At Standard

My friend Andrea and I taught a summer improv camp for 6th-12th graders last week. We ran the camp last year too. Lots of fun. Lots of work.

I didn’t have much time to write last week. Teaching adolescents and teenagers to say “yes, and” is consuming. I’m all sorts of behind. Professors get summer vacations? Not likely. The further I go in this profession, the more work there is to do. But it’s good work.

One of my next tasks is write an article with some colleagues about teacher evaluation. I stumbled across a short vignette about the subject that I published in 2016. It’s a brief account of my experience being evaluated as a high school teacher. I tell a longer version of this story in Playing with Sharp Objects.

I’m going to share an edited version of the vignette below. This seems like a helpful way – well, helpful for me anyway – to turn toward writing after a week spent teaching. Middle school kids can wear you out. Talk about hormones. Speaking of hormones. Here’s a vignette about teacher evaluation:

***

The sound of heels clicking on linoleum makes me anxious. Adult shoes in schools make me feel unsafe. This was not always the case. Nearly fifteen years as a high school English and drama teacher in took a toll on me. I learned to fear the sound of unannounced, adult visitors to my classroom.

I never feared my students.

I was voted most inspirational teacher three times at two different high schools. Countless students told me how important my teaching had been for them. I created many close, enduring relationships with my students. I am embarrassed to write so positively about my teaching—certainly I had plenty of faults—but more often than not, my high school students appreciated me.

Despite what I deemed as overwhelming evidence of my success as a teacher, my career was anything but pleasant. Adult evaluators appreciated my approach to teaching less than my students—at least the ones that mattered.

I was suspended twice during my career. In my sixth year of teaching, after I had been tenured, my principal put me on two, three-day professional leaves. I was suspended because the principal overheard that I was using unprofessional language in my classroom. My principal conducted secret interviews with my students to find out whether or not I was being “inappropriate” in the classroom. I discovered this clandestine investigation only because my students—despite being told not to—informed me of the investigation.

“That felt really weird,” one girl told me after she was interviewed.

Ultimately, I was sent to the district office to explain the first day of a Drama Workshop class. I shared a spirited explanation of my introductory talk with students about building something meaningful during the semester. In the district’s defense, I had used the word “bullshit” in front of a 9th grader during my talk to refer to the busywork of school—the same busywork I hoped to avoid with my students during the semester. This student had previously been homeschooled. Her mother was upset to learn that her daughter’s teacher used this word. My union representative was impressed by my explanation and surprised when I was suspended after my meeting with district staff.

My second suspension came later that same year. My principal walked into my classroom while I was showing an episode of The Office to illustrate comic timing in a Drama Workshop class. Once more, I was suspended without discussion for showing inappropriate content in my classroom. I was also told that the district was considering my termination.

My file was now littered with documents that classified me as an unprofessional educator (and person). In fact, my supervisors decided my teaching performance was so substandard that I was placed on the district’s teacher-assistance track. Three colleagues and one assistant principal were assigned to mentor me. Either my behavior would be corrected or I would be fired. I was never explicitly told which behavior I needed to change—I was just told to be more “professional.” These three colleagues came to my classroom and watched me teach. They filled out rubrics. No feedback was provided for me—only scores that denoted whether or not I met expectations. I was to be evaluated by my principal at the end of this yearlong process. If I were not deemed at standard, the district would terminate me.

My principal’s summative evaluation of my teaching was the only time she entered my classroom to watch me work with students. She saw me facilitate a Drama Workshop class. Three separate groups of students were producing plays they had written. She followed me around with a clipboard as I coached my students. Students, as was often the case in my classroom, were extremely engaged in the process. The principal did not interact with my students or me during the class. Her eyes were buried in paperwork. She filled out a rubric, I was deemed at standard, and I did not lose my job.

Despite the official paperwork, the peer assessment, and the standardized rubrics—this process used to evaluate me as a teacher felt arbitrary and insulting. Yes, this was the same evaluation system that had been used in both of my schools prior to receiving tenure. Still, I had not taken this process seriously until I was about to lose my job.

My administrators used the words “appropriate,” “inappropriate,” and “professional” to denigrate my teaching, but never actually defined what those things meant to them. My career came down to numbers that my principal, a former high school science teacher from a rural district that shared nothing in common with the school where we worked, scrawled onto an evaluation form after watching forty-five minutes of one drama class on one day.

My career survived the events described above. I continued to get challenged by my principal during the next six years. Unannounced visits from administrators usually signaled that I was in trouble, or—at the very least—I was being monitored and evaluated to see if my teaching was “appropriate.” My heart would race whenever I heard the sound of heels coming down the hallway towards my room.

The emotional toll of working in such an unsupportive environment continued to weigh on me. I finished my PhD in Education and, ultimately, left the high school classroom to become a college professor. It made me sad to leave my profession. I had spent much of my life pouring myself into my high school classroom. To my mind, I was a good teacher. Still, the damage had been done. I could not shake the irrational fear that one minor slip, one errant piece of information that escaped my classroom and upset an administrator could spell the end of my career.

So I left.  

***

What a story. Now it’s ten years later. The events described above are less raw. I’m less frustrated. I don’t really have any grudges, and I’m more sympathetic to the conditions that led to a narrative about my appropriateness (or lack thereof) as a public educator. Really, I know that my administrators were only doing their job as they imagined they should do it.

I’m probably a little wiser now. Well, hopefully. I have more credentials, anyway. Dr. Tanner. Something I’ve come to think is that schools do not do a good job articulating what it means to be a “good” or a “bad” teacher. Teacher education programs have a hard time with this too. So many competing ideas about what teaching should be. And the mechanisms in place to evaluate teachers are arbitrary at best. Professional can mean anything to anybody. Appropriate too. These words are often used to disguise values. Ideologies. I’ve always seen classrooms as places to interrogate and question ideologies – not blindly reenforce them. Teacher evaluation often becomes an excuse for people to impose their views on others.

As a high school teacher, I was evaluated with Charlotte Danielson’s framework for teaching. Charlotte Danielson, as best as I can tell, was an Educational Psychologist who made a small fortune when teaching evaluation became popular due to Race to the Top’s obsession with accountability. Charlotte was getting rich around the same time I almost lost my job.

One of the domains in the Danielson framework relates to professionalism. Category 4F. A descriptor of good teaching, according to the Danielson framework, is this: “The teacher consistently fulfills district mandates regarding policies or procedures.” In other words, a teacher shouldn’t think critically about district practice. They should reproduce institutional values. Something about that descriptor sends shivers down my spine. I became an educator to think with my students, to question and make new knowledge. Not to fulfill district mandates. But I get it. Institutions are situated by socio-cultural contexts. And administrators get paid to honor certain values. But I’ve had far too many experiences where the values that a school (or powerful people in schools) holds hurt people. Students, yes, but adults too. And schools shouldn’t hurt people.

I work really hard to notice when I’m hurting people. In school and society. I try to avoid hurting others the best I can. I fail all the time. I think that writing a critique of Danielson’s framework is a small move I can make to help people avoid hurting other people. So that’s on the agenda now.

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