Spending money wisely on schools
I came to a realization recently that stopped me dead in my tracks: many outstanding teachers in our public schools suffer daily from deep feelings of inadequacy because they think they are failing at their jobs.
I thought about what we all know about children and their learning -- they don’t learn well when they feel like failures. It seems to me that this phenomenon of really excellent teachers feeling bad about their performance could help explain why so many of our schools are mediocre. If teachers are feeling inadequate, their students are suffering.
What makes teachers feel so bad about themselves? Is this connected to why so many leave the profession before retirement? When I talked this over with a friend this week, he reminded me that teacher-bashing is common, from the public, from the media, from administrators. We agreed that this has an effect on morale.
The media offer two images of teachers. The first is of the miracle teacher who leads an unruly, uninterested class of students to the apex of achievement, seemingly turning around years of dysfunction and neglect single-handedly. It’s the superhero image of teachers. The second image offered by the media is of the teacher who is all but asleep on the job, droning on and on from an outdated textbook, working exclusively for a paycheck rather than to help students. This is an incredibly cynical image: teacher as selfish sloth. In my 30 years of teaching, I have never met either the true superhero or the truly selfish sloth. Certainly there are teachers at various points on the continuum, but the extremes we hear about over and over? These teachers are media creations.
Why does it matter if the media portray teachers as either superheroes or selfish sloths and nothing in between? Well, for one thing, most teachers care so much about what they do, they are vulnerable to attack. Only the toughest teachers have managed to build walls against the culture’s portrayal of who they are to remember they are professionals working to the best of their considerable abilities to help students.
Many teachers internalize the idea that they should perform heroically despite all odds and they feel inadequate when they cannot live up to the superhero model. Asking teachers to be superheroes undermines self-esteem -- that goal is unattainable -- and therefore the image does not do anything to help them help their students.
Against this misinformed backdrop, the nation has seized on elaborate, unwieldy, expensive and all-consuming teacher evaluation systems as the way to help teachers meet the needs of students. The implication is that teachers are mostly of the selfish sloth type and will not work hard unless they are forced to do so by outside pressures -- we must evaluate teachers relentlessly to force them to do a good job.
Clearly this focus on evaluation systems was not created by teachers. Perhaps in some fields there might be a benefit to the worker in avoiding work -- not so in this profession. Teachers are the ones who suffer heavily when they are unprepared, or when their curriculum is lacking. Children are singularly skilled at creating confusion and dissonance in classrooms where teachers are not doing their job well.
A day spent in such a classroom is close to a day spent in Dante’s inferno. So yes -- teachers, like all people, benefit from coaching to reach their potential. Teacher performance can and should always improve. However, let’s keep things in proportion. Are we sure we need an entire evaluation industry that stands to benefit financially from the cumbersome new systems? Is it right that some people are getting rich off the current evaluation industry?
As taxpayers we should all question the money that is spent on this industry: the publishing companies that produce the manuals that schools all across the USA use in the name of teacher evaluations; the authors of those manuals who must be compensated; the testing companies that produce the tools that provide the data for these evaluations; the time spent by administrators overseeing the systems.
What about the consultants who must be called in to help teachers up their game so schools can earn better evaluations when they are graded by cities and states? The question is, is this the best use of our education dollars? Is this the best way to help students?
What if we spent all the money that is currently benefiting the evaluation industry another way? What if we spent it in training teachers thoroughly and to a high standard before they ever enter a classroom? What if we spent it in reducing class sizes so all teachers could learn the names and interests and needs of their students? What if we spent it in creating physical space suitable for children and adults to spend their days in -- space that conveyed the message "You are important," rather than the opposite?
What if we paid teachers well enough that they didn’t spend their summers waitressing or painting houses and instead spent them preparing for the upcoming school year? What if we spent our education dollars giving teachers adequate time in the day to do their work really well, so that when they went home at the end of the day they could rest? My belief is that such a seachange would produce a much better school system than we have now. Finland has tried it and Finland has one of the best education systems in the world. Why not learn from a success story?
I do not think we can police our way to high-functioning schools. The money spent in the attempt is wasted. Instead let's use that money to create the conditions that would enable teachers to do their best work. Then teachers could sleep peacefully at night and children could learn in schools filled with joy.