Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Incompetent Admin Trumps Every Silver Bullet

Chalkbeat led me down the garden path yesterday with a description in yesterday's Rise and Shine:

No one becomes good at their job by attending workshops. At least, that's what two New York City educators argue as part of a case for teacher development that is deeply collaborative, and which eschews dry training sessions, superficial observations, and unhelpful data. 

After all, I agree with that pretty much completely. And it's got a pretty sensational headline too.

No professionals say, ‘I became great at my work by attending workshops.’ Why do we treat teaching differently?

Why indeed? Of course I've never heard a teacher or administrator actually say that either. In fact, I've never heard anyone at all suggest anything of the sort. But I'm still hooked by the Rise and Shine intro. And indeed the writers do justice to it, and list a bunch of preposterous assumptions about how teachers are supposed to get good at their jobs.

• “I became great at my work by attending workshops or training sessions.”
• “I became great at my work because my boss visited once a week for 15 minutes and then rated me with a rubric and gave me a next step.”
• “I became great at my job by analyzing data that measured my results daily and weekly.”

They're right, of course. No one says these things any more than kids cite their favorite teacher as the one who helped them get a good score on the standardized test. One positive they offer is mentoring, and they give a bunch of examples of things real people may or may not have said about it. The fact is, though, that mentoring is most definitely a part of NYC public schools. I'm sure it is done with varying degrees of efficiency, but I'm certain that's also the case with the lawyers and doctors mentioned in the piece. In fact there are plenty of us who will help our newer colleagues whether or not we're actually assigned to do so.

Where the writers lose me, though, is where they propose a silver bullet. That's here:

A small group of adults — three or four is best — should work as a team toward a common goal, like educating a group of seventh-graders in social studies. They should write the lessons, edit and improve their work as a team, organize and decorate their classrooms, strategize about how to work with challenging students, analyze data when they review student work every day. More experienced teachers serve as mentors for the newest member of their team while they do all of this daily work.

This is not all that revolutionary, actually, and much of this work is accomplished in a lot of places via inquiry teams and common planning. But that too can be done well or poorly depending upon how it's organized. Last year I spent part of most days with a teacher with whom I shared most, if not all of my students. We focused a lot on parental contact. She speaks Chinese and I speak Spanish, so between us we were able to reach out to a lot of parents and help one another. We frequently discussed how best to reach certain kids with whom we had issues.

We met every day except the day she had to go to her inquiry team. I don't know who was on her team, but it wasn't me. I was on another team with a bunch of people, none of whom taught my kids or even my subject. We would sit for 45 minutes and talk, or not, and do stuff, or not. For a while we were charged with planning a PD survey. I wrote one in about 20 minutes. Then we discussed it for weeks, made almost no changes, and sent it to admin, who did absolutely nothing with it.

The next few weeks we were on another topic. I don't remember what it was. What I do remember is that at the end of each session I would write up something to make it appear we were accomplishing something. I also remember, as this activity took place during a period I was assigned to chapter leader duties, that I stepped attending and resumed chapter leader duties.

Now I know inquiry teams can be done better. That's why I repeatedly requested to be teamed with the person with whom I actually worked. But you just never know. In a big school like mine, you might have a well-intentioned administrator with insurmountable scheduling issues. Or you may have an administrator who thinks it's your job to do his job, and directs you to do it during inquiry. You might, like me, be sitting in a group with no one who teaches your subject and no students in common for whom to plan.

I think it's great if these teachers have found a way to make things work. What I don't believe is that it's a magic formula to improve instruction in every school. There's absolutely nothing wrong with cooperation, and to tell you the truth I don't believe it's a one way street. The teacher with whom I mostly collaborated last year had a lot less experience than me, but she was very smart. I wouldn't and didn't hesitate to steal ideas from her. I'm not particularly proud in that respect. I will steal ideas from anyone at any time.

We're all different. I have worked under both helpful and unhelpful administrators. If I get good advice from administrators I will not only use it, but actively seek out more. If not, I'll nod politely, say thank you, and figure things out myself. When I find teachers with whom I can collaborate, and when it's a good idea, I do it. Now that's not a silver bullet either. It's just what works for me.

Maybe the teachers who wrote this have good administrators who help them plan. Or maybe they're in an environment where they can plan themselves. Maybe they have the discretion to make these groups and tailor them as needed. Maybe they're one of the very few schools that are not subject to the idiotic APPR plan that has infected our system. If  not, perhaps they're among the very few groups of teachers who are comfortable enough to ignore the evaluation system, even as it slithers like an anaconda through the building and its culture.

What they haven't addressed, and what is almost never addressed in things I read, is the dysfunction caused by administrators who are the opposite of helpful. There is something about people who are primarily motivated by power, money, or self-importance. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but it makes them very bad teachers. When they push to "get out of the classroom," they rise up to places where they have may have even less competence. It's the Peter Principle plus one. People who don't want to teach are almost never helpful to those of us who do.

I applaud the good intentions of the writers. I am all for us supporting one another, but their way isn't the only way. More importantly, as long as wretchedly incompetent administrators continue to flourish, as long as they happily show up and do multiple levels of damage, and as long as our system encourages and rewards this sort of behavior, this proposal will stand along a whole lot of others as just another unrealized idea.
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