First Person

Measuring My Value

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.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.