Pet “Grieves”: What good teachers worry about
One of my all-time least favorite school reform questions is “If you’re a good teacher, what do you have to worry about?” Without fail, when I or anyone else mentions our discomfort with getting rid of due process, or with weakening unions, etc., someone always asks this question. I understand that not everyone has experience working within school systems (especially unethical ones), and so it seems illogical that reforms intended to improve accountability, etc. should bother those of us who have done nothing wrong.
But the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” myth is just as false in education as it is in other aspects of life. There’s a reason why we have a justice system that includes due process before the law, predicated on the presumption of innocence: being innocent doesn’t mean you will never face inaccurate, unfair, or unethical behavior.
So, in an attempt to start laying these kinds of comments to rest, I give you the “Pet Grieves” series. These are the kinds of situations that illustrate why teachers feel so nervous about folks trying to take away our rights. Those of us who behave professionally and responsibly are not interested in creating a situation where we can safely get away with chatting on Facebook during the school day. Rather, we know all too well the kinds of sticky situations school personnel find themselves in, that can lead to the loss or dismissal of great educators. The public needs to know them too, so that they can make informed decisions about just what–and whom— they’re willing to sacrifice in the name of “reform.”
Pet Grieve #1: Being asked to lie
Journalist Pamela Kripke is spending the year as a teacher, and blogging about it on the Huffington Post. Recently, she shared the story of her first (apparently ongoing) grievance, occasioned by an administrator who retaliates against her when she refuses to change students’ grades from failing to passing (smells like something that might have happened in DC recently…).
The day after I submit grades for the first marking period of the year, I get a visit from the assistant principal. She walks into my classroom carrying a huge stack of forms.
“You’re going to have to change all of the failing grades to passing,” she says, slapping the papers on my desk.
Dallas Independent School District, Grade Correction Form, the heading reads.
“What?” I ask.
“You’re going to have to change the grades. Too many failed.”
I had heard that kids were promoted without proper skills, but I hadn’t expected to see the sham up close, and so soon. I hadn’t expected to be ordered to participate in it…
Soon after I arrived on campus, I was instructed to give a test worth 15 percent of the grade and a project worth 20. I could not give a test after just two and a half weeks. It would take the students, seventh-graders, about six to settle down. I suggest some other means of evaluation, or even no evaluation. It was not the kids’ fault that six people taught the class during those first six weeks. They could have figured a rabbit would show up next. No, I am told firmly, I will have to give the test and project.
I teach what I can. I write a test. It’s pretty easy, and I prepare the kids for it for days. Three-quarters of them fail.
The project is something the department head creates, and the rest of us have to duplicate it. Write about someone who is important in your life and draw pictures, paste photographs, show and tell. I pare the assignment down to one paragraph, and one photo, if at all possible. I notice that there are packages of colored construction paper and markers in a cabinet, so I hand them out. I devote two days of class to the very important project. Of my 64 students, 14 turn in the assignment. I give the students three extra days to complete it, right up to the minute that grades are due in the computer. I get 14, that’s it.
“Ms. Johnson,” I say, outraged. “I gave the required assignments, and they failed.”
“It doesn’t matter. When in doubt, just give them the 70. It’s so much easier,” she says, smiling. “Here are the forms. Get them to me by Friday.”
I hear from loads of teachers who are pressured to change grades, against their better judgment. Whether it’s a principal who is concerned about the appearance of too much failure, or a powerful parent who wants to make sure their little darling (who’s more interested in snowboarding and video games than Algebra) can get into Harvard, teachers are frequently asked to give grades students haven’t truly earned.
As this principal notes, yes, it is easier to go along with the sham– it spares her the difficulty of explaining high failure rates to her superiors, who probably aren’t interested in hearing about the string of substitutes students have endured, or the poverty of their home lives, etc. (“No excuses,” they say…) Too many teachers will eventually bend to this kind of pressure, because they’d rather do the slightly unethical thing than risk losing certain privileges (promotions, better materials, etc.) or receive a retaliatory negative evaluation (or a non-renewal, if they’re still probationary). It’s also very easy to justify it– “Well, this isn’t perfect, but at least I’m still here for my students…”
But how does it serve students for the adults in their lives to pretend they’ve earned things they really haven’t? After all, will their future bosses tolerate them not doing their work, and just pretend they did something they didn’t? Will their future spouses or children accept them shrugging off their responsibilities? Probably not. School is supposed to help students in the rest of their lives, which means in addition to academics, they’re supposed to be developing productive traits and habits–like responsibility, time management, and so forth. Ideally, a good teacher would not sacrifice such lessons (or dilute the credibility of all grades) for the appearance of success, or to appease more powerful people.
But we’re asked to anyway. And when that happens, it’s important to be able to appeal to some kind of process in order to defend ourselves, our livelihoods, and our students.