I came to teaching more than eight years ago by way of the law — having graduated from Fordham Law School in 1992. So I knew full well how intricate, malleable and unreliable evidence could be. When the New York City Teacher Data Reports came out and were touted as measuring my “value” as a teacher, I was deeply annoyed. Invalid, inaccurate and irrelevant, these data were no more useful in proving or disproving teacher value than the temperature on a single day could prove or disprove global warming. It’s not that I don’t think I’m a good teacher, I do. I simply measure it in ways that cannot be captured on a test. My reaction came as a surprise to some of my family, friends and co-workers because I was ranked in the 99th percentile.
As the first notes of congratulations began to arrive in my inbox, I understood that people meant well, yet I felt annoyed that anybody would and could delve into my professional life. Notably, I also felt grateful that my numbers would not force me to ashamedly try to explain them away. I was keenly aware that the rope that would have me swinging back and forth in jubilation could just as easily have been wrapped around my neck in humiliation. I felt sickened by the numbers next to the names of my colleagues who I know to be hardworking. I wrote back to those who sent their well wishes, disavowing the data and explaining that the so called “evidence” meant nothing because it could not measure that which makes a teacher valuable.
Now in my ninth year in the classroom, I understand the art of teaching, that is, those things not measurable by multiple-choice questions or by assessors armed with clipboards and checklists who believe the breadth and depth of learning in my room is revealed by the freshness of my bulletin board or the sheer quantity of newsprint hanging from my walls. I could teach in a hut with a dirt floor and be an excellent teacher because what makes me excellent is, in large part, an unquantifiable aesthetic that cannot be captured by a mathematical procedure. Inspiring students, giving them something to think about long after the school day is over, pushing and poking them to be their best selves, nurturing wisdom, stimulating passionate efforts, assisting discovery, facilitating connections, determining when to lead, guide or let go — these things cannot be found using an algorithm.
Armed with this belief about teaching and the positive responses of those I loved and valued, I reached out to other teachers in the 99th percentile to see if they felt the same. Many of them did and a group of us have signed a statement renouncing the data’s usefulness and publication.
Still for all the motivating anger I felt, I also felt demoralized and quite simply sad. The data had no power to prove my worth, yet, since it was being used for political purposes and to misinform the public, the data did have the power to make me feel worthless. And that is when a very unlikely visitor reminded me of the true value that I add to my students’ lives.
A wonderful hallmark of my brief teaching career has been a constant flow of former students who come back to visit me. I can always count on the previous year’s crop to return but last week a student whom I hadn’t seen since my first year came by. Lena was the type of student a teacher could never forget and not for any positive reasons. She presented a world of problems at a time when I had the fewest skills to deal with them. She was angry, oppositional, violent and absent a lot. She was the first student to call me a “bitch.” Once she was so mad about something, she put her fist through a glass partition at school. Another time, she and a fellow student got into a fight, which led to a suspension after she hit a police officer who had tried to break it up. And since teaching can generate wildly conflicting emotions, it should come as no surprise that I had loved this girl, prayed for this girl and had also been downright grateful when this girl was not in attendance.
I wondered if my face betrayed all these emotions when I saw her standing in my doorway. She was a bit taller and fuller in the face but otherwise unchanged. We exchanged a long, strong hug in front of my current students. I felt like crying as I thought to myself, “She’s still alive” (something I had wondered about many times over the years). She said she had business nearby but couldn’t miss her chance to see her “favorite teacher.” It was the use of that phrase that filled my eyes with tears. A veteran teacher once said to me, “All you can do is plant seeds. You may never know whether or not they grow.” Her words manifested themselves before me as I looked at this “seed” I had been uncertain would grow. Lena is going to school to become a dental hygienist. She has a 3-year-old daughter and reported that overall things are going well for her. I know there is more to her story that she chose not to share. I know her life is not perfect but still she was alive and working toward a stable future and quite frankly that is more than I had expected. On top of that, to have her call me her “favorite teacher,” well — that was unbelievable given how incompetent I was my first year, how troublesome she had been, and how often we butted heads. We spoke a bit longer and before she left, I tried to hug her long enough to last awhile, as if the strength of my embrace could shield her from trouble. I want so many good things for her.
After Lena had gone, I turned to my current group and said, “Teachers don’t get paid a lot, but when students come back to visit it’s like getting an extra paycheck. I want you to remember that when you are walking by this school one day. Come up to see me; it does my heart good. And to have Lena say that I was her ‘favorite teacher’ — well, that is why I work so hard, because 30 years from now when you have your own children and see me on the subway, I want you to say, ‘You see that woman. She was the best teacher I ever had.’” And as I stood there before my students, having made this confession, generous voice after generous voice said, “I’ll come back to see you, Mrs. Whitehouse.” For a little while, we were all a bit verklempt, me most of all for having been shown my true value.
Figure out a way to put that in an algorithm and perhaps I will accept it as providing some relevant evidence about the value I add to a classroom. Until then, keep your 99th-percentile rating. I prefer a letter of recommendation from one of my students.
Maribeth Whitehouse is a special education teacher at IS 190 in the Bronx. She is in her ninth year of teaching eighth grade.