March 3, 2012Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher
By WILLIAM JOHNSON, NY TIMESLINK
AM a special education teacher. My students have learning disabilities
ranging from autism and attention-deficit disorder to cerebral palsy and
emotional disturbances. I love these kids, but they can be a handful.
Almost without exception, they struggle on standardized tests, frustrate
their teachers and find it hard to connect with their peers. What’s
more, these are high school students, so their disabilities are
compounded by raging hormones and social pressure.
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 workload drastically even over just the past 18 months.
While my class sizes have grown, support staff members have been laid
off. Students with increasingly severe disabilities are being pushed
into more mainstream classrooms like mine, where they receive less
individual attention and struggle to adapt to a curriculum driven by
state-designed high-stakes tests.
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
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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, 2012A New Model: Schools As Ecosystems
by Mark Anderson and William Johnson, at 10:30 amLINK
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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
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.