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Toward A Broader Definition Of Teacher Excellence

A few days after a new teacher evaluation system made headlines in New York, I was honored as one of 50 finalists for the Department of Education’s Big Apple Awards, designed to “recognize the city’s best teachers and support a system-wide conversation about excellence in the classroom.”

I’d like to contribute my voice to this conversation by saying, first of all, that I doubt my teaching “excellence” greatly outshines many New York City teachers who dedicate their professional lives to the public schools and too often go unrecognized for their efforts.

Moreover, even though the Department of Education chose me for recognition from among 2,000 nominated teachers, I doubt I will receive a “highly effective” end-of-the-year rating next year. The criteria for this highest designation within the new evaluation system is so idealistic it feels unattainable for teachers grappling with the typical challenges associated with serving students from low-income families — inconsistent attendance, classrooms with a vast range in student-literacy, students who, for whatever reason, have difficulty studying or completing homework assignments.

When I started teaching high school social studies in New York City seven years ago, I could not command authority in my chaotic classroom, much less imagine receiving accolades like the Big Apple award. It was only through several years of trial and error that I learned to be an effective teacher for students who have adopted an understandably guarded disposition toward authority figures and are sadly used to a revolving door of inexperienced educators. If I am indeed an “excellent” teacher, it is only because I lean on my strengths: I am highly structured, explicit when giving directions, relentless in my routines and procedures, and genuine in my interactions with students. I might not engage every student every day, but over the course of the year I will reach the vast majority. As I said in my application for the Big Apple award, I believe it is better to be a good teacher everyday than to be an inconsistent teacher who sometimes offers excellent lessons.

By emphasizing occasional drop-in classroom observations, the new evaluation system will not necessarily recognize teachers who excel by taking the long view. By emphasizing supposedly objective measures like test scores, the evaluation system encourages a style of teaching that Mayor Bloomberg himself criticized in his keynote address at the Big Apple gala — one that emphasizes recitation of facts over intellectual curiosity and discovery. But the biggest problem with the evaluation system, and indeed, the current moment in education policy in general, is that it sends a message to teachers that any crisis in public education is due to a lack of quality teachers. Politicians and media outlets say that teachers need to be “held accountable,” and urge a carrot-and-stick model to reward good teachers and remove bad ones. I believe this viewpoint is shortsighted, scapegoating the “bad teacher” so that those in power can avoid confronting some of the more structural reasons for our struggling public schools. Furthermore, I believe that teachers contribute positively to student lives in myriad ways that cannot be captured by a standardized test, and that the best schools know how to capitalize on the individual strengths of a diverse staff. Finally, I believe that teachers will be more likely to improve their own practice if given positive reinforcement based on their strengths instead of constantly being told we need to do more or better.

As a part of my vetting process for the Big Apple award, I went to the Department of Education headquarters for an interview. During the interview I was asked what I would tell Chancellor Dennis Walcott if given the opportunity. I responded that receiving this recognition was a great honor and was a positive reinforcement of my teaching, giving me more confidence to walk into my classroom everyday. At the same time, the morale of many teachers I know is very low — we are frequently faulted for having low attendance or failing too many students, but not always given the support and resources that would help us to improve in these areas. Meanwhile, teachers everywhere have small victories all the time that go unnoticed. Couldn’t the Department of Education do more to honor not just 50 of “the city’s best” but the great majority of city teachers who work hard for their schools and students every single day?

I am pleading with the new mayor not to undermine my ability to teach my students by insinuating that charter schools are better than public schools or that a students’ responsibility ends if his or her teacher isn’t “excellent.” Instead, begin by assuming that all public school teachers go to work with the best interests of the students in mind. It would not cost the district a penny, but might go far in keeping more of the city’s hard working and potentially great educators in the classroom for years to come.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.