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Whatever happened to promoting student ownership & responsibility?

November 21, 2010
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This past Friday, I heard from two teachers who’d experienced some form of professional rebuke for their stances on student responsibility. The first teacher received a lower score on his evaluation, while the second almost faced serious disciplinary action for writing and sending a (brave and thoughtful, IMO) e-mail. Despite their distance from each other (the first teacher works in Washington, DC, while the other teaches here in Colorado), both experienced the negative impact of an educational culture that places a disproportionate amount of responsibility on the teacher, instead of encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning and behavioral choices– and instead of encouraging all participants in the school system to look at how the dysfunctional systems in which they participate reinforce counterproductive behavior.

The first is a conversation had via text message; the second is a longer message that was forwarded to me via e-mail. Names have been removed to protect the teachers from retaliation. Sincerest thanks to both of them for being willing to share their experiences.

DCPS Teacher: “My observation score was lowered because ‘the kids were doing too much and you were just facilitating.'”

Me: Heaven forbid you should ascribe to best practice and have students own their own learning! That is shameful on [the administrator's] part. You rock.”

DCPST: “It was a great lesson. Even my two ED [emotionally disturbed] students were on task…they were working together! We need some kind of bonus points system”

Me: “Totally!”

DCPST: “IMPACT doesn’t really allow for anything but teacher directed instruction. If you aren’t in front talking, they can’t check off all your little boxes.”

Me: “That is awful. Undermining best practice.”

DCPST: “I took a mental health day today.”

Me: “Good for you. I hate what this ed paradigm is doing to teachers & kids.”

DCPST:Banking model

Me: “Exactly”

Dear Staff,

I am writing in response to the meeting that took place on Friday morning. I was unable to be there and for that I am sorry. I hope that some good can come out of what was said, as it was retold to me as difficult, frustrating, and intense. I feel the need to share my thoughts to those of you who have a moment to read on.

My family is full of educators, so I feel like I have been surrounded by school systems and educational philosophies my entire life. I know that [this school] is one of the most dysfunctional schools I have ever seen, but also a school that is full of some of the most talented teachers around. I have learned so much from you all in the last few years. However, I believe the systems of our school are broken and I think that was put in place long before I arrived. We have to look at the past in order to better understand the future.

First of all, I was extremely offended at the last PD day when [district] leaders said that the achievement gap is in existence because we have lower expectations for our students of color. I was also offended by the ancient film we were asked to watch, because I do not see the relevance it has to where we are or where we need to go as a building. I believe that the gap exists because of the lack of value in education by some of our students and parents. The truth is, if you choose to learn, are given clear expectations, have an understanding of meaningful consequences beforehand, and are held accountable, change, growth and achievement are possible. I cannot get inside the heads of my students and change that value for them. They have to choose that for themselves. All I can do is model for them what a good human being acts like, communicate to them that education is the only way they can change their circumstances, and positively reinforce the good choices they make. We know that behavior is the key. Discipline before instruction.

I am also offended at the assertion that the problem lies in a lack of relationship between teachers and students. You cannot force relationships on people who do not want them, regardless of their age. Relationships, in my view, are built upon mutual respect. It is that lack of mutuality that makes teaching at [this school] such a challenge. So we try, and we succeed more than we fail, and I leave each day praying that someday somewhere the kids who are not learning will learn to respect themselves enough to keep the rocks on the playground and their fists to their sides. And I hope that through the course of their lives people like you and I will help them to realize there is another way to solve problems. But these red zone kids are human beings, who come from difficult places, as are we. I say that because at some point one has to choose to better themselves, and realize that no behavior plan is the ticket. We have to teach our kids to be responsible for their learning, responsible for their choices, and responsible for the positive and negative consequences that will result. However, I know that my voice is not always the loudest one they hear, and their parents, friends, and other influences may win the battle I attempt to fight. Because I am just one.

Many may think that because I am a white male in America, I have it easy. None of us do. I too am a minority and have felt more judgment within the school environment than anywhere else. It is not where we come from but where we choose to end up, paired with the choices we make to get there. That’s what I try to teach my 5th graders. For each day is the first day of the rest of your life.

The heart of a successful school is its leaders. In my 4th year of teaching, I have now worked for 5 administrators. This is in my view the core of the problem regarding how our school functions. Too many leadership changes in such a short time period brings inconsistency, which is not good for a staff, which means it is also not good for our students.

I am not trying to offend anyone, but we have to look at the things that are broken. Referring a student for poor choices, and then watching them walk back into your room and smile, announcing to the class that “they did not get in trouble” has been a far too regular occurrence in this school. I believe that this school has enabled students to stay the same. I also believe that it is more fun to come to school and wreak havoc as opposed to doing hard work. I sometimes wonder if some of the students I have had over the years view school as an interruption to their playing of video games. I know that [the school's administrators] have very difficult jobs, but so do the rest of us.

I am going out on a limb here, but I was once involved long-term with a man who I believe is the best school psychologist in the state. His advice was to ask myself if the behavior of some of our students is not changing, where we are breaking down in curtailing it? His student population is similar to ours, and it was his advice and ideas that enabled me to better provide interventions for students with autism, Tourette’s, anger management, and poor self-esteem. In fact, when I would tell him of what I was dealing with here, he would joke how the “mighty [school district] is falling.” If we give lollipops to red zone kids for having a decent day, meaning meeting the expectation, what are we giving to the kids who exceed it? Not enough.

Let us truly have courageous conversations. Let us realize that broken systems take a long time to fix, and that we are in a process. Let us be aware that the problem is big, and cannot be surmounted by labeling it as only one thing. It is a bit like our health care system. Huge. Complicated. Let us allow it to be so and not have unrealistic changes be the goal. Let us set a timeline, narrow objectives with achievable goals measured by assessments. Let us have hope, not divisiveness. I know a principal in [this district] that turned a school around that did not make AYP 2 years in a row. She did it through alignment, compromise, a listening ear, clear expectations, and accountability. Sounds a bit like good teaching, doesn’t it?

If you made it this far, thanks for reading and listening to my thoughts. Brevity has never been a strength of mine. I look forward to working with you all in order to enable our students to succeed.

With hope and thought,

[Thoughtful Teacher]

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2010 3:41 pm

    Hmmmm…. I’m not sure the biggest problem with IMPACT is so much the design of the rubric (although there are definite problems there), but rather the way it’s being used to punish and reward teachers. It’s assumed that rubrics equal objectivity (which is obviously a joke) and that student test scores are reliable indicators of teacher effectiveness. I scored highly on two IMPACT evaluations in which I was not observed giving any direct instruction at all. While I completely disagree with the general direction DCPS is taking (obviously), but I do think that providing clear expectations based in contemporary research is useful.

    Please go to the following link to check out the rubrics and make your own decision:

    http://dcps.dc.gov/portal/site/DCPS/menuitem.3d9831ab117a6a932c69621014f62010/?vgnextoid=399b39d072d56210VgnVCM1000007e6f0201RCRD&vgnextfmt=default

    • November 21, 2010 4:48 pm

      I can see that. Ultimately, with all of these evaluation systems, it’s not so much the design of the system as the people using it that makes the difference. That’s why it’s so important to have qualified evaluators (and by qualified, I mean trained observers. In the case of administrators — if their observation has the most weight– this person should be an educator and instructional leader, not a fly-by-night paper-pusher!), and a culture of accountability for all– not just teachers. Otherwise, you have situations like these, where a silly person who clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about can blemish a good teacher’s record.

      • November 21, 2010 7:38 pm

        Absolutely! Weird how I usually agree with people who have experience in the classroom. In NYC, I’ve heard a few people refer to “fly-by-night paper-pusher” as “microwave administrators” – it’s my new favorite…

  2. Frederika permalink
    November 21, 2010 7:38 pm

    Boy, oh boy. This post would resonate so clearly with many of my colleagues. You have IMPACT, we have DPAS–Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System. It is a carefully crafted and robust evaluation system, but it will never reach its potential or do the job fairly for which it is intended because the state fails in their responsibility to fully and thoroughly train and retrain administrators in using an otherwise valuable tool. In a state with only 181 schools, they should be able to really get our admins up to speed and right on target to make this a reliable observation and evaluation instrument. Its usefulness and validity are compromised by allowing individual interpretations to not only exist but flourish.

    Teachers do progress monitoring on their students, but no one does the same for the admins. Accountability is a dream.

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