By Lesley Bright
Going to school in a rural community is a unique experience. My city friends talk about losing multiple teachers every year. That wasn’t a problem where I grew up. I knew who my high school history teacher would be when I was in first grade—and that his mom would be my 8th grade English teacher. My older brother had many of my teachers a decade before me. I knew which teachers would be tough—actually pushing me to grow and learn—and which teachers would be pushovers, who wouldn’t teach me anything. Too often, those “pushover” teachers were the ones who had taught at my school for 20 years. Their parents had taught there and their grandparents had helped found the town. And no matter how bad our test scores were compared to other states or schools, those teachers never left. There would be no growth plan from the principal or complaints from my parents. After all, they were a *insert last name here*. They had always been that way and they would always be that way.
Now that I teach in a rural district, I worry that teachers’ evaluations are too often based on who your family is more than on actual teaching ability. Everyone is rated as a “good” teacher, regardless of their actual teaching effectiveness. You might be the best teacher in the world or the worst, but no one would know based on your evaluation scores. And this seems nice—everyone is successful and everyone feels good. Everyone but the students, that is. In order for students to learn, they need teachers who are genuinely good, and the only way for teachers to get there is to receive meaningful feedback, regardless of how long their family has been in the teaching business. This is particularly a problem in rural schools, where people have worked for and attended the same school for generations.
One way to solve this problem is to create a school culture in which honest feedback is good and expected. In rural communities, principals often shoulder the burden of running the school almost completely alone, sometimes without so much as an assistant principal in the building. They rush to get the required evaluations in, so each one is linked to pay and performance. Every evaluation is high-stakes. Every evaluation has the chance to offend the wrong people. It’s easier to just give everyone a “good” score, leaving teachers who actually excel in the classroom frustrated and those who just skate by continuing to offer a sub-par classroom experience to students. However, if informal, formative evaluations were performed, evaluations that don’t affect your pay, an administrator could create a culture where constructive criticism is a good thing. The teacher could learn and grow from genuine feedback, instead of getting angry because their pay will decrease if the evaluation isn’t high enough. If administrators foster a culture of growth, where everyone is trying to get better, honest feedback and evaluation will become the norm, no matter who your family is.
In this endeavor, support from higher levels is crucial. Often, principals feel powerless to confront ineffective teachers because they are not sure the superintendent or school board will have their back if they anger a prominent local family. Superintendents need to support local principals in creating a culture in which all teachers are expected to grow and improve. Under this system, a “bad” evaluation isn’t the end of the world; it’s an opportunity to grow.
Overworked principals cannot create this culture on their own. They need assistance, and the best people to offer it are teachers who are excelling in their classrooms. A teacher stopping by my classroom, watching me teach, and then giving me feedback is something I long for. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), districts can access funds to create teacher leadership positions. If rural schools take advantage of these funds, they could create positions for teachers to observe others and offer feedback. Additionally, these leadership positions can be used to encourage highly effective teachers to provide informal, colleague-to-colleague evaluations that aren’t linked to pay. If money isn’t involved, the evaluation system will become much more relaxed and everyone, teachers and students, will benefit, learn, and grow together.
Teachers in rural schools make a huge impact on student lives; they watch their students grow up and teach their children and grandchildren. Through honest feedback and high expectations, these teachers can make an even more positive impact on their students. Rural schools need to find new ways to encourage highly effective teachers to provide feedback instead of tying pay to evaluation scores. Then, teachers really will be “good” because they are striving for the best instruction for their students.
Lesley Bright teaches 6th-8th grade science at Carlisle Middle School in Carlisle, Indiana. She is a Teach Plus Indiana Teaching Policy Fellow.