Maybe I am a glutton for punishment, but I really looked forward to being observed in the classroom. I loved the idea of hearing how others perceived my classroom, my students and my teaching. I was hopeful that my observer would share keen insights and nuggets of wisdom. I wanted to be a better teacher, and I trusted that the system, designed with professional growth in mind, would actually help me grow.
The unfortunate reality was that my expectations were rarely met. Observers, often stressed by their own job demands came in at the last minute – on exam review day or after my students had taken the AP exam – rather than during pithy educational moments, like when we put Goldilocks through criminal and civil court. They did because in their minds, I was a “good teacher.” They trusted me. I was a hard worker, the students liked me, and, for the most part, I didn’t make work for the leadership. My evaluations were always positive and included some evidence that the administrator had actually been in my classroom, but none were, well, transformative. And, after my first year of teaching, formal observations were few and far between. While I appreciated the affirmation that I was a good teacher, I wanted to be a better teacher; and although well-intentioned, the “system” as I experienced it, didn’t contribute much to my professional growth.
Sylvie was a delight to have in class. Her bubbly personality, strong work ethic and genuine interest in the subject matter was endearing. She wasn’t the smartest girl in the room, but she did whatever was asked of her with enthusiasm. So when her grade fell between a B and a C, it was easy to give her the B. But I remember reading her writing. It wasn’t great. I had definitely seen worse, but it wasn’t quite sophomoric (in the best sense of the word.) I was a first-year social studies teacher, so while I noticed the problem, I didn’t know what to do about it. At some point I suggested to her that she come in and work on her writing. It was a suggestion, not a requirement, and, of course, she was involved in many extra-curricular activities, so her time outside of class was often filled with conflicting meetings and practices. I didn’t worry her; she was, after all, a good kid. She left our school at the end of that year (her parents moved out of state) so I don’t know how she turned out, or if she ever learned to write. But, when I remember her smile, her energy, and her writing I feel guilty because I’m not sure that I, who was part of the “system” as she experienced it, contributed much to her academic growth, certainly not in a way that prepared her for college.
I’ve been out of a school building for two years now. I’ve transitioned to the world of third-party reform. So my “aha moments” no longer come from my experience of getting to know one school intimately. Instead, they come from conclusions I’ve drawn based on patterns that I’ve seen across schools in several states. Perhaps the most striking lesson I’ve learned so far is that principals, teachers and counselors share the most important work in a school building, engaging in and facilitating learning. Teachers and counselors, like students, need to be held to high expectations, even the nice, friendly, not so demanding ones. Teachers and counselors, like students, need honest, specific feedback to help them learn the precision that characterizes excellence. Teachers and counselors, like students, complain about too much oversight and strict scrutiny, but value it when it is relevant, thought-provoking and helps them produce results. And some teachers and counselors, like some students, go through life in a school in the forgotten middle — affirmed, but not challenged, liked, but not pushed, present, but not transformed. Eventually, this takes a toll on all of us, weighing us down in mediocrity, making scarce the hope that comes from success.
Since we know this, we can’t wait for someone else to make the system work. We, like our students, have to find ways to invest in our own growth, for our sake, for their benefit, and for the integrity of our profession. And we must do our part not to forget the students in the middle who show up in our classrooms and offices every day.