Tag Archives: teacherlove

Best writing teacher ever

Now that I’ve spent the week complaining about writing curriculum in schools, it’s time to give a shout-out to my best writing teacher ever. It could well be my ability to write with confidence came from him.

Now what’s funny is that he wasn’t a writing teacher. He was my seventh grade social studies teacher. But here’s what he did: he started off every class period with a ten-minute freewrite. It was graded — by quantity, not by content. He came around and looked at our journal entries and gave us a check, check-minus, or a check-plus. But he made a special point that he didn’t read what we had written, which meant we could write whatever we wanted.

I loved it. I wrote snippets of stories, complaints about being tired or hungry, and who knows what all.

Now, that didn’t turn me into a writer. I’ve always loved to write stories, from early elementary school to now, and I would have done it even without that teacher’s help. But would I have written as freely?

I don’t even remember that teacher’s name, but he sure did me a favor. Thank you, teacher.

Don’t punish the teachers . . .

Across the country, school districts are implementing something called “value-added measures” in determining teacher bonuses, evaluations, and in the case of Washington D.C., even their jobs. “Value-added” means that teachers are judged based on student performance on standardized tests. They’re touted as “objective” even if “not perfect” (a euphemism for “not accurate.”)

How not accurate?

Twenty-five to thirty-five percent, according to this Washington Post article “Study: Error rates high when student test scores used to evaluate teachers” by Valerie Strauss, July 29th, 2010.

Here in Seattle, the school superintendent tried to implement a Washington DC-style policy that would let her fire teachers based on a value-added measure. The teacher’s union fought back hard, but remnants of it are still in the labor contract. I’ll be keeping my eye out to see what the district does. As a parent, I support my kids’ teachers!

Good Teacher, Bad Teacher

Good Teacher, Bad Teacher

When I first had children I had a rude awakening: messages about “bad mothers” were everywhere. If you didn’t nurse, you were a bad mother. If you let your baby “cry it out”, you were a bad mother. If you ran out of diapers and took your baby to the grocery store buck naked (yep, I did that), you were a bad mother.

Of course, there were plenty of messages about “good mothers.” But many of them were conditional on certain behaviors. Good mothers attend to their babies when they cry, never yell at their babies, don’t keep their babies cooped up in carseats all day, don’t let their babies sleep on their stomachs. This is all good advice, but it’s absolutely impossible to follow perfectly, which leads new mothers to wonder: am I a good mother or a bad mother?

Fortunately, not everybody expects perfection from mothers. Pediatrician Winnicot pioneered the concept of a “good enough” mother. She is an “ordinary devoted mother” who attends to their children most of the time, but she leaves them to fend for themselves sometimes. She might slip up and yell, but then she takes a step back and apologizes, and she tries to do it better next time. As it turns out, children actually benefit when mothers and fathers make mistakes, because they learn to rely on their own resources. They learn to cope in an imperfect world.

Now, in the media, there is a lot of talk about “bad teachers” in our K-12 school system. Just as I take affront with the concept of “bad mothers” (and “bad children,” for that matter), I am offended by the concept of “bad teachers.”

Don’t get me wrong. There are some teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom — sexual offenders, adults who otherwise abuse children, and teachers who don’t care or who gave up.

But these teachers are vastly outnumbered by good teachers – who, unfortunately, often get dissed right along with the bad ones. When people start talking about “bad teachers,” sometimes they’re talking about people who are or could become good teachers. In the first five years on the job, teachers are still learning their trade. They make mistakes. The first year, especially, is a hard one. I learned that when I taught at the college level. My first quarter, I agonized over all the things I was doing wrong, but I also had a friend who was more experienced and helped me put it in perspective.

“It’s a dirty secret and nobody likes to talk about it,” she said. “But the first year, everybody’s a crappy teacher. Just don’t tell your students you’re new, or they’ll eat you alive.”

Was I a “bad teacher” then? One of my students, who cussed me out, thought so.

Or was I a “good enough” teacher – that is, a teacher who made some mistakes? I learned from them, and after some experience and professional development, I got better. Some students called me a “good teacher” or even “one of my best” teachers. Some learned a lot, and others didn’t learn anything at all.

Was I a “good teacher”? Or was I a “good enough” teacher? How could anybody know? And on what basis could anybody make that decision? I got good course evaluation ratings – but not as good as the teacher who neglected to stop his students from plagiarizing.

Although it’s important to have high expectations of teachers, it’s equally important to make sure they’re reasonable. Not everybody will win the “Teacher of the Year” award. But the vast majority of teachers are good – or good enough. Their kids learn. They take professional development courses and continue to improve their teaching. They’re the ordinary, devoted teachers who make a positive impact.

But when the media obsesses over bad teachers, to the point of ignoring the vast majority of good teachers, it hurts teachers overall.

Even worse, good teachers run the risk of losing their jobs. This focus on bad teachers is also paired with an attack on teacher seniority, so that the concepts of “bad teacher” and “senior teacher” have been getting muddled together. But most experienced teachers do better than new ones – so if the experienced teachers lose their jobs, our schools will be left with lower teaching quality overall. This is bad for our schools, bad for our teachers, and bad for our children.

My kids have excellent teachers this year, and I’m glad of it. But I also understand that some years won’t be like that. Some years, the teaching quality will go down a little. My kids might learn less academically, but they might learn better how to cope in an imperfect world.

And that’s plenty good enough for me.

Billionaires Vs. The Teachers’ Unions

With the current funding crisis, billionaires in the United States have been donating millions and millions of dollars to education. That’s good, right?

Not really. Their money comes with strings attached. Billionaires have a reform agenda that most people would not support if they knew the full agenda. They have been pushing it aggressively within the last few years, not only at the federal and state levels but also at the levels of individual school districts and local grassroots groups.

This post takes an in-depth look at one small example of how the billionaire reform agenda has affected local education policies in Seattle by showing how billionaires Fordham, Gates, and Broad influenced the local teacher contract negotiations. Why look at local politics? Because that’s where parents and teachers have the strongest voice, and if we can see what’s happening, we can make a difference.

In Seattle, one key link between the billionaires and the Seattle School District is the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a nonpartisan research and advocacy group committed to restructuring the teaching profession. Key funders include billionaires Fordham, Gates, and Broad.

Their “About Us” Web page gives a pretty clear idea of the goals of NCTQ, if you look past the fancy language. They want to make “significant reform in how we recruit, prepare, retain, and compensate teachers.”

Was the NCTQ planning to listen to teachers’ voices in making these reforms? Not so much. According to the “About Us” page, they were founded “to provide an alternative national voice to existing teacher organizations.” The NCTQ follows the lead of the Fordham Institute in describing teachers as “human capital.” You don’t listen to capital; you spend it.

Over the years, the NCTQ has collected in-depth information of collective bargaining agreements, including a database of one hundred agreements from all fifty states. It has an analysis of how collective bargaining agreements and state law work together to shape policy. And it is using this information to help enact the reforms it wants.

During the Seattle teacher contract recommendations, the NCTQ made recommendations to the district. Before negotiations began, it produced a report called “Human Capital in Seattle Public Schools.” This report was funded by the Gates Foundation and by an organization called The Alliance for Education, which is funded by billionaires Gates and Broad. It called for changes such as establishing merit pay, halting salary increases after teachers become certified, ending certain seniority privileges, increasing teachers’ work hours, evaluating teachers more strictly, making it harder for teachers to become certified, and using the results of student standardized tests to evaluate teachers and identify the “high performing” and “low performing” teachers.

This last point was most controversial for teachers. Can the results of student standardized tests accurately measure teacher performance? Education research says no, it does not. But education reformers badly want a number to measure performance, something that can be called an objective measurement, and something that can be used as a factor in layoffs and firings.

During contract negotiations, the NCTQ came out with a second report that analyzed the district and union proposals and giving its own recommendations. It listed them as either “important” or “must haves.”

“Must-haves” included:

  • Ending a “super-seniority” policy of factoring seniority into teaching assignments – which means that senior teachers can be laid off more easily
  • Establishing a system of merit pay
  • Using the results of student standardized tests to evaluate teachers

Curiously, in the final contract, the NCTQ got all of its “must-haves.” Why? Partly because it caught teachers and parents unaware and unprepared to make an effective resistance, and partly because the billionaire influence was hidden.

This teacher contract was only one step along the road to education reform for NCTQ and billionaires like Fordham, Gates, and Broad. State law has also advanced the billionaire reform agenda, and we can expect further changes to state law in the upcoming legislative session. This is an explicit goal of the NCTQ, as stated in its article “Invisible Ink in Teacher Contracts.”

This is only one small example of how billionaires have shaped education reform in Seattle. As the diagrams in the Seattleducation2010 blog post “The Lines of Influence in Education Reform” shows, billionaire money has gone to the League of Education Voters; to the Seattle school superintendent; to grassroots groups such as Alliance for Education and Stand for Children; to marketing firms; and to charter schools.

The good news is that if we can watch where reform efforts are coming from, we can start to make an important distinction between the changes that billionaires are advocating and the changes that parents, teachers, and students actually want. We can make an important distinction between billionaire-funded grassroots groups and true bottom-up grassroots groups. And then we can speak up.

Because if it’s a choice between the billionaires and the teachers, I’m going with the teachers.

Why teachers’ unions matter

Teachers’ unions have been getting bad press in the media in the past few years. The media has blamed them for protecting “bad” teachers and ignored their contribution to the stability and quality of our public education system. So what do teachers’ unions do and why does it matter?

If you went to public school, think back to all the good teachers you had. Some of them were probably new, but most had probably been in the education system for a while. During the first difficult year, teachers are still learning the ropes and tend to make all sorts of mistakes. It takes practice before teachers can even get kids to behave. After a couple of years, when good teachers have hit their stride, they make it look so easy.

Once good teachers have mastered their profession, what should school districts do – keep them or fire them? Keep them, of course. But there’s a financial incentive to fire them or lay them off. And that’s where teachers’ unions come in.

Teachers’ unions protect the jobs of our quality, experienced teachers through seniority. Labor contracts and state law specify that when layoffs happen, the teachers with the most seniority are the last ones to be laid off. This means that teachers can go into teaching as a profession, suffering through the first difficult years with the promise of a stable job later on. And this means that our schools will be filled with more experienced teachers, who can collaborate with one another in the long term and build a true school community.

Lately, the media been attacking seniority, ignoring its benefits and focusing on the “bad” teachers that seniority rules protect. It is certainly true that some teachers have been in the profession too long. But it’s not because of seniority rules. Labor contracts actually do have provisions for teachers to be put on probation and let go. Often it’s the principal or school district officials who protect the jobs of teachers who are not capable of doing their jobs.

Teachers’ unions protect the quality of our education in other ways too. Unions negotiate pay, medical insurance, retirement, and sick days – all the things that make teaching a more attractive job. Without these protections, who would enter the profession? The most qualified – or the most desperate?

And teachers’ unions also negotiate mentoring and professional development. These things can actually turn a “bad teacher” into a “good” one. Teaching isn’t a job you can just jump into – it is a profession with a steep learning curve, and teachers need all the help they can get.

So let’s stop taking teachers’ unions for granted. We owe teachers an enormous debt for the time and energy they put into our educations and our children’s educations. It’s time to pay it back.

Reflections on the Seattle teacher contract negotiations

Many Seattle teachers were outraged when the school superintendent made an 11th hour change to the labor contract that was being negotiated between teachers and the district. The superintendent added a proposal called SERVE, which would dramatically increase student testing, monopolize the school library for nine weeks out of the school year, and tie teacher evaluations to the student tests. Tying teacher evaluations to the results of student tests has become popular across the nation, but there’s no evidence that it works, and mounting evidence that it does real harm to teachers, students, and schools.

I got involved in parent support of teachers, and I feel good about my contribution, but I could have done more if it hadn’t been so last-minute, or if we already had a grassroots organization of parents in support of teachers.

The union and district reached a tentative agreement on Wednesday September 1st, about twenty-four hours before teachers had to vote on it. This didn’t give teachers enough time to give it a good, hard look before they voted. On Thursday, at the union’s general meeting, many teachers brought strong opposition to the contract. The majority, however, voted to accept it. Was it because they liked it? I doubt it. More likely, they made the best of a bad situation.

The sticking point of tying teacher evaluations to student test scores is still in there. It’s much weaker than the original proposal, though, and that’s a victory for teachers, students, and parents alike.

Going forward, there is a real need for parents to pay closer attention to what is going on at the district level. The media has made a big noisy fuss about teacher accountability, but we need to hold the district accountable too.

There’s also a real need for us to pay closer attention to the “failing schools.” What are the actual problems they face? And in what ways are they succeeding?

Finally, Seattle needs to take a good hard look at institutional racism and the split between North Seattle schools and South Seattle schools. Decades of work to integrate schools have been slowly but surely eroded over the last few years, and the result is both a lack of resources going to South Seattle schools and a lack of connection between North and South parents.

I’m putting some thought into what I can contribute. Overall, we need more grassroots efforts. And we need to add ethics to this conversation. We need to get back to the goal of educating every student. The district has an ethical responsibility to intervene with every student who hasn’t learned to read by third grade. These students need mentors and coaches and textbooks and research-based education and small classes. How do we make that happen?

Here’s what one Florida teacher has to say about the realities of teaching:


Teachers and district close to an agreement?

It looks like the teachers and the district are close to an agreement. I hope it’s a good one!

In other news, the Washington Post has an article about a study that finds the evaluation method described in the SERVE proposal to be ineffective:


“Student standardized tests are not reliable indicators of how effective the teacher is in the classroom, not even with the addition of new ‘value added’ methods, according to a study released today. It calls on policymakers and educators to stop using test scores as a central factor in holding teachers accountable.”

I’m disappointed in the weaselly language of “as a central factor,” though. If they’re not reliable, they shouldn’t be used at all. Here’s why:

Suppose teacher Alice and teacher Bob have an evaluation that is dictated 10% by the results of their student tests. In all other measures, they come out even, but Alice’s student tests are better (or improve more in the course of the school year). She gets merit pay and Bob doesn’t. Is that fair? Layoffs happen, and Alice gets to keep her job and Bob gets laid off. Is that fair?