On Teacher Evaluations: Or how to potentially commit professional suicide in less than 1,500 words

You can’t oppress someone who’s not afraid anymore. 

I wrote this post just under a year ago. I did not share it because… well, I thought it mattered not to. I still felt afraid I guess. But the struggle to do what I do, and to do it well, continues to grow everyday, and becomes more and more challenging at every level. Yet, my salary, benefits, and incentives do not grow, in fact are reduced and eliminated regularly (hello 35% increase in the cost of my benefits next month!) 

Now I no longer feel afraid. I feel frustrated, and ready to do something different rather than continue to try to improve a system that doesn’t want improving, or simply has a different end game in mind. I don’t know what that will be. In fact, I have absolutely NO idea what I might ever do outside of teaching because I never really gave it any real thought because I loved teaching, and I was good at it, and so why would I have?

I still love teaching. It is just so rare to be able to actually focus on doing that with everything else that has become a priority in American (or at least Californian) education. Recently, one of my team teachers said to me, “You should teach college,” which is an insult when levied at you by another high school teacher… it is code for “You do not really seem to have it in you to deal with the kids so why don’t you go sit somewhere in an ivory tower and contemplate your belly button along with your outsized intellect.” The funniest part of my colleage saying this to me, is he was party to the criticism levied at me by the “evaluator” described below who said I try to teach too much material and would be better suited for tertiary education, and told me that it was an insult (like I needed to know this.)

I don’t know what I might do next. But my times, they are a changing’….

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I had another “professional evaluation” on Tuesday. My administrator (actually one of two administrators who have been assigned to me because apparently I need double administrating) decided he would assess my teaching during my first period sophomore World History class, on the first day of the new semester, after a three day weekend. Because, what a great time for a quality demonstration of academic pursuits and endeavors.

Seriously.

And the more I thought about this, the unscheduled evaluations and the purported purpose behind them,  the more I realized, I am just not playing this game anymore.  Through, truth be told, there are some who have said I was never all that good at this game in the first place. [I am reminded of  the reaction of my illustrious graduate advisor Paul Starrs, on my contemplations around pursuing a PhD… ‘Well, I am just not sure you would fully appreciate the structure of the social science world at that level….’] But through this entire rigamarole at my current school, where they simultaneously offered me a permanent contract AND said I required further evaluation [really? REALLY? If I am that suspect, why are you keeping me around??] it has become more and more clear that the purpose of the Professional Teacher Evaluation has absolutely nothing to do with assessing or improving pedagogy. In even suggesting this, my disinterest in improving my methods is assumed. Which only further substantiates the fact that you are simply not paying attention.

And so as I sat and looked at the evaluation I would have to sign, always with the option to write a written response/rebuttal that no one reads and means less than nothing, I decided I would do my very best Lisbeth Salander and say nothing and just sign the damn thing. Which would be better than opening my mouth, because if I did you could be sure nothing good would come of that.

What would come of that would be something like this:

You are not interested in seeing how good of a teacher I am, or helping me become a better teacher. You are interested in “catching” me. Catching me not using the precise language, strategy or technique du jour that you have prescribed across the board for a faculty of 200.

If you were interested in understanding my teaching you would interact with the material, talk to the kids, ask me questions about what I am teaching, look at the products….

In a nearly 20 year career I know that I have actually taught some kids valuable things. Academic things to be sure, but also about social currency & fluency, and how to use the academic knowledge they glean in school out there in the real world. And this has been important, especially in schools heavily populated with students most people call “at risk”… and I call interesting.

I have acknowledged my students’ life experiences, (what we used to call schema but I’m sure you have some other word for it now) and I have allowed my students the opportunity to be authentic in their learning and related experiences, not forcing them into a sentence framed cookie cutter way of experiencing and expressing everything. Through permissible authenticity the kids I have taught have been able to see how what they bring to world can be modified and customized to fit and work for success, but fundamentally remain the unique and interesting people they intrinsically are.

Sure there have been kids I did not reach and did not like me – an AP Lit student who plagiarized his entire senior project (and then convinced an administrator that it was because he was unclear on the objectives of the assignment and believed he had done what I wanted – and she bought it! ) comes to mind, but those numbers are far fewer than those who I made laugh, work hard, think, write, read, complain, and DO WORK all along the way, in an often archaic and sometimes ineffective (childish and stupid) American high school system.

But you are not interested in knowing these things. You do not want to know if I am effective – or affective. If you did you would look at the results I achieve with my students in your programs like common assessment and literacy (the top in the school if you are prone to quantitative analysis. You would look at the work my students are doing in the larger world with technology, in spite of embarrassing tech limitations. You would look at how I handle and manage my most vulnerable kids after school and outside of the classroom through any number methods.

But you don’t.

You come to see seniors in the afternoon before vacation or finals. You come to see sophomores first period on the first day of a new semester. You hassle me over minutia – you don’t like art on the walls. My calendar is not up to date enough (time passes you know?) You ask me to use different colored dry erase markers. You want to know why my white boards aren’t cleaner. And you put this in my professional evaluation, which purports to evaluate how I TEACH.

You say my class is too hard when I challenge students and lacks academic depth when I “scaffold.” You are unaware that the fluctuation in rigor actually moves kids through a super rigorous and fast-paced curriculum by building confidence and then creating opportunities to take intellectual risks. The ebb and flow challenges them and creates a safe place that builds trust and lets them explore their metacognitive abilities.

You say I must check for understanding by having every one of the 30+ students in every 58 minute class period practice individual oral expression; and in the same breath you say ‘Give them time to think!’

But really, the problem is bigger than your lack of interest in my actual ability to teach teenagers, so that just makes the whole “professional evaluation” that I am not going to read but will passively sign, even less meaningful.

The thing is, our kids need to want to learn, and we’ve created a society in which – for many reasons (incompetent schools, myopia, ignorance, ill placed priorities, an emphasis on wealth over substance, a refusal to acknowledge that the achievement gap cannot be fixed until we give historically disadvantaged or low achieving kids and their families a minute to actually think about school without worrying about a million other things like survival) the education we are selling is not being bought.

So, when I teach kids who are uninterested in a traditional education I have to find different way to show them it matters. This is not done with your sentence frames. It is done by modeling successful, tenacious behavior. This behavior manifests itself in most of the things you cannot stand about me: how I dress, how I speak my mind, how I laugh at myself and with others, how I incorporate material or methods that borrow from pre-existing interests to hook kids, how I use language to express complex ideas/speak, and how I maintain my authenticity in the face of your unyielding demands to make me leave that all behind.

And by the way, if that means they hear me use a swear word once in while… I think they’ll survive.

So I hear you are not supposed to, like, talk about your job on social media…

“The… whole notion of reforming education has created an environment where creativity is unable to thrive and multiply.”

This is prudent advice, I know. In all professions: ‘Don’t talk about your co-workers on Facebook.’ ‘Don’t Tweet about your boss.’ ‘Don’t discuss your professional circumstances on social media.’ And in my “profession”, where there is supposed to be some semblance of compassion, dignity, and never, ever, ever any sort of conversation that could suggest less than a full throttle, over-drive obsession with caring and support of our clientele, the situation is even more punctuated. [I may get to why I think this is so in this post – but it may deserve its own discussion, mostly explaining that there is a huge, percentage of people in my profession (primarily at the “top”) who simply lack any real understanding of the world of social media and even the internet in general… Remember when that one principal called me into his office because he was stalking my personal – now private – Twitter account, and accused me of talking shit about a pregnant coworker because he did not know how Twitter worked and was unable to understand that he was reading one side of a conversation I was having with a friend who taught kindergarten in Hong Kong? Yeah, well this same principle sent out a letter to the entire school telling them they could now address him as “Doctor” rather than “Mister” on finishing his EdD.] Recently, there was even an article in the freaking Atlantic for goodness sakes, talking about how teachers shouldn’t talk about their students on Facebook… because they could get “hurt.” Forget about the Tumblr site, Shit My Students Write. Or hilarious collections of absurd and delightfully clever “test answers” – apparently the posting of which could crush a student’s self-esteem to the point of total academic humiliation and shut-down. Sadly, much of this kid-gloves approach towards students showing up on social media demonstrates the most fundamental misunderstanding of both the students and our modern culture in which any attention is good attention. Not that I am condoning this, but I understand its reality and therefore when I see friendly and humorous ways to point out student successes and slip-ups, I think it is a great way to get to educate them… But as usual, I digress. The point of considering the wisdom in writing about one’s profession – or perhaps specific job – on line is simply because I really want to talk about my job. In public. Out loud. And honestly. And frankly, it might get me in a lot of trouble.

I am just not sure I care anymore.

I work in a huge (really, HUGE) comprehensive high school in the East Bay. That should be about enough for anyone with a clue to work out exactly what school I am taking about. And if it is not, there is enough of an internet footprint linking me and my work together already – my students complete their weekly current events via KQED, using Twitter, and their major senior project is produced on-line, this year, even using WordPress. So, anonymity and secrecy are both out of the question. Therefore, in speaking about my professional opinions and such, it seems important to explicitly state that “these views are mine” and are most certainly not approved of or sanctioned by my employer – though I hold out hope that there could be some agreement in ideology…. And anyhow, I am thinking, right this minute, about much more global issues than site-specific issues (though there are many.) And so it begins. I want to talk about my “profession” – my job that somehow turned into a 20-year career, and I want to talk about what seems wrong with it and what might be salvageable. I want to talk about working in public education, providing a service that we all (to some degree) believe is a basic human right, and working in a system absent any sort of direct personal incentive, and fighting to prove to a society that long ago began to decry, diminish, devalue, and defame intellectual activity that education for the precise purpose of being educated is important… And to have a chance to suggest that we might not be totally screwed.

Though it sure feels like that a lot of the time.

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