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NYC Teacher William Johnson on School Ecosystems, and Being a "Bad" Teacher
William Johnson wrote: "What makes a great teacher? To a lot of people, the
Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher
By WILLIAM JOHNSON, NY TIMES
I AM a special education teacher. My students have learning disabilities ranging from autism and attention-deficit disorder to
As you might imagine, my job can be extremely difficult. Beyond the challenges posed by my students, budget cuts and changes to special-education policy have increased my
On top of all that, I’m a bad teacher. That’s not my opinion; it’s how I’m labeled by the city’s Education Department. Last June, my principal at the time rated my teaching “unsatisfactory,” checking off a few boxes on an evaluation sheet that placed my career in limbo. That same year, my school received an “A” rating. I was a bad teacher at a good school. It was pretty humiliating.
Like most teachers, I’m good some days, bad others. The same goes for my students. Last May, my assistant principal at the time observed me teaching in our school’s “self-contained” classroom. A self-contained room is a separate classroom for students with extremely severe learning disabilities. In that room, I taught a writing class for students ages 14 to 17, whose reading levels ranged from third through seventh grades.
When the assistant principal walked in, one of these students, a freshman girl classified with an emotional disturbance, began cursing. When the assistant principal ignored her, she started cursing at me. Then she began lobbing pencils across the room. Was this because I was a bad teacher? I don’t know.
I know that after she began throwing things, I sent her to the dean’s office. I know that a few days later, I received notice that my lesson had been rated unsatisfactory because, among other things, I had sent this student to the dean instead of following our school’s “guided discipline” procedure.
I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?
In my three years with the city schools, I’ve seen a teacher with 10 years of experience become convinced, after just a few observations, that he was a terrible teacher. A few months later, he quit teaching altogether. I collaborated with another teacher who sought psychiatric care for insomnia after a particularly intense round of observations. I myself transferred to a new school after being rated “unsatisfactory.”
Behind all of this is the reality that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my “bad” teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job.
In fact, I don’t just want to get better; like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.
Teaching was a high-pressure job long before No Child Left Behind and the current debates about teacher evaluation. These debates seem to rest on the assumption that, left to our own devices, we teachers would be happy to coast through the school year, let our skills atrophy and collect our pensions.
The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.
Worst of all, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach. When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent. One week, my assistant principal wanted me to focus on arranging the students’ desks to fit with class activities, so I moved the desks around every day, just to show that I was a good soldier. I was scared of losing my job, and my students suffered for it.
That said, given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can’t force his students to learn. Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.
My best teachers, the ones I still think about today, exposed me to new and exciting ideas. They created classroom environments that welcomed discussion and intellectual risk-taking. Sometimes, these teachers’ lessons didn’t sink in until years after I’d left their classrooms. I’m thinking about Ms. Leonard, the English teacher who repeatedly instructed me to “write what you know,” a lesson I’ve only recently begun to understand. She wasn’t just teaching me about writing, by the way, but about being attentive to the details of my daily existence.
It wasn’t Ms. Leonard’s fault that 15-year-old me couldn’t process this lesson completely. She was planting seeds that wouldn’t bear fruit in the short term. That’s an important part of what we teachers do, and it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t show up on high-stakes tests.
How, then, should we measure students and teachers? In ninth grade, my students learn about the scientific method. They learn that in order to collect good data, scientists control for specific variables and test their impact on otherwise identical environments. If you give some students green fields, glossy textbooks and lots of attention, you can’t measure them against another group of students who lack all of these things. It’s bad science.
Until we provide equal educational resources to all students and teachers, no matter where they come from, we can’t say — with any scientific accuracy — how well or poorly they’re performing. Perhaps if we start the conversation there, things will start making a bit more sense.
William Johnson is a teacher at a public high school in Brooklyn who writes on education for the Web site Gotham Schools.
FEBRUARY 6, 2012
A New Model: Schools As Ecosystems
by Mark Anderson and William Johnson, at 10:30 am
What makes a great teacher? To a lot of people, the answer seems simple enough: a great teacher is one whose students achieve. For the most part these days, student success is measured with test scores. Logically then, a great teacher is one whose students perform well on tests.
Let’s take it a step further: what makes a great school? Again, the same basic logic applies: great schools are ones that produce the highest proportion of students who perform well on tests. The role of the school, in other words, is to produce students successful according to test proficiency.
Perhaps this framework appears overly simplistic, but it’s the framework that currently directs our efforts to improve public schools. Schools are knowledge-manufacturing facilities, with students being their products. This framework has led school reformers to advocate for accountability systems, human capital mechanisms, and other private sector management tools in public school reform.
Not surprisingly, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is an aggressive proponent of this business framework. The mayor’s private sector management approach recently led him to propose a “turnaround” program at 33 city schools that would require replacing half of those school’s teachers. Not happy with the product? Fire experienced workers and bring in cheaper, lower skilled replacements.
This framework is not just a New York thing. All across the country, school districts are being pushed, by influential figures like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Calif. Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss, to evaluate teachers based on a “value-added” analysis. What does this mean? It’s a kind of metaphor: students are raw natural resources; unprocessed, they contribute little to the economy and thus possess little value. If teachers process them effectively, however, their value increases.
Let’s leave aside our gut reactions to talking about children this way. The real problem with this framework is that it’s been a dead end. For the most part, debates about how to produce better students have led to discord within the field of education, while demonstrating little significant impact.
Applying an industrial-growth model to student learning has rightfully caused consternation on the part of both parents and teachers. Parents don’t send their children to school simply to be processed like chaff from wheat. Yes, parents want their kids to get good jobs and to be academically successful, but they also want their kids to become mature, responsible, well-rounded individuals. Parents look for more from a school than its achievement on tests: is the school safe? Will their child receive individualized support and attention? Are there extracurricular resources and programs available? Are children happy at school? What sort of curriculum is offered?
As special education teachers, we know how critical these environmental factors are. Our students, for reasons as varied as their individual learning needs, rarely thrive in a high pressure, test-driven environment. The vast majority of students with exceptional learning needs perform significantly below the norm on standardized tests, significantly enough that these tests (or the scores required to pass them) must constantly be modified so that our students can be accounted as successful. Students receiving special education services are often more attuned to environmental factors than their general education counterparts. It is this sensitivity to their environment that often makes it so difficult for such students to focus on their studies.
Schools as ecosystems
But positive, supportive environments are not important only for students with exceptional learning needs. All students thrive in environments that support their development in diverse ways: from offering a coherent, sequential curriculum to providing students with a comfortable, stimulating physical space. Such schools, like their curricula, take responsibility not simply for academic development, but personal development as well. School environments where the curriculum is designed around standardized tests, and where factors like the physical and social environment take a back seat to those tests, are not conducive to learning.
We propose a fundamental shift in the framework and language we use to discuss educational reform. Instead of a framework that views students as products, we propose a framework in which the products of education are viewed as the contexts and content of schools themselves. The schools we produce should be positive and nurturing learning environments where students are engaged in a rich, coherent curriculum. Rather than view our students as widgets, we’d do better to view them as vibrant, dynamic organisms, and view the school, by extension, as an ecosystem. While such a model would make it harder to quantify school quality based on a simple numerical scale, it would enable us to have more productive conversations about systemic education reform, and to take action in targeted ways that will have a sustainable impact.
There are principles for maintaining a healthy ecosystem that can provide guidance in strengthening our school environments. We are certain that this shift in focus will — perhaps paradoxically — result in more productive student outcomes. Land maintained according to sound ecological principles results in abundant microbial soil life, interdependency of diverse species, and a sustainable yield. A school maintained according to ecological principles will result in lower teacher turnover, greater community engagement, and positive long-term student outcomes.
Our belief is that many schools commonly considered “great” already operate as healthy, sustainable ecosystems. Such schools offer their students adequate sunlight, fresh air, exercise, and nutrition. Their students feel intellectually, emotionally, and physically safe because their school communities celebrate diversity and offer equity of opportunity. These schools offer an array of supplemental options–such as music, foreign languages, clubs, and sports–to meet the diverse needs of their dynamic student bodies. They offer protection from short-sighted policies and destructive external forces through the strong relationships and trust engendered and developed within the school community. They possess built-in mechanisms to maintain equity and equilibrium, preventing one type of personality or learning need from dominating at the expense of others.
Cultivation, not demolition
How does this framework relate to ongoing conflict around school closures? Under the Department of Education’s current “turnaround” plan, as many as 33 city schools could be closed, re-staffed (with as many as half their current teachers replaced), and reopened. At schools all over New York, teachers, students, and families have voiced concerns about the city’s slash-and-burn approach to school “turnaround.”
If schools are factories, tearing down “ineffective” ones and replacing them with newer, shinier ones might sound like good business. If, however, we view schools as ecosystems, then struggling schools are depleted ecosystems desperately in need of resuscitation and support. Such resuscitation requires a holistic, long-term approach.
Using an ecological design approach, reformers could not treat schools as vacant lots primed for subdivision. Instead, school revitalization would need to be a community-driven, long-term process. In an ecological framework, school reformers would need to acknowledge the complexity of school communities, rather than simply pretending that schools could be leveled, bulldozed, and magically reinvented as high performing lots of isolated land.
Implicit in such a framework, and diametrically opposed to the “student as product” framework, is the understanding that there is no ideal school (nor student). Just as healthy ecosystems might come in a myriad of forms, healthy school environments may come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, dependent on specific local community needs and circumstances. That said, healthy school environments, like ecosystems, are guided and cultivated by a set of core principles, which the authors would like to explore in future posts.
Perhaps the best part of this paradigm shift (for the authors) is that in such a framework, the role of the teacher would shift from test-prep overseer to environmental steward. Instead of being trained and treated as a widget, teachers would be content experts and community leaders of their classroom and school ecosystem, responsible for all the students who inhabit it. Such stewards would necessarily need to be long-term inhabitants of these ecosystems themselves, growing more and more effective as their knowledge of the environment deepens and their relationships within the school community strengthens.
A new metric
Do we sound like dreamers? Would such a model be impossible to quantify? We do not believe so, and we’re not the first to propose such a paradigm shift. In fact, we believe that by refocusing our attention on the content and contexts of our schools, we can establish a new measuring stick. What’s more, since this framework would not be based on improving student test scores but on improving school environments, the responsibility would be shared by all who work within and support that community, rather than solely upon the backs of individual students and teachers within the confines of an isolated classroom.
In the posts that follow, the authors will lay out a series of ecological principles that we believe can be used as a guide for effective school design and reform. We will also examine model schools and investigate how they’ve constructed such exceptional school environments. We look forward to your feedback.