It occurs to me that I am spoiled.
During my student teaching, I spent a year — one semester in a high school, one semester in a middle school — being observed on a regular basis (daily or weekly, depending on who was doing the observing) by multiple professors and cooperating teachers who had the power to grade me. They were all excellent teachers, and their feedback from those observations was often blunt and tough. But because their criticisms were on point (that is, they correctly prioritized what matters in good teaching), because they offered concrete suggestions for how to improve upon my weaknesses and how to maximize my strengths, and because they genuinely celebrated my successes with me, I well and truly felt they were on my side about guiding me to becoming a more effective teacher.
I spent the first four years of my teaching career in what might be called an overgrown farming town at the far edge of nowhere, where it is currently hotter than our 109 degrees. There are a number of reasons I moved away from said city — not all of them to do with the city itself — but none of them were because of my school. I guess one of the perks of teaching in a district that tends to attract teachers new to the profession is that they get to know real quick what makes for an effective new teacher mentoring program. Because if they don’t, the turnover rate is high, the continuing recruitment costs are high, and that shit both gets expensive and negatively impacts quality of education.
I’d estimate that for the first two months of my first year, I had someone — a mentor teacher, a department chair, a principal or assistant principal — in my classroom literally every other day. They may have only stayed there 5 or 20 minutes, but they always made sure to make some kind of contact with me afterward: a quick note in my mailbox, a comment at lunch letting me know they were available as a professional resource. Maybe it’s because the school really did have a serious investment in me — in terms of time, in terms of money, in terms of effort — but I always felt like this was done in the spirit of, “What can we do to help?” (because all
first-year teachers need help) rather than with an eye toward, “How can we catch you messing up?”
I’m spoiled because my formative experiences with teacher training graced me with people and cultures truly dedicated to teacher improvement — and were willing to put resources behind it. I’m spoiled because I consider this a non-negotiable component of a good school.
Then I read this from the New York Times, and I was reminded that this is not the case everywhere.
While I’m absolutely in favor of administrators (and I’m not gonna lie — I consider “master teachers” whose sole job is to evaluate classroom teachers to effectively be administrators) observing teachers — particularly new teachers — in the classroom, it really, really needs to be done in the context of establishing meaningful relationships with teachers. The context of, “Hi, I will only see you twice this year, and by the way, your performance pay and job itself depend on how I fill out these ticky boxes,” does not do that. Many of the teachers I know — again, particularly the newer teachers — already do not make enough money to support a modest lifestyle (okay, okay, did I really need that $6 yoga class?). Depending on how it’s implemented, performance pay can be less incentive and more threat. And if I have to take a second job next year because teaching is not enough to cover my expenses? It’s that many fewer hours I can prepare to bring my A-game.
Impact [the observation program] costs the city $7 million a year, including pay for 41 master educators, who earn about $90,000 a year and conduct about 170 observations each.
Whereas I make about a third of that — performance pay included, and each year, it’s a little less — and conduct something on the order of 18,000 observations.
Newsflash: Dedicated teachers are not expendable commodities, and it’s time we stopped treating them as such.