Last Friday, after the morning meeting, my company’s CFO casually asked if I was going to be around that afternoon. With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I replied yes. He said he was going to come see me later that afternoon. When he showed up around 3 with the HR director, that sinking feeling turned into a knot. They informed me that the company was restructuring, and unfortunately, I wasn’t part of those plans. Just like that, 10 years of employment came to an end.
Unfortunately, the same thing is happening to teachers all across the country. Due to increased pressure brought on by amplified dependence on standardized testing, principals are deciding that they need to restructure, and therefore, those teachers who don’t fit into some nebulous restructuring plan have to go. I think the unofficial description is non-renewed and ineligible for rehire. Usually if a principal decides that they don’t want to renew you, you remain eligible to have another school’s principal in the district pick up your contract for the following year. Lately, though, something has changed. It seems a disturbing trend is taking root where if you are not renewed at your original school, you are placed on a list of ineligible for rehire at another school in the district. That can mean your career comes to an end unless you are willing to relocate. Teachers in both Denver and Chicago have felt the pain of this tend.
Last year, Knoxville saw enough of these non-renewal/ineligibles to cause teachers to take action and create their own report on the policy. This year it seems that it is Nashville’s turn. It is hard to get an actual count on the number of Nashville teachers affected because obviously the numbers aren’t published. But I can tell you from what I’m hearing the numbers are significant, and it affects primarily high-poverty schools and EL teachers. Positions that are most often impacted by negative test scores due to those scores being more a reflection of family income and parent’s schooling than actual student learning. This policy not only destabilizes the individual schools but also creates a de facto screening process. Nobody is going to undertake an extremely difficult assignment if it potentially has a permanent negative impact on his or her career. The result is a constant churn while the high quality teachers go to the “good schools”.
In talking with Metro Nashville Public Schools Human Resources Department, in their eyes nothing has changed policy-wise. They did notice a disturbing trend last year that certain principals were turning over their staffs every year. In short, many principals were firing large portions of their teachers every year. The way it works is when a principal decides to non-renew a teacher, the principal has the choice of making them ineligible or eligible for rehire in the district. To make a teacher ineligible requires documentation of how they were failing in their job performance. Figuring that the documentation would be a barrier, and in order to stem some of the turnover, which everybody recognizes as not being beneficial, talent management, or as we call them, the HR folks, communicated to principals that if they were not renewing a teacher, then they had to make them ineligible for rehire. Some might argue that this communication would constitute a policy change and perhaps question whether this is with in the scope of HR’s powers. But unfortunately anybody who’s been around public schools for awhile understands how these unwritten policies seem to get enacted. Just for fun, sometime ask a teacher about the policy for failing a student and see how they react. But I digress. So, how did principals respond this year to the communication on renewing teachers?
Well, they informed teachers that they were going to non-renew them and, therefore, they had to make them ineligible for rehire in the district. There was one caveat – in some cases, teachers were told they could resign first. Here’s where it get murky. A teacher’s resignation supposedly looks better for the teacher, but it still makes them ineligible for rehire in the district… or does it? Unfortunately again, there are no clear cut answers. Some teachers were told it still made them eligible for rehire elsewhere in the district. But others were informed they would still be ineligible. One thing that is clear – resigning does get principals out of that pesky documentation requirement. Everybody likes to hire and fire at whim, but nobody likes to document. So basically, HR’s attempt to stop principals from firing so many teachers didn’t really work, and in the process, potentially ruined many teachers’ entire careers in one fell swoop. Not exactly a win.
What really baffles me about this trend is that at a time when there are teacher shortages and fewer college students entering the teaching profession, why are we showing large groups of teachers the door? There are endless discussions on recruiting teachers, but painfully few on retaining them. We seem to think that the only way to get quality teachers in front of students is by firing the ones who don’t meet our narrow criteria. That criteria being mainly focused on raising test scores. Despite the fact that here in Tennessee testing is something we can’t even execute properly.
You may consider this anecdotal evidence but here’s what I know: in Nashville, there were many teachers who were deemed non-renewed and ineligible for rehire, but there are many, many job openings for teachers. For example, I’ve heard that we lost an experienced elementary EL teacher who was told they had low test scores (in a grade that is not even tested), a first year middle school teacher who is certified to teach English but was directed to teach remedial math and then given no PD opportunities, a special education teacher with many years of experience, and a lauded elementary school teacher who was told they “weren’t a good fit” despite living in the same community as the school – and this is just a sampling of teachers in this situation. But if you look at the job postings, there is clearly a need for teachers like those who were fired. Hell, we are supposedly so desperate for teachers that one principal took a group of administrators and teachers to Puerto Rico to recruit, despite the fact that those teachers would have to become EL certified in Tennessee if hired by the district. These are examples I find disturbing and I think other parents should as well.
As a manager, I’ve always believed that whenever you had to let someone go, it was as much a failure for you as for them. Either you didn’t hire the right person, you didn’t adequately communicate the goals and objectives, you didn’t provide the proper training or materials, or you are not applying the proper measurement. I think we’ve failed teachers in several of these areas. I once heard a state legislator chide a union leader because he refused to acknowledge that there were bad teachers. The union official replied, “We have never provided teachers with all the tools to succeed, so how would I be able to judge if a teacher was truly bad or just under supported?” I think about those words often.
We are also fond of saying “one size doesn’t fit all” as it applies to students, yet we create an evaluation system that basically creates one kind of teacher. Different kids respond differently to different teachers, and just because a teacher is not getting results from one type of student does not mean they’re a bad teacher and should be replaced. Perhaps they just need to have leadership put them in a position where they can succeed. It is up to a leader to assess the talents and skills of his team and assign them roles accordingly. Perhaps that struggling 1st grade teacher would do better in 3rd grade. Perhaps they are not as strong with high level kids and could do better with lower level kids. Perhaps they need to work with a mentor or instructional coach. Perhaps they need additional professional development. Or perhaps the problem is with the principal’s leadership style. Or the over-emphasis on assessment and outcomes and high test scores. It is up to principals to find a strategy that allows for success and even more important that central office supports and assists principals in developing teachers instead of creating a culture of plug it in, see if it works, and if not discard it. It takes all kinds of teaching styles to reach students who possess a multitude of learning styles.
A prime example would be my own high school experience. I had an environmental science teacher who spoke English with a bad accent and was extremely strict and sarcastic. There are people who went to school with me who believed he was the worst teacher ever and should be run out of teaching. I personally responded to him well. He challenged me, he engaged me, and he taught me lessons that still resonate today. What a loss it would have been for me if he would have been run out of the profession. I’m almost positive that if we all look back on our academic experiences, we will find those teachers who struck a similar chord with us but not other classmates. Our lives are better for the contributions from those teachers, and I think how different my own life would be without their impact. Teaching is in so many ways a mixture of art and science. We try to treat teaching as something that anyone can do and something that you don’t have to do your whole life, but talk to any of the really great ones and they will tell you, it’s a calling and something that they can’t envision not doing. We need teachers that come from a multitude of different backgrounds with a multitude of tools to reach students that come from a multitude of backgrounds with a multitude of challenges.
Once we displace these so-called “failing teachers,” where are their replacements going to come from? Last time I checked, there was no secret orchard of teachers that was available for us to go pluck new ones from. Teach for America and other alternative licensing programs are becoming less of a solution than they once were. TFA recruitment numbers are down 35% over the last 3 years as young people discover just how hard teaching can be and that its not exactly financially rewarding. Let’s not forget as well that there is no guarantee that the next teacher is going to be any more effective than the previous one. You can do all the screening you like. You can look at their past TVAAS scores and think you can predict their future ability, but there is never a guarantee because that teacher has never been in front of these students before, and remember, every child is different. At least with an existing teacher you have a minimum of one year of localized data that should give an indication of their strengths and weaknesses. I find it hard to believe that all displaced teachers are all weaknesses with no strengths. Is it also fair for one principal to say that just because a teacher did not succeed under them that they would not be successful under another principal?
Educator and blogger Peter Greene recently wrote a piece on old teachers and the possibility that they don’t suck. He based it on a recent study by the Learning Policy Institute that revealed the value of experience to teachers and their students. The LPI study offered some suggestions that could improve teacher performance, the very first one being increased stability in the profession. How does a constant churn coupled with a constant fear of being fired create increased stability? Do you think constant turnover creates an environment of innovation and collaboration? (Which by the way, environment of collaboration was another suggestion.) If teachers are in constant fear for their professional lives will they take the time to really invest in a student? Quality teachers do more than just move the needle on what is measured. Which is why our definition of “high-quality” teachers is not always accurate.
For example, a kindergarten classmate of my son’s, well, actually his BFF, is a Burmese refugee child who speaks Karen. On a recent ride home from school, my son told me he was going to need some money because he had to take his friend to the dentist. By the time I got home and sent an email to ask their teacher about it, she had already found a dentist with access to a Karen translator and made an appointment to take the child that Saturday. Spend some time with her, and you’ll find that she was able to do this because she has made herself an integral part of her students’ community. You’d never know that unless you really looked because she doesn’t advertise it; she just serves. Her service never shows up on any official evaluation, but it certainly impacts the children in her class. I’m certain her official evaluation could be higher if she didn’t serve such a high-needs demographic, but would her students be better off? I think not. She is a high-quality teacher in ways that are not measured. When I evaluate her from a parents perspective, I don’t look at her students test scores or levels. I look at the impact she is having on my child’s life and their classmates lives and I find her performance exemplary on so many levels.
I’ve used this example before and had people shrug and say, “A lot of teachers do extra stuff for their students.” That response is infuriating. Every single one of those teachers should be celebrated for the impact that they are making. We shouldn’t take it for granted that it’s just part of the job. One that is expected but not recognized. So many kids would miss out on so many opportunities if it weren’t for these heroic teachers. A teacher’s evaluation needs to reflect all aspects of the job, not just the ones produced by a standardized test. We as adults need to educate ourselves on exactly what our teachers are doing and the services they are providing before we start offering evaluations.
To be fair, a teacher’s evaluation is 50% growth and achievement based on standardized tests (this is the TVAAS/VAM part of the evaluation). The other 50% is observations based on a nearly impossible rubric. One problem is that administrators are trained that the VAM measures must somehow match the observation measures. In other words, if a teacher has a low VAM score because of low test scores, the principal wouldn’t be justified in giving that teacher high scores on the observation rubric because they were told that wouldn’t make sense. It would be a disconnect in the system to have a “great” teacher with low test scores. Now that is complete BS, but that’s how it is. It is a grossly unfair and rigged evaluation system.
The incoming Superintendent of MNPS, Dr. Shawn Joseph, has a book he likes to recommend, Leadership and Self Destruction. A major focus of this book is to look at people’s actions and performance not just through the lens of how they serve you. It means stepping back and trying to understand where the other person is coming from. I’m hoping he applies the tenets of this book to the way we treat our teachers in MNPS. It’s my hope that we will force principals to actually provide leadership and coach teachers up, not out. It’s going to take a lot of effort because unfortunately, many principals are only looking at teacher performance through the lens of how it serves them and not how it serves the students. A teacher’s role should be to educate students, not make a principal look like a rock star.
I urge Dr. Joseph to take a hard look at the process used to make teachers ineligible for rehire in the district and to create policies that will ensure that firing is a last resort and not just another tool. Perhaps one solution is that if a teacher is going to be recommended as non-renewed AND ineligible for rehire, then an additional person from Central Office must sign off on the recommendation. And hopefully Dr. Joseph will reconsider opening up the files of all the teachers who were fired with no opportunity to be rehired this year and reviewing them – and maybe even overturning some of those decisions. Our teachers are too important to just sweep away.
I consider myself in some ways in a better position then teachers who have been displaced because I never considered my position at my last job a “calling”. I didn’t lay awake at night unable to sleep because of worry for the clients, like teachers do for their students. I didn’t reach into my own pocket to buy supplies for the office like teachers do for their classrooms. I liked my job a great deal and I studied and read a lot in order to do a better job but it wasn’t all consuming like teaching can be. This has been a hard transition for me but nothing like the one so many of our unfairly displaced teachers are facing. We need to fix that.