Editor’s note: Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.
I split my 18-years of teaching between public and private schools (three schools and close to nine years in both “worlds”). Twenty years ago I had the chance to support and study the 1990 alternative licensure law in Colorado that welcomed new folks into the teaching profession, often without taking the usual education courses; this more flexible process felt similar to the way many of us had been hired in our first jobs in private schools. I hoped it would be one of many approaches that had worked well for independent schools and that might be adopted by public education.
In Another View #68, “A skeptic on SB 191 takes a closer look” (Sept. 26, 2010), I raised a few concerns about the new law. Here are two more, in which I put on my private school hat—and ask those hammering out the details of and implementing the Educator Effectiveness legislation, please keep these points in mind.
And to assure you this is more than theoretical, I know an incredibly talented young public school teacher who might move to a private school next year. So that this teacher continues to work with young people, I celebrate such a change. However, it will be public education’s loss. I ask that we keep such gifted educators in mind as we take our next steps to put SB 191 in place.
We want public education to attract wonderful teachers. Ask a number of terrific teachers in private schools if they would consider switching. In most cases the pay in public schools is greater. But in my experience a far majority who have found a good place to teach would not be tempted. Yes, you’ll often hear: I don’t want that kind of class size or teacher-load, or the frequent discipline issues I hear about. It would keep me from being the teacher I want to be. I am aware this can seem snooty, even a bit selfish. You might say you have little patience for such an attitude. OK, but it goes further. Please bear with me.
Private school teachers will also say they enjoy the freedom to develop and teach the curriculum that they think best serves their students, without interference from the state, or the district—or from their own principal, who feels so pressured by test scores that the school begins to lose its way, to forget its mission.
In fact, a large percentage of independent school educators are devoted to their school in large part because of their belief in its mission—which will not change with a new governor, legislature, or superintendent. And they are glad to be in a school environment where families and students are there by choice. It is hard to overstate the many intangible benefits this produces.
OK, you say, but what does this have to do with SB 191? How would implementing this bill affect a 22-year-old’s decision about whether to seek work in a public or private school?
If Colorado fails to implement SB 191 wisely, I believe it will be one more roadblock to attracting bright, committed folks to teach in public schools.
The new attention given to teacher evaluation may put the cart before the horse. Improving who enters the profession will pay far more dividends down the road than how we evaluate that six or fifteen-year veteran. If we want people with the intellect, skills, and values that will make a powerful difference for students for many years to come, we need to expand—not tighten—the alternative licensure path, and we need schools of education to undergo huge changes—or go out of business.
The bright, motivated learner who has succeeded in some of our strongest liberal arts school entering the classroom through Teach for America and The New Teacher Project will certainly need mentoring and evaluation. But who he or she is as a person at age 22 is ultimately more important than what checklist an administrator uses to see if a teacher is doing the job.
“How do we attract the best teachers?” That was the question posed by David Gregory, host of Meet the Press, to Bruce Stewart, former head of Sidwell Friends (the private school the Obama children attend in Washington), when NBC devoted a week to education reform issues last fall. Can we bring “the best and the brightest” into teaching? Stewart’s response:
“When I began teaching in the ’60s, we had that population of people. And since then, because greater opportunities have opened up for young women and for minorities, there’s been a great brain drain from American schools. I think we want to get those people back. If you look at Singapore, look at Finland, the reason they consistently are testing their population of students in the top levels of international exams, it’s the quality of their teaching force. They all come from the top third of their colleges, universities. In the United States, our tendency today is to have that pool of teachers coming from the bottom third of college and universities and from the bottom third of those classes. That’s something we need to reverse and to change.”
I never minded the extensive application process at a good private school, which in one case—once I was one of their final candidates—included coming for a day, teaching a class, visiting other classes, meeting with the principal, dean, and department chair, having lunch with potential colleagues—being sized up by everybody, it seemed. Quite a number of folks had read my file, had specific questions to ask about my past teaching; it was clear the school had talked with previous principals and employers. I respected the time and care that went into the process. This was the judgment stage, the critical determination if I was likely to be a good teacher in this setting, a good member of their team.
Once hired, there was a level of trust and respect that told me: you’re one of us. Yes, I was observed and evaluated. It was not a job forever—I wasn’t vetted for a life-time job on the Supreme Court! But I never felt that the real “judgment stage” had now begun.
Once SB 191 is in place, will teachers entering our public schools be given this vote of confidence? Or will it seem that the evaluation process is based on mistrust—we really aren’t sure about you, we can’t assume we have hired well, so we now need to supervise and micromanage in a way that –well, sorry if you find this demeaning, but this is what the law demands!
Please forgive the analogy to the automobile industry—two weeks after I wrote how upsetting it is to be treated like we’re on an assembly line and we can be MORE PRODUCTIVE if we have LARGER CLASSES! But take Toyota and the huge expense and damage to its reputation with all the recalls this past year. The “new” Toyota insists it will care about “quality control” from day one. It sure would seem cost effective!
In education, it would be a step backwards if we start with the assumption that our teacher training programs produce a defective product, and therefore we aren’t sure we want this “car” on the road. (Yes, this introduces legitimate questions about our schools of education and teacher preparation—but that is a separate issue.) Won’t it be less costly, and more responsible, to hire—in two stages: first, with great care, but then, with real confidence in the new person we bring in–ready to roll?
A warning then. Let’s not create a system that assumes we hire with considerable indifference and then get serious about measuring if we have good folks in our classrooms. We will not attract good new teachers to public education if our first message is: we do not trust you!
Cheer them on!
Another reason for my skepticism about this latest obsession with teacher evaluations: In the debate about teaching as a career some are “born” into versus one where you can learn the craft, I lean to the former. Not a popular view if you think we should focus on “Building a Better Teacher,” to borrow a headline from last spring’s New York Times Magazine (March 2, 2010). And sure, we do need to take the teachers we have and provide them with strong professional development, new tools and technology, and evaluations that reveal their shortcomings and new ways to better meet their students’ needs.
And yet many veteran educators like me would say we have known when some people “had it”—and when some did not. Those who, in my view, were “born to teach,” who “had a gift,” were not perfect. Though not universally loved, they were highly respected. On a scale of 1-10, they were 9’s and 10’s. And such men and women were probably there by year 2 or 3 in their careers.
I am thinking of teachers like Jane, Jim, Louise, John, Jack (colleagues, English teachers), Mike (history, fellow baseball coach), another Jane. I think of Kathleen, today a celebrated master teacher, but when she began, 15 years my junior, I sensed she was already a better teacher than I was at age 37. And here in Colorado, I think of many more, including C. and E. and L. and J.
And M, 30 years my junior, also “born” to teach, embodying all the kindness, humor, intellect, passion, and curiosity one could ask for, along with the right degree of goofiness to click well with middle schools students. Several good friends too –and you know who you are. 10’s. Among the best in the profession.
I doubt teacher evaluations would have helped them. Yes, such teachers could help others, and often did—or will. But it would be my hope that exceptional folks like them, who early in their careers demonstrate a special talent, should be rewarded with the appropriate trust and autonomy (which many will insist are bigger incentives than another $10,000). In direct contrast to the recent push to monitor and supervise and judge, I say: Let them close their door! Ask them what they need so the profession, or at least public education, does not lose them. Don’t swamp them with unneeded observations.
I overstate. Yes, of course, keep that door open in another way: administrators and colleagues should visit and enjoy their classes; what they see will assure them, or remind them, of what their students are capable of when focused and challenged. Learn what works from these teachers. Visitors should follow up with meaningful conversations about what they saw; any good teacher is thirsty for another pair of eyes. (I emphasize conversation, as opposed to my recent experience: an email from the administrator who sat in the back and took notes, and merely related what she observed.)
In such discussions no doubt our best teachers will be more self-critical than self-congratulatory, disappointed that they did not do more to compliment the soft-spoken student who made a rare contribution, that the conversation did not go deeper, or that those two students seemed to tune out for five minutes. Two-way discussions, where the gifted teacher asks what the visitor saw, eager to hear another adult’s perspective on L’s focus, if B’s whisperings to his buddy seemed related to the task at hand, if that group of three in back was paying attention—and how else the brief disruption by K could have been handled. Still learning. Teachers of this caliber are proud of their classes and are glad to open their doors; they chew over visitors’ comments—and use them to improve.
But it is not clear this is what SB 191 has in mind. We must not create a system that is condescending to these folks. I hope we see how petty it can feel, for our very best, to have the observer note “needs improvement” on item 24g from a three-page checklist of “skills to demonstrate.”
Nine of the 17 teachers I mentioned above were or are in private schools. Fellows like Jack and Mike found a home and stayed 40 years at Emma Willard and Rice Memorial, respectively. The many administrators who came and went over those years must have known their good fortune to have such educators on their staff. The trust and respect Jack and Mike received surely played a role in their saying: I can teach here. I can have a good life here. I will stay.
As we look ahead 40 years, we’d like such terrific teachers to enter and stay in public education. Let’s make sure we don’t turn better teacher evaluation into unneeded exercises of micromanagement based on mistrust. For if we do, we might drive a number of today’s best young teachers away—and off to teach in private schools.
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