Tag Archives: teacher evaluation

Some Thoughts on Teacher Bloggers

First, a Story

A teacher I have come to know over the past year is also a blogger. Let’s call her Allison. Allison is a teacher, a mom to two little boys, a wife, a blossoming tech nerd, and a lover of good wine. Allison maintained a blog that shall remain nameless. Her blog featured humorous but also thoughtful stories about her life as a teacher and a mom. She blogged about things like lessons she found entertaining and hysterical that her students thought were weird (that was one of my favorite posts). Or the ridiculousness of some of the right-to-work policies being touted in our state capitals. Or the realities of being a wife and mother — childbirth, wrangling toddlers, and fostering a positive relationship with her husband. She commiserated and communicated with other parents and teachers in her blog. She cussed a little, too.

I loved her blog. Not just as a researcher who is very interested in teachers and the ways in which they tell their stories using digital media. No, I loved her blog as a person. As someone who used to teach, and misses it. As someone who will someday have kids. As someone who loves some good wry humor now and then.

Note the past tense.

I’m not using the past tense because I no longer love Allison’s blog. I’m using the past tense because recently, Allison had to remove all of her blog content and move to a new online space. Start over. Clean slate. But not in a good way, and not for a good reason.

Allison maintains anonymity in her blogging life. Why? Well, her content is kind of snarky and sarcastic (which is part of why I love it). Also, she doesn’t always talk about teaching — she maintains a different network in her life as a blogger, which she wishes to keep separate from her work as a teacher.

Why else? Probably because, when it comes to being a teacher, there are weird stigmas attached to having a life outside of the school. Teachers are humans? What!? Probably also because it’s getting easier and easier for administrators to find reasons to fire teachers. Probably because, for many reasons, teachers are wary of letting their personal lives come too far into the school zone. Afraid of the vulnerability this poses, afraid of attacks on their livelihoods, on their families, on their healthy frames of mind. Teachers, after all, are already getting attacked on the professional front… why risk allowing that into one’s personal life?

What Happened? One of Allison’s students found her blog and was talking to other students about it. A colleague of Allison’s alerted her, and she removed all of the content from online (didn’t download it and move it — actually removed all content). Allison, alarmed by the fact that her once-anonymous blog was “outed” and that her students were aware of it, and concerned about what this would mean for her professionally, went into immediate blogger hiding. She created a new (also anonymous) blogspace, on which she has posted once. She’s starting over.

This pisses me off, folks. Not the starting over part, the needing to part.

I find this very frustrating, for a number of reasons. I’ll address each one separately below, but here they are in brief:

  1. Teachers are held to a standard of moral conduct that is not in keeping with the moral expectations in the rest of our society, and that is based primarily in Christian doctrine. And that’s just messed up.
  2. Teachers have almost no outlet for ever voicing the experiences they have in the classroom OR the experiences they have at home that might influence their approaches to their work.
  3. Those outlets teachers will create for themselves, because of item (1), often need to be masked by pseudonyms, and many teacher bloggers never tell their administrators or even colleagues about their blogs.

Here’s a bit more discussion on 1-3…

(1) Moral Standards

Do I think teachers are held to a higher moral standard than others in our society? Yes. Do I think this is okay? Yes. I need that to be totally clear.

What’s not okay? For teachers like this one, who got fired after writing horrible things about students on her blog, to maintain webspaces where they call out current or past students for being holy terrors. That’s unprofessional and ridiculous, and school districts shouldn’t stand for it. Teachers like these, in my opinion, shouldn’t be teachers anyway — we need to seek out the best in our students and help those parts of them grow! Not denigrate teenagers for being teenagers.

However, for teachers like Allison (or another friend of mine, who we’ll call Sylvia), to feel the need to censor themselves or to make their blogs anonymous because they’re worried the content might reflect poorly on their characters or might result in professional repercussions… that’s ridiculous. Sylvia has since de-anonymized her blog, which deals primarily with educational policy concerns and the life of the overworked English teacher. Allison’s blog was much less ed-y, yet her desire to keep it anonymous is much more pronounced.

Should teachers be strippers? Probably not. Should they deal drugs? Um, no. But dropping the occasional f-bomb in a blog post directed towards an adult mommy-blogger audience? I can see why Allison is worried about this reflecting poorly on her if an administrator caught wind or if all of her students found the post. I would have probably done the same thing she did if it were my blog. But does that mean she shouldn’t be able to engage this other — very rewarding (and even paying) part of her life? Can she not have this other job because her current one holds her to a moral standard that almost no other profession needs to answer to?

Surely, being the leader of children means teachers need to consider their role in shaping those young minds. But though many people have no problem letting our kids watch HBO, they might have a caniption if a teacher gets spotted at a bar by a student (what was the student doing at the bar, one might ask?) or if she curses up a storm with her friends outside of school. In other words, the moral standard teachers get held to is markedly Puritanical (I think) and is entirely unfair. Teachers are people who should be able to live their lives outside of school as productive adult citizens who, like most adults, might happen to swear and drink now and then.

(2) Teacher Venues for Voicing Experiences

Everyone and their great uncle thinks they know about being a good teacher. Well, that’s probably an overstatement — but certainly many people believe they know a lot about teaching, because, well, they grew up around teachers! We’ve all had teachers — good teachers, bad teachers, teachers we remember for that one amazing lesson, teachers we can picture but not name, teachers we keep in contact with for years after we leave their classrooms. It’s easy to have an opinion about what constitutes good teaching, or what makes a teacher effective, simply based on our experiences as people who once went to school, or as people who have kids who go to school, or as people in a society that has schools.

But really, you don’t know teaching until you’ve lived it. Becoming a teacher turned my understanding of the profession upside-down. Does it have its perks? Yes. My mom, who taught middle school math for 20 years before becoming an administrator, will tell you that teaching allowed her to raise us in the way that she wanted to — it allowed her to stay home in the summer with us, and to spend her evenings with us.

But teaching is not for the faint of heart. As a matter of fact, it can be downright heartbreaking sometimes. At other times, it can be the most heartwarming job on the planet. Basically, if you’ve got a weak heart — don’t start teaching. Unless you want to develop palpitations, that is.

The victories of teachers can be truly stunning, the defeats crushing. I remember a student I had when I taught 8th grade — she got pregnant halfway through the year. She was a sharp kid. Her poetry was beautiful and she loved to read. Sometimes she would come in my room and we would talk about the latest young adult novel she discovered. Sometimes she would write a poem “just cuz” and bring it to me for feedback so she could revise it. Not to turn it in, mind you. Just to make it better. One day, her mom emailed me to thank me. Her daughter had told her that she felt like she was just “that pregnant girl” to some of her other teachers (one teacher had said something terrible about her pregnancy to her friends, which I won’t repeat).

When she stood up at an assembly to speak out against race-based bullying at her high school, I was so proud of her I was shaking.

When she dropped out of school at the end of her sophomore year, I was heartbroken.

Teachers need places to tell these stories. The good ones. The sad ones. The ones that help us think about our society more critically, because schools serve as microcosms full of micropeople where the goods and ills of the world we live in play out daily. Blogs are a great way to do this and to reach a wide audience.

(3) They Who Shall Remain Unnamed

Would I openly — unanonymously — blog and teach? Well, I do. But would I do it if I were still a high school teacher? I don’t know, honestly. It would depend on a number of things, including:

  • The content of my blog
  • The supportiveness of my administration
  • The supportiveness of my colleagues
  • The setting in which I taught (rural? urban? suburban?)
  • The community in which I taught (conservative? liberal? diverse?)
  • Whether or not I had tenure, assuming that’s an option.

…and probably a number of other things, as well. Sylvia’s decision to “out” her blogger identity and to blog unanonymously was supported by her colleagues, though (at the time I spoke with her) she hadn’t directly told the principal about her blog. She also lives in a community that is fairly supportive of teachers and education in general, and that would be likely to agree with whatever “controversial” content she or her co-writers, who are colleagues of hers, might post.

I don’t know how much I would be willing to “rock the boat,” so to speak. I’ve never been in a position to make that choice — I became a blogger after I left the classroom. Allison’s decision to stay anonymous makes perfect sense to me. Sylvia’s decision not to also makes sense.

My concern has nothing to do with individual teachers’ decisions to be anonymous or not, but with the system that requires teachers to silence ideas they have that might prove “risky.” What counts as “risky?” Having an opinion about our governor’s education policies could prove risky in some communities. Teaching a lesson on the history of the word nigger could get you fired in other communities. Experimenting with new classroom formats, such as the “flipped” classroom, could prove risky as well. Which would make blogging about these things risky. Which would make attaching one’s name to her blog super risky.

You might be thinking, Liz, who cares if teachers blog anonymously? Why do you care that they need to use pseudonyms? I care because teachers should be recognized for the brave, risky, innovative things they do. Because the fact that teachers feel the (completely understandable) need to de-identify themselves worries me. It sends a message. And that message is “we can’t speak, for fear of reprimand.” For fear of firing, of being misinterpreted, of being discounted or disrespected. And that’s just depressing. Teachers should be able to show off, to showcase themselves, to have digital presences that aren’t masked or hidden.

I have been thinking through a number of these issues a lot in the past few years. I’ve written a few papers on blogging and teaching, on the role of anonymity, and on teacher identity. I’m happy to share readings or other things I’ve written with anyone who wants to know more, or who wants to engage in a conversation about this topic. It’s a loaded one, and one that I struggle to discuss, because I want to remain critical (of myself, of our world) while still making my ideas clear. So please, let me know your thoughts, reactions, criticisms, ideas.

And when a teacher wants to tell you a story, listen.

 

Pressure’s On

Today, at least in the state of Michigan (and I’m pretty sure in many other states as well), is testing day.

How do I know this? I’m not currently teaching in a public high school, but somehow, the ACT and its conjoined twin, the MME (Michigan Merit Examination), are not only on my radar, they are having an impact on my research and my teaching.

Let’s begin with teaching. I’ve mentioned a few times here that I work with some local students, most of them “Gen 1.5” kids who speak a language other than English at home, giving them some extra English instruction and support. Yesterday, I went to see four students, two of whom are juniors this year. They are both taking the ACT for the first time. I’ve known it was coming up for some months now, because their mothers had alerted me to its date. Yesterday, they were worried (the kids, not the parents. well, in reality, probably the kids and the parents). Not crying, panicking, freaking out, anxiety attack worried, but worried. They asked what pronouns they “could use” on the essay, and they asked how many examples they should have. We talked about what a good thesis might include, and they asked how to improve their reading comprehension scores.

My plans had included talking to them about color imagery in The Handmaid’s Tale and the role of memories and remembering in Beloved, along with a rhetorical analysis of an editorial response to Beloved’s banning in a nearby city high school. So much for that.

These tests are also encroaching on my research plans. Since I’m doing research in a high school this year, I am “on their schedule,” which means while all my buddies at UM and MSU are on spring break, I’m still working. But that work is happening at home this week, because the teachers at my research site are busy proctoring these tests, which run from Tuesday through Thursday and thus eat up the entire week. I need to do full-day observations with my participating teachers soon, and was going to do that this week while my own classes and obligations on campus were cancelled. Momentary brain lapse — I forgot about testing.

So observations will have to wait. No worries. I’m just trying to make education better for students in our nation by learning from incredible teachers how they go about their important work. But we can put that on hold, along with students’ learning, to ascertain (or maybe not) whether they’ve actually learned anything with wildly outdated, culturally and racially biased, over-administered, ridiculous tests.

But what bothers me about this week isn’t the ways in which these tests are impacting my teaching and research life. I will be at the school next week, and it will not be the end of the world that I couldn’t do observations on my own schedule — that’s the life of a researcher. And my tutoring plans can go on hold for another week without these kids (who are all doing just fine in school and will likely do just fine on the ACT this week) suffering any grand consequences. If talking to them a little bit last night about what they can do in an ACT essay conclusion helps them out a little bit today (emotionally or otherwise), then I’m glad we took the time.

No, what frustrates me is that with each passing year, these tests get a little higher-stakes. I can see it in the eyes of my students, in the panicked tone of parents, and in the frustration of teachers, whose livelihoods get more tied to these tests in more states every year (see one teacher’s thoughts on that, among other things). The other day, a teacher was telling me about the standardized testing “police,” people who come in from the department of education to make sure everyone is at attention and no one is cheating with a rogue water bottle. A couple years ago, this teacher posted some comical suggestions of things one can do when proctoring these tests, which, though funny, points out just how ridiculous some of the testing conditions have become for all involved. For more on that, check out this (anonymous) teacher’s depiction of what proctoring these tests is like (read the whole post for the real effect):

The first day of testing is the longest, most physically and emotionally draining.  But days two and three get progressively worse as the voices in our heads start telling us to do crazy things like grab as many test booklets as we can manage and run up and down the hallways of the school, ripping them to shreds while screaming incoherently.

She tweeted from her classroom 20 minutes ago (must’ve been during a break, because I’m pretty sure the school becomes a wifi and 4G deadzone during the test), “Forget Guantanamo Bay. Just force enemies of the state to proctor the ACT for 4+ hours. That’ll drive an innocent person to confess to mass murder.”

Yesterday, a student told me she wasn’t allowed to bring her book in with her (do you remember when you were a kid and you would finish your test early and read, and it would be the best part of testing day — all the reading? Yeah. Those days are gone.) Kids would rather be reading and teachers would rather be teaching, folks.

Teachers and students aren’t the only ones whose nerves are being plucked like guitar strings, either. Every year, the pitch of my tutoring parents’ voices gets a little higher, a little more strained, a little more urgent, when they talk to me about their kids needing to do well on the SAT and ACT. And they want me to start preparing their kids sooner and sooner. They show me the ACT and SAT prep books they bought for their freshmen, or the SAT vocabulary book they want me to use with their 8th graders, and I try really really hard not to scream and run away forever. As someone who’s basically privately contracted, I feel some of the pressure — what if the kids don’t “correctly comprehend” the author of that dry passage’s meaning? Will their parents fire me?

Pressure’s on this week for many students, who must pass the MME to graduate with a diploma, and who want to do well on the ACT so that they can get into a good college. My thoughts go out to them, to their parents, and to their teachers, who are likely pacing up and down rows of desks wishing they were engaging students in a lively discussion about a novel, fractions, or the periodic table right about now.

 

The Only Thing I Will Post About the Election

I have intentionally remained quiet on this blog lately because of all of the election rhetoric that is clogging both my facebook and rss feeds. Well, that and I defended my prospectus this week and have been unable to string a coherent thought together. However, with the defense out of the way and my brain able to process other things, I feel like I need to say my piece here… and then leave it alone.

I’ll be transparent. I’m voting for Obama. But I refuse to turn this post into an uncritical liberal rant about how awful one candidate is and how awesome another one is. When it comes right down to it, both men are human, and both are flawed. Their ed policies are a prime example of this truth.

As this fact sheet from USC notes, Obama and Romney’s policies are not very different. They both support charters. They both want to change teacher evaluation to be at least partially dependent on student achievement as measured by students’ performance on “objective tests.” However, Obama is definitely the lesser of two evils when it comes to ed policy. Check out this graphic from USC’s fact sheet:

Romney, in true businessman fashion, trusts our economic system (you know, the broken one) so much that he will turn over low-interest government college loans to private banks, won’t regulate diploma mills like University of Pheonix and the millions of other examples of rip-off higher education institutions, and will potentially push a revision of NCLB that will be “more transparent” (for the record, NCLB was pretty transparent already — every school in America will fail by 2014. The end.).

He also hopes to eliminate “unnecessary certification requirements” for teachers, and while I don’t know what that means exactly, I can guess. My bet is that this will enable unqualified, untrained individuals to become teachers through alternative certification routes (that will be even easier to move through than TFA) and that it will cause schools of education, which are already struggling with enrollment, to suffer even more. As a strong advocate for quality teacher education, the rant for which is an entirely separate blog post, I can’t vote for someone who is even more willing than Obama to turn our nation’s schools over to the private sector.

So while I don’t like some of Obama’s education policies, I like all of them better than Romney’s, and I found this fact sheet a helpful way to compare the candidates on an issue that has remained in the shadows throughout this process.

And that is the only thing I will post about the election.

In Need of (Real) Dialogue

Finally, I’m diving into this topic, now that the strike’s over — in part on purpose, actually, because I’m always a little afraid to comment mid-stream, as things are unfolding and changing so quickly. I needed time to ruminate and absorb.

Sometimes, I worry that I’m too much of a cynic when it comes to charter schools and the privatization of education in this country. I hear condemnations of teachers’ unions as a bunch of whiners who have no actual solution to the problem, and I worry — is that true? Is that me? I don’t want to be a whiner — I want to inspire and support positive change. Thus, such rhetoric has always made me pause, always made me listen to both sides, always made me check myself at the door and question my own beliefs.

So I clicked on a link to an op-ed piece entitled “Unions are an Impediment to Change.” I wanted to hear the other side of the story, and what I got instead was an assumption-laden condemnation of how unions are standing in the way of “real change.” An excerpt, so you can see what I mean:

The evidence of this “solution-phobia” is on full display this week in Chicago, where the local union has already won considerable concessions from the city, including generous raises and other protections. In return, the city has asked for reasonable and necessary reforms that benefit children, like the implementation of a teacher evaluation system that would help identify whether teachers are actually succeeding at elevating student achievement. The union balked and took to the picket lines.

The assumptions abound: 1) that the union was after money to begin with, 2) that the reforms asked for by the city are indeed “reasonable” and “necessary” and “benefit children,” 3) that the evaluation system actually evaluates quality teaching, 4) that the union finds reform of any kind something to “balk at.” My bet: none of these assumptions are valid. Here’s a shocker: the writer is the CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in NYC.

A little peeved, I clicked around some more and found a response critiquing the existing power struggle between business-based models and education. Lipman, professor of educational policy studies at UIC, points out that the charter system has not shown any particularly impressive results, and that business models are promoting the very top-down models that education doesn’t need — not when the ones at the bottom are the ones who are most knowledgeable about what students need. She closes with:

After absorbing 15 punishing years of these policies, they have had enough. Compensation is not their biggest concern. They are fighting for respect and for a vision of public education that is grounded in equity, respect for teachers, a rich well-rounded education for all students, and the financing priorities to realize it.

Here’s a link to Lipman’s entire piece, if you want to read it: “A Battle Between Education and Business Goals”.

I come away from these two pieces exceedingly disheartened. I was watching Rock Center earlier this week and Brian Williams spent an entire segment pointing out the extreme partisan BS that happens on cable news shows. Well, it happens in the written/online news media, too, and as Williams pointed out, it doesn’t get us anywhere. No one is listening to anyone on the other side, and these two pieces are evidence of that. Do I agree with Lipman? You betcha. But neither Lipman nor Moskowitz are taking what the other believes to heart, or reconsidering/revising their stances or their approaches to the problem. Which gets us nowhere but into this deadlock, wherein there’s a “dialogue” NYT’s website between these people, but there’s no real talking going on.

I’d love to see some real dialogue — teachers sitting down with our country’s educational leaders, everyone with open ears and open minds. Too much to hope for? Probably.

This Nauseated Me

Which shouldn’t have surprised me, because the title of Ravitch’s post is literally, “Read This and Share my Nausea,” but still. Read it. Misery loves company. Or don’t, and spare yourself.

I spend a lot of time and thought trying to find ways to stick up for the knowledge veteran teachers bring to the classroom through my actions, my research, and my work with pre-service teachers. We have much to learn from teachers who have dedicated their lives to becoming lifelong learners. I know they know their… well, you know. I know this because I spent the few short years I was blessed to have in the classroom learning from teachers who had a lot more experience working with teens than I did. I learned more about who I was as a teacher from my colleagues, which sometimes meant learning about things I might choose not to do. Many times, though, I piggy-backed on experimental unit plans, asked for advice when I just didn’t know how to teach poetry (I suck at all things poetry), or brainstormed with a colleague during passing periods. I spent a lot of time talking to people who knew more than me about our chosen profession, hungry to be a better teacher every day. Most teachers share that hunger, regardless of how many years they’ve been in the classroom.

I don’t really have time for a lengthy commentary tonight… I’m tired, and I Ravitch’s post just made me a little more tired. Tomorrow’s goal: find something a little less depressing to post.