Friday, December 17, 2010

Attitude reflects leadership

National Board Certified teacher, David Cohen, recently left the following comment on my blog.   David is part of a group of accomplished teachers who write a policy blog out in California.   We have been having a conversation about, well, conversation.    We both agree that teacher evaluation systems around the U.S. need some revamping.   The question that we have been exploring, I suppose, is how we communicate and accomplish that goal.  Here is my response to his original comments:

A part of our disagreement, I believe, is that like many of us, I write a local blog in the context of a more national discussion on reform.   Montgomery County, where I teach, has traditionally been considered a rather progressive union (loaded phrase). Our professional growth system is based on the 5 National Board Standards plus a 6th (professionalism). We have a peer evaluation system in place for novice and tenured teachers who receive an unsatisfactory evaluation. However, what this means in theory and practice are often two different things.  In theory, principals refer teachers to the peer evaluation system when the need arises.  In practice, few tenured teachers are given an opportunity to take advantage of the system.   It is viewed as a punishment- and a way of removing teachers- not helping them develop.  Meanwhile, we still continue to utilize a seniority system that does not effectively encourage or reward professional growth.  I feel the pulls of mediocredom every day.  

Now, I can go into my union and suggest subtle changes to the system but unless we can come to agreement that there is a problematic culture in place we're not going to be able to attack the serious issues that are preventing us from moving forward. I've said this before to you, but when there is more incentive to coach football after school than to develop mastery lessons- there exists a problematic culture. That's not to say that after school activities are not an important part of being a teacher- I used to coach myself- and personal relationship building is a crucial part of teaching- however, when coaching is valued more than a quality lesson- something is amiss. How do we encourage teachers to meet regularly, to observe each other, and to think about taking their teaching to an uncomfortable place? It's funny, but the one thing that the Tennessee study on performance pay concluded- of all things- was that teachers in the study were more likely to collaborate:
The only other significant differences were in collaborative activities, with treatment teachers replying that they collaborated more on virtually every measured dimension. 
They wanted to see what was so "good" about teacher x.... even though they didn't really believe that the tests their students took accurately measured how effective a teacher they were.   Now, we can argue over whether "merit pay" is the way to go, but I think there is a more important point here.   When we value quality teaching, we are more likely to take efforts to become quality.  If we have "master" teachers who are paid more, or who are even just recognized as a master without the extra pay- people will be more inclined to look at that teacher and figure out how to become one. You don't learn how to become a teacher when an interloper comes into your class and tells you how you could do it better. You become a better teacher when you reflect about your practice. I think there is no better way to do that than to watch high quality instruction. Unfortunately, I don't know of many places where instructional leaders are in a classroom, let alone in a classroom with an open door policy.

Now- perhaps this doesn't excuse the way I beat the drum on issues of seniority. I've been accused of attacking veteran teachers.   I've been accused of being pompous.  And I see how some may interpret my ideas in this way.   But when you go to a union and ask for change you best not go with a purple feather duster in your hand (mine at home is purple).

That said- I'm often offended by the way my union defends our current professional growth system as a "model system"  to be destroyed by RTTP reforms. The implication is that there is no way to improve our system- which I passionately resent.    We defend, defend, and defend.   If we reflected half as much as we defended we'd be much better off.   Many of the wonderful teachers in my and other buildings agree that seniority is a problem.   However they are not apt to engage in a fight to change.   Do these teachers have a voice?   Or does it take the Rhees and Kleins and Duncans of the world to make that point for us?

So I suppose I'll put away my drum when I feel like we're headed in the right direction.  I admit that may be to my own detriment.   But I will certainly consider my messaging- because I believe in due process- and I believe in professional growth- and I believe in teachers.  And perhaps my drum is beating on the wrong points.

But let me just say this- and perhaps this is my downfall- most of my postings have been reactionary in nature: and attitude reflects leadership.  The lesson might be that I stop reading about my leaders and do more talking to them.

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