Friday, November 12, 2010


Many of the English teachers I have worked with (well, tried to work with) have the capability of high-powered administrative assistants--they are organized, they know how to read, often they know their grammar, and they can manage the bureaucratic requirements effectively. This is not to cast aspersions on administrative assistants, and God knows, they often make much more money than teachers, but it is to say that that this skill set is the only part of what a high school teacher, particularly an English teacher, needs to have. 
Many teachers know they need to teach analytical thinking, but they, themselves, have limited analytical powers. That one has read and perhaps in the best of instances has recognized the subtleties of a text does not an English teacher make, I am sorry to say. 
Teachers are often required to limit themselves to the directives and the habits of mind ingrained in them by often callous and cynical bureaucracies. The public schools hire people they do not trust to do the jobs they do, so they construct all kinds of “support” designed to get ALL teachers to march in sync in the hope that someone will teach someone something. Most teachers tow the lines thrown at them in part because they believe that benefits and retirement are the ultimate reward. Teaching is an easy job if you can just do what you are told without question, and if you knew deep down that you probably could not get work elsewhere, you would probably put up with anything.
Yes, it’s true that the very worst teachers give all teachers a bad reputation, but it is the preponderance of merely adequate teachers that is the most dangerous to the profession. They are the reason people say they trust teachers but in truth don’t really respect them. So, the danger lies not in the worst teachers bringing down the reputation of the rest of the teachers; it lies in the best teachers being brought down by the merely adequate. 
There is no room for adequate in the teaching profession, just as there is no room for simply adequate surgeons. Excellence is the only option. And that is the problem with teacher evaluations: excellence, as I have said many times, lies in the art of teaching, which is too complicated to contemplate and impossible to objectively quantify. Let me enumerate what I see as some of the elements of the art of teaching:
  • the art of knowing and responding to what his/her individual students need
  • the art of knowing more than the student at all times and not being afraid to ask questions if he/she does not
  • the art of being a lifetime learner 
  • the art of being able both to improvise and stay on track
  • the art of balancing humor with “gravitas” or rigor
  • the art of the teacher’s sticking to a mission that both includes the curriculum and maintains a clear and solid moral imperative (by this I mean always keeping in mind why we teach, presuming it’s not just to lord it over kids or salve our egos as we hear ourselves speak) 
  • the art of a teacher’s ability to listen creatively so that the students can hear themselves in a better light than the light they originally tried to shed on a subject 
  • the art of a teacher’s being able to meet students where they are when they walk into the classroom and in turn get them well past where they started 
  • the art of a teacher’s making all students feel safe and potentially successful even when they are struggling
  • the art of a teacher’s being able to motivate students from the core rather than just from their reflexes--getting them to want to learn rather than simply fear the test
  • the art of getting students to analyze, synthesize, and extrapolate rather than rinse and repeat. 
Many administrators have been rewarded with promotions and kudos either to get them OUT of the classroom and out of harms way (we call this demoting up) or for maintaining the status quo. Yet these formerly adequate teachers must evaluate the very qualities that might have eluded them in their own teaching practice. Those in charge believe they can quantify the effectiveness of the entire endeavor  which is why test scores are starting to serve as the basis for all teaching goals. 

The sad truth is that a “good” evaluation usually translates to a teacher’s passing with a C, but for today’s problems, sorry to say, a C is just not good enough. An Austrian friend of mine once said that the philosophy when he went to school was this: A is God; B is teacher; C is student. If “C is teacher,” as it seems to be much of the time, then D is student, and we have enough D’s and F’s already on both sides of the desk.

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