Teachers Deserve More Than a Week

A friend of mine used to work for the National Association of Office Workers. When Secretary Appreciation Day rolled around every year, they very deliberately ignored it -- offended by the idea that "bosses" could appreciate their "secretaries" one day a year, only to mistreat them the other 364.

Most of the teachers I've talked to within the last couple of months feel exactly the same way about Teacher Appreciation Week. Especially this year, when teachers feel like they have been cannon fodder for governors from Wisconsin to Florida, not to mention in the movies. A week of banquets and bouquets doesn't exactly salve the wounds.

This current effort to portray teachers as fat cats, feeding at the public trough with no concern for their students, has got to stop. So, too, must the effort to spin research on the importance of quality teachers to suggest that quality teachers are the only thing that matters.

Teachers matter, and matter a lot. Indeed, no organization has done more to get people to act on that knowledge than my own.

But here's the thing: the systems within which teachers work matter too. Poorly run systems can undermine the effectiveness of even our most capable teachers.

Every time I hear people suggest that we can simply fire our way to a world-class workforce -- increasing the compensation of our highest value-added teachers, and removing our lowest value-added teachers -- I think about my long-time friend, Pat.

After leaving a well-paid position in the nonprofit sector and completing the teacher preparation program at Northwestern University, Pat began her teaching career at an inner-city high school in Chicago. Almost immediately, the students adored her. She demanded a lot from them, but she was always there when they struggled. Although she taught in the days before we had value-added measurement of our teachers, I have no doubt that Pat would have scored in the stratosphere. She was that good.

Still, Pat's experience at the school was a nightmare. Not because the kids had nightmarish lives, although many of them did. And not because the parents were difficult, although some of them were. No, what crushed her spirits and eventually led her to leave teaching was the dysfunction of the school itself. The principal was a long-time veteran who thrived on pitting staff members against each other. Most of the teachers had absorbed the kind of toxic ooze that takes over in schools like this, giving up on their kids, not to mention their own dreams of making a difference.

New teachers like Pat got, literally, no coaching or support. They were just handed a set of textbooks and told, "Go teach."

I was reminded of Pat's experience recently when another new teacher described her first day to our staff: "The office assistant showed me the room. But nobody told me what class it was or what grade level it was. The kids had to tell me that. They also showed me where the bathroom was, and then broke into it so I could use it."

So, did Pat need to be evaluated in the ways today's school reformers are suggesting? You bet she did. As is true in any other profession, new teachers need clear standards for what good teaching looks like. They need to be evaluated honestly against those standards, and, if they don't measure up, they need help to improve. Or they need to be helped out the door.

Certainly, putting into place stronger evaluation systems and using the results to make real decisions--about who should teach whom, who to lay off in a financial emergency, and who ought to get coaching responsibilities--are the best things we can do for teachers like Pat. Such systems can help them grow ever stronger, and will assure that they won't spend most of their time making up for the lousy teacher who had the kids the year before.

Too many of the states that are moving aggressively in this direction are forgetting the other part -- the systems part. This includes taking extra care to select and train our principals. It means providing our teachers with the curriculum supports that teachers in other countries get, so they don't have to go home at night after a long day teaching and grading homework, only to spend hours making up the lessons they will teach the next day. And it requires building in the extra time and academic supports that struggling students will need, if their teachers are to truly catch them up to their peers.

I've been around education long enough to recognize that we're about to do that pendulum thing again--swinging toward an end focused on measuring and rewarding individual teachers, only to swing back toward systems a few years from now, when we realize that the one thing we were focusing on wasn't enough. Then, we'll be forced to face the fact that bad systems undercut even the best people. Fortunately, it's not too late to work on both. Responsible state and local leaders will do just that.