Using the Wrong Camera Creates a Bad Picture

Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September...
Image by George Eastman House via Flickr

It’s not like teaching doesn’t have enough frustrations.

After all, teachers go to work every day ready to inspire, challenge, guide and enjoy the children for whom we have been given responsibility.

We take this responsibility seriously.

We learn as much as we can about whatever it is we are assigned to teach.

We come in early or leave late. Some hardy souls do both.

We take work home most nights and we bring the work back in the morning.

We take work home most weekends.

We bring the work back on Monday.

We teach our curriculum, but we do more.

We model behavior.

We resolve disputes.

kleenex anti-viral commuter freebie
Image by fsse8info via Flickr

We listen.

We provide shoulders to cry on and tissues to dry the tears with.

We buy the supplies that the taxpayers don’t provide but that our students need.

We buy snacks and lunches for the kids.

We feed mouths as well as minds.

We feed spirits as well as bodies.

We help build our nation.

We help build all our tomorrows.

Okay, so maybe not all of us.

I know there are teachers who have given up but still show up and collect a paycheck.

I know there are some teachers who should not be in a classroom.

There are even some who should not be allowed near kids.

How many? I don’t know. No one knows.

That’s not really true. Other teachers know.

We know because we are in the building with them.

We know because we see them teach, or not teach.

We know because we know what a good teacher looks like, how a good teacher works, the things a good teacher does.

I don’t want to work with bad teachers, with teachers who have given up, or with teachers who never should have been given the job.

No good teacher wants to work with those people. They just make our job harder.

We’re the ones who have to clean up their messes, help their students succeed in spite of the teaching they got last year.

Should incompetent teachers be fired? ABSOLUTELY!!

I’m a strong union supporter, a proud (at least most of the time) member of the United Federation of Teachers, but I still say bad teachers need to be fired.

I also know that almost no one not in a school on a day-to-day basis can spot a bad teacher if one should fall from the sky and hit them on the head.

You see, there is no real external measure of good or bad teaching.

Some of my students made great progress last year. That doesn’t make me a great teacher and more than that some of the students in the same classes didn’t make any progress makes me a bad teacher.

Things just happen that way sometimes.

I’ve seen teachers seem to work wonders one year and not be able to motivate any students the following one.

The only things that changed were the students. One year you get a self-directed driven group and the next you get a class that makes slackers look hyper-motivated.

You take a snapshot of the first class via a one-shot standardized test and that teacher looks great. Take the same shot the next year and that same teacher seems incompetent.

The problem isn’t the teacher. The problem isn’t even the students.

The problem is the camera.

Old Camera...yuk
Image by MaestroBen via Flickr

Teaching isn’t the kind of thing you can capture in a snapshot.

That applies to bad teaching as much if not more than it applies to good teaching.

Judging the quality of teaching from a one-shot snapshot standardized test is like reviewing a movie director’s career based on one frame from one movie.

Yes, there are bad teachers, but there are many more good ones.

The problem is that most people aren’t using the right lens, the right camera to get the contrast right.

What’s worse is that most people are happy to use that standardized test still camera.

Making a movie is just too hard, too much work, I guess.

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8 Responses to Using the Wrong Camera Creates a Bad Picture

  1. Ira Socol says:

    This reminded me of the Holga, that classic eastern European plastic lens camera that produced dramatic images, but could not produce any sort of “accurate” image.

    We have a school system which can not even figure out how to evaluate students – a Twitter exchange yesterday had a teacher wondering how to grade kids who knew and understood the subject perfectly but didn’t hand in work. I asked, are you grading knowledge and understanding, or compliance? Of course she wasn’t sure. She wants to grade knowledge, her school expects her to grade compliance.

    So if we can’t evaluate kids? How the f*** can we claim to evaluate teachers based on how we – don’t – evaluate kids?

  2. ” That’s not really true. Other teachers know.
    We know because we are in the building with them.” is so true.

    But, everyone agrees, especially the folks in DC, that bad teachers have to be fired. If their colleagues can’t figure out how to point out who they are, DC is going to keep coming up with stupider and stupider ways to do it.

    It seems to me it would be so much easier if the UFT took on the challenge. An annon on line survey of the teachers in the building would focus attention on the teachers in trouble in about two days. Then the Union could figure out the right way to intervene. Some just need a little encouragement or new information or the knowledge that someone cares. A couple need to find new jobs.

    Suppose the Union took on the job of coming with transitions to better jobs. Since they care about their people and in aggregate know what teaching is, they are perfectly suited and incented to do the job.

    As I see it, the problem is if they don’t do it, someone else will. Instead of yelling about the teachers in Central Falls, what if the Union had in place a preventive sucky teacher program. Then everyone would be on the same side.

    • Deven Black says:

      Isn’t finding and helping these teachers the job of the principal, the APs, lead teachers or subject coaches? I agree that if they don’t do the job, teachers should; but if the admins, etc. don’t do their jobs why not fire them?

      Part of my point is that the wrongs tools are being used to assess teacher quality, but the bigger issue is that only the bottom rung on the education food chain is being examined. Any good leader recognizes that the leader sets the tone, is the model and rewards success. That is not what is happening in most of the levels of education. Instead, we are given examples of shirking responsibility, grabbing at any tool to do a job, and an inability to plan.

      The problems of our education system, whatever they are and whomever is responsible, did not begin yesterday, last year or in the last decade. For as long as we’ve had schools we’ve had critics complaining either that schools are doing the wrong job or that they are doing the right job badly. But today’s education critics and leaders seem to not be aware of that history and its implications as we try to move forward. Either that or they are deliberately ignoring that history, and if that is the case there is little hope of any truly innovative approaches.

      • Deven,
        “but if the admins, etc. don’t do their jobs why not fire them?” yes! The hopeful sign for me from DC is that every turnaround plan for drop out factories mandates precisely that.

        But as you say, if other people don’t do their jobs and the kids lives are getting screwed every day, then the Feds have the responsibility to step in. That’s how I see RttT.

        But, teachers are the collateral damage. It would be cool for the Unions to step into the breach to protect their people.

  3. Deven, I wanted to put one more thought on the table.
    Your description of the job sounds about right compared to my experience. But, if teachers had the mindset that it’s unsustainable and has to be reengineered from THEIR point of view it could get mo betta , mo fasta.

    I think one problem is that many (not anyone reading this blog intended) in the profession wear the intolerable facts of being too busy to do the job as a badge of honor. It perpetuates what is to me an unhelpful notion that teaching is a mission.

    Yes it is an important job. But does one hear other professionals – doctors, lawyers, engineers – talk about a “mission?” Instead it’s described to themselves as an important job. But for the great mass of them it’s first and foremost a job.

  4. S Hartley says:

    Simply brilliant.

  5. Tendrils says:

    Wow. I’m speechless. That was a superb post!

  6. Diane Lauer says:

    Thanks for the post. Your words touched my heart and painted picture I needed to see this morning. You inspired me to make a connection and use your blog as a jumping off point for my own.

    Let’s look at our cameras and perhaps be clear about their deficiencies – use them for what they are and work about finding a better tool to tell our stories.

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