teachers who are continually growing and improving in their practice, and teachers who have decided not to, are moving across this pay scale together. The wheat and the tares.  There is not an effective weed-out process in order to distinguish which is which. Yes, there is an evaluation system in place and to which all administrators and teachers are subject.  I have been through the evaluator training for our state and am credentialed to evaluate myself. So I understand the rubric and the evaluation process and I think that it's actually set up pretty well in terms of the rubric's criteria and the evaluation standards. 
     Evaluations are an expectation of this work. The challenge is that since these criteria are not being applied by robots, human subjectivity and other variables come into play.  I think people are not used to the idea of really, truly evaluating based on evidence that is available and based on a strict interpretation of the rubric. In fact, when I went through my evaluator training, I had trouble passing the credentialing piece at first because I was trying to do what has almost come naturally, and which I think comes naturally to many administrators: giving people the benefit of the doubt. In the absence of specific evidence, giving a rubric score that, really, was not valid.  I think this happens for many reasons, but at a subconscious level I am willing to bet that a big part of it is that administrators, who don't have a union to protect them, in my state, don't want to deal with the headache that comes with really doing a close evaluation of their direct reports teaching that would result in negative evaluations, the need to justify those evals, and possible backlash/ reprisal from the union. I have met many people who seem to have found this loophole. Their attitude and output-- and even sometimes their words--show that they envision themselves doing their work as teachers who hide safely in the shadow of a proverbial big brother.  Big brother gives them the boldness to yell out taunts daring anyone to ask them for their best work.  They interrogate and complain their way through many assignments, using their creative energy to figure out how to discredit the assignment, expectation or work team, when they could be using their creative juices to jump in and get it going. Instead a feeling invigorated by the opportunity to do meaningful work, they are filled by what feels like the power of being able to resist it. This is counter-productive; it hurts the students and staff morale, and it is one of those ugly but surely unintended outcomes of having such a strong union.

So what's the solution? I would say this:

     What if we went back to the drawing board to examine the kinds of things that are currently mandated in our school systems and that are unproductive drains on teachers' time? What if we reevaluated the kinds of things that are unnecessary interruptions in a teacher's school day? What if we did a huge time audit in order to figure out how to restructure teachers' use of a day for maximum efficiency, focused on teaching and learning? What if we then revisited our union contracts and figured out a way to work in a flex portion into the contract, so that administrators/leadership teams could have some influence that would allow them to plug staff members into work that they've determined will move their buildings forward, without expectation of resistance in the form of, "the union said I don't have to"? What if our evaluation systems were crafted courageously enough to include those so-called soft skills and un-measurables as professionalism and ability to work collaboratively as a team player? If teachers knew that acting boorish and refusing to play with the others would be reflected in their evaluations, maybe we would see an increase in demonstrated emotional intelligence in the education workplace. Maybe we would see less cliquish behavior, more willingness to work outside of silos in the instances where that still exists... perhaps we would see teachers figuring out how to be a part of the team and truly, meaningfully contribute without violating their own values or sense of boundaries. 
Further, our current teacher standards highlight collaboration, but our evaluation system rewards individual achievement. If our evaluation system also reflected the priority on working with others (with a change in our rubric and all), teachers would begin to place a priority on working well within this skill set. Maybe we could incentivize learning how to work with others effectively - and, gasp, find ourselves working smarter as teachers learn to plan and create together! Maybe these teachers who would have learned to share credit and workload could find more efficient and more authentic ways to even assess students so that they are taking less work home, being more thoughtful during their work hours, and generally sharing the load of work more equitably. I do know that the professionalism and team player components would not be without controversy--but what if there were a 360 degree feedback kind of process woven into Administrators evaluations, as well? This way there would be kind of a two-way checks and balances system that would call on both sides of the labor coin to constantly be in upgrade and improvement mode.
I don't put forth all of these ideas expecting that just because they seem clear in my little head, that they would run without a glitch in the real world. But one thing we do know is this: We need some alterations to our current approaches if we plan to truly see equity within and among public school districts, as measured by our highest metric: student outcomes. Let's keep brainstorming, together!


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