Sunday, December 5, 2021

Teachers Are Not a Monolith—Those Who Excel Should Be Celebrated

Editor’s note: The author of this piece asked to remain anonymous and we obliged.

During my first three months teaching at a prominent high school located outside of New York City, the local teachers union has sent multiple emails that undermine excellence in the profession for which I have worked hard to prepare over the last several years. The emails, and the messages therein, are disheartening to a young teacher, and detrimental to the school community.

A few months ago, a list of unidentified recipients received an email from the president of the school’s teachers union. The email derided an attempt by the district to name some teachers as “star teachers.” In the email, the union president described the program as “insulting and deprofessionalizing,” and implied that labeling some teachers as “stars” made other teachers seem like “bit players.” Of course, recognizing individuals for their stellar performance does not simultaneously ignore the hard work of others, and it certainly does not devalue it. In fact, as teachers, we use this very same strategy of recognition in our classrooms every day. We celebrate students that spend an extra 30 minutes on a project, we give positive shoutouts to students who follow our directions, and we call parents and send positive emails to students to acknowledge and encourage their hard work. And, in order for this recognition to be meaningful, we don’t give it to every student all the time. To do so would be disingenuous; not all of our students are superstars all the time. 

To fight against a strategy that we use within our own classrooms, and to characterize a program of recognition as one that does just the opposite, infantilizes our profession and the skill and commitment it requires. As teachers, many of our decisions are made at the margin. We can choose to spend an extra 45 minutes giving feedback on a writing assignment, or we can take 5 minutes to quickly give students grades between 75% and 95% and call it a night. We can spend a Sunday evening mapping out lessons for the week ahead, or we can throw together lessons the night before each school day. We all know educators who predominantly choose the former options, and we also know teachers that choose the latter. These choices make a difference, and it is incorrect to contend that all teachers make identical decisions.

Beyond the choices that teachers make outside their classrooms, it seems plain that not all teachers teach as effectively as others. Just as there are mediocre professionals in every field, stunted by poor preparation or refusing to improve through continuing preparation, there are teachers who lack particular skills or need to grow in certain areas. It seems uncontroversial to state that some educators teach a higher percentage of effective lessons than others. In the same vein, some teachers are able to encourage greater rates of participation or have more success growing students’ skills. It seems futile for the union to try to wrestle with reality and deny that some teachers are better than others. And, if they are, it seems contrary to our own methods to withhold recognition of talented teachers.

One of the problems of course, is the difficulty of evaluating teachers and deciding who gets the “gold star.” However, the challenge of overcoming the subjective aspects of a teacher’s evaluation should by no means dissuade us from discovering a way to overcome that subjectivity. In the last week, we received another email from the Union that told teachers to resist any form of formal, written evaluation by administrators. “All staff must be observed in person,” the email stated. The problem, of course, is that we have been teaching remotely for three months, and we have no plans to return to traditional, in-person instruction any time soon. All the while, children sign on to our Zoom sessions, just as deserving of a high quality education behind their screens as they were when they sat before us in the classroom. Shouldn’t professional administrators have the ability to observe the quality of our lessons? Don’t parents have the right to ensure that their children are still learning? Shouldn’t teachers want to be observed, so that they can make any necessary changes and adapt to remote teaching in the best way possible? Rather than be the wrong time to evaluate teachers, wouldn’t this be the perfect time, when our children are suffering in so many other ways?

To come full circle, it’s important to consider the ramifications of a union that simultaneously advocates against recognizing high quality teaching and the ability to observe and identify teaching effectiveness. Earlier, I mentioned the idea that the nature of our profession necessitates we make decisions at the margin; we can choose to do x, or we can choose to do a little bit less than x, or we can probably even choose to do y. In an environment without accountability, without high standards, or without the ability to establish standards and grade teachers against them, how can we sit back and expect that all educators will make the correct decisions, time and time again? What would you do, if you were in your 18th year of teaching English and had 80 essays to grade. Would you spend four hours grading in order to give each student detailed feedback? Would you spend two hours? One? How might your decision change if your supervisor asked you what choice you made, or if they offered to sit down and help you give more actionable feedback?

What does a student do, when given the choice between actually reading a book and looking at Sparknotes, as long as no one will know? How does a data analyst behave, if his boss never monitors his work. Does an athlete do as many reps without a trainer there to support and cheer her on? 

If we would like our administrators and the community to acknowledge the humanity of our profession, and the inherent subjectivity of it, then we must be willing to also acknowledge the ways human nature influences our profession. As educators, we know that our students do not enter our classrooms with equal skills, but we know that high standards impel our students to constantly improve and do their best. We know that consistent feedback helps our students grow, and we know that our increased engagement with their work catalyzes their desire to do so. We know that recognizing the students who have begun to shine inspires others to do the same. Why would these constants fail to hold true for teachers? To what mediocrity do we bind our profession if we continue to contend that they do not.?

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