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If Teachers Are Cogs, Then What About The Machine?

A few weeks ago, New York State officials and the state teachers’ union settled upon a revamped teacher evaluation rubric, and many cheered the agreement as a giant step in the state’s school reform agenda. Under the current evaluation system, teachers are rated as either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” with few teachers across the state receiving unsatisfactory ratings. The revamped system rates teachers along four tiers (highly effective, effective, developing, or ineffective). It also streamlines the dismissal process for teachers rated “ineffective” for two consecutive years. Proponents say the new system will raise the prestige of the teaching profession and enable districts to better identify low-performing teachers.

But now a bigger question rears its ugly head with not so facile solutions. For those who wish to fire our way to a better teaching force, it causes more trepidation and bumbling than a 7-year-old asking where babies come from. In the same vein, we must ask: Where do good teachers come from? Perhaps a story from my recent experience can shed some surprising light.

Recently I took a respite from graduate studies to substitute teach at a local charter middle school. For privacy reasons, I’ll call it “Well Oiled Machine” or “W.O.M.” Middle. The school was nested within a shared multi-school building, quite common in New York City. After introducing myself to the principal (who stood outside greeting students) I was escorted to the fourth floor that housed the school and eighth-grade science classroom. Lucky for me, Mr. W. (the absent teacher) left a flash drive containing the lesson on PowerPoint, all prepared for me. While I got settled, another teacher (without the flash drive) uploaded the same lesson from a central stored place on her own computer, generously taught the first five minutes, and then passed me the baton of about 20 focused eighth-graders. The day started smoothly.

I taught the kids about “Dana,” a woman composed of the nucleotides adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. “Dana” — a hilarious misnomer for DNA (which I stole from a Tyler Perry movie) — was an instant hit. Lucky for me, I had plenty of visuals to translate the students’ interest to real learning. Since each class was equipped with color LCD projectors, I pointed to various nucleotides and their bonds as the slideshow projected onto the whiteboard. Behavior problems were nil. Whenever tiny fires arose, I simply refocused the children using the school’s “merit” (or point) system. Usually I didn’t need it, though, as most children responded well enough to a bit of logic and wit.

My last block started around 2 p.m., and it was most difficult. Students’ disinterest and fatigue showed clearly. But the school had chosen “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” as the instructional text, and before long my restive eighth-graders and I lost track of the time discussing racial prejudices, stereotypes, and opportunity in the United States. As the bell rang and my day’s work came to an end, students concluded their day with an afternoon block of arts or service-based classes. Meanwhile I used this time to chat with teachers who feverishly ran copies for the next day’s instruction, spent one-on-one time with certain students, or deftly assured panicky parents who nervously phoned about the upcoming sex ed unit, asking whether there would be “too much nudity.” I even got to meet and chat with Mr. W., in whose class I had pinch hit. It turned out he and about five other first-year teachers were away receiving specialized teacher development. I left with a sense that life at “W.O.M. Middle” is intense, but impeccably functional and a great place to teach.

To me, W.O.M. Middle and successful schools like it beg the question: Are “good teachers” really fixed organizational inputs (like cogs), or do good organizations breed better teachers? While researchers agree that teacher quality exerts a sizable effect on student achievement, let’s not forget that they do little to inform us on where “quality teachers” come from, let alone how to build a stronger teaching force.

I left wondering how much worse a “good teacher” there might have been without all of W.O.M.’s organizational supports. W.O.M. engineered a team culture that continually trains its less experienced teachers, uses centralized behavior management systems, structures academic scheduling to maximize “teachable” time-blocks, shares instructional plans, effectively integrates technology, and leaves no teacher to struggle alone (e.g. me).

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has decried NCLB for proposing higher standards without providing adequate supports. As we celebrate New York’s historic teacher evaluation agreement, let us reflect with the same caution. W.O.M. reminds us that teachers aren’t cogs. They’re malleable, context-based practitioners who grow in an efficient, interconnected professional milieu.

In other words, let’s get to focusing on the machine.

Carlon Myrick was a Teach For America 2007 Corps member and taught four years at a charter school in East New York, Brooklyn. He currently works as a substitute teacher while attending graduate school at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

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