An alternative to Daugaard’s plan and a higher view of teachers

by Mr. Sheehy

In expressing my frustration about South Dakota Governor Daugaard’s plan for motivating teachers to improve, I suggested that I and others had failed to offer our legislators better ideas, since they apparently were starved for some. I still agree with what I said about having a duty to influence these representatives, but I also should add that I think legislators (and executives) have an obligation to hold themselves to high standards. Why, for example, couldn’t a legislator call up one of the dozens of professors employed by public universities in this state and ask if they would compile a literature review of research relevant to increasing teachers’ learning and measuring teachers’ performance? What about utilizing the plentiful and capable minds over at TIE? Couldn’t they be a source of ideas for a legislature interested in hearing new ideas? I don’t know who informed the governor along the way, but my correspondence with the legislature suggested that some of those folks thought they lacked alternative ideas.

Of course, I like ideas and I find it a tad ridiculous that anyone would be lacking ideas when people like me find it so easy to think of them. I suggested to a few legislators that they read Daniel Pink’s Drive for a better understanding of human motivation (at least as far as research tells us), figuring it would be a good place to start. As I mentally returned to Pink’s topic, I found myself generating my own ideas regarding teacher-evaluation and learning, ideas I think far outstrip Governor Daugaard’s proposal, especially in its understanding of people. Pink explores three factors essential for motivating people in creative and problem-solving careers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Since I think purpose is something inherently wonderful about education my idea focuses primarily upon the first two characteristics (though purpose comes into play). The idea is an amalgamation of things I have seen elsewhere, and it is one I am growing to like, to be honest.

Autonomy

The basis of the plan goes like this. Each year teachers 1) identify an area in which they would like to improve, 2) create a plan for improvement, and 3) work to improve in that area. The area where they need to improve is selected by the teacher (hence, autonomy). It is really selected by the teacher, not a Model-T style where they can study anything they want, as long as it is formative assessment. Is the teacher wanting help on classroom management? Then maybe they’ll read about it or do a series of classroom visits with colleagues who are good at it. Is the teacher wanting to look into a writing workshop? Perhaps the teacher can take a class and read a couple books on it. Is the teacher wanting to increase her knowledge of Shakespeare to sharpen her content knowledge? Then perhaps she should read a couple of his plays and a book or two about the Bard. It is crucial that the area of study is chosen by the teacher, and that the teacher is seen as a scholar capable of guiding this process. Too many of our professional development classes are narrowly focused within a small range of technical skills, and if we were to force teachers to choose particular topics for their learning, we would narrow the possibilities. Take my recent reading as an example: James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599. I will never find a professional development class on this topic, yet I learned more from this book that will make me a better teacher of my Shakespeare class than I ever did by taking the professional development classes that have historically consumed my time.

Mastery

The plan I described above is not revolutionary. Through the eight years I have spent at my current school I have seen at least two attempts at such a reflective learning plan, but to no avail. Why? For one, the plans rarely granted teachers true autonomy (see the Model-T reference above). Further, they never supplied the teachers with enough time to allow them to pursue mastery. The purpose was undercut because teachers knew the plans were little better than worksheets that no one had time to complete or examine. The scope of the reflective work was so small that even attempting it wholeheartedly did not lead to mastery.

Accountability, Purpose, and Mastery continued

Part of what I think is missing is a system of true accountability, which actually adds an element of purpose to the pursuit. If, to create a parallel example, I ask students to complete a writing assignment but then do not read it, it undercuts the idea that what they have done has any purpose. I might say to them that the assignment’s purpose is to improve their skills and that my reading it will not alter whether their skills have improved. But what they will likely hear is that their work is not important enough for me to look at. In one sense accountability is a way of tracking someone, of seeing that they’re doing what the authority wants. In an additional sense, though, accountability, if conducted in a respectful manner, shows that the authority cares enough about what someone is doing to be involved in checking it.

This is why I think a system of accountability that respects teachers as scholars would be highly motivational and would lead to more mastery than exists within the current system. In my little idea that I’m crafting here, each teacher completes an inventory of what they are doing to improve through a given year. What are you, as a professional, learning this year? The portfolio, of sorts, is made up of a description of learning and “artifacts” to show that the learning has actually taken place. Artifacts might be samples of students’ work, or they might be a series of reflective journal entries written in response to some books that the teacher has read, or they might be a paper or two that the teacher has written assembling various pertinent research. Hopefully they would be a compilation of all those things, but its precise form should also be flexible, not formulaic (a formula severely undercuts autonomy).

Once completed, the teacher submits this learning portfolio to a panel made up of fellow teachers and an administrator. In a large school I would have a number of panels, in smaller schools, one or two. On a particular panel, I would have five people (including that administrator). Two would be teachers from a pool that is serving on the panel that year. In a bigger school, one should be from the same department as the evaluated teacher. That pool would need to serve for the whole year to maintain consistency, and teachers would be selected for (or, more likely elected to) that position, hopefully putting in place only the most trusted and fair colleagues. Also on the panel would be a teacher more or less drawn at random (every teacher should be obligated to serve on a panel or two through the course of the year) and one colleague selected by the evaluated teacher.

That panel then would listen to a presentation from the teacher where the teacher would describe the learning that took place–essentially giving a tour through the portfolio–and speak to any questions the fellow teachers would have. The administrator, who would have been the one to sit in on the teacher’s classroom as an observer, could share relevant information from the observation that would support or bring into question what was learned. At the end of the presentation, the panel of teachers should discuss with the teacher their thoughts about the learning that has taken place, give a type of recommendation or commendation, as applicable, to the administrator, and then that could be considered as part of the evaluation of that teacher.

In concept the panel is an accountability piece, put in place to verify that the teacher is learning. It provides an intimidating audience, to be sure, but about as fair a one as can be conceived of as well. Theoretically, the simple act of having to tell other people what you’re doing to learn would motivate a teacher to take the learning seriously–who wants to be the teacher who gets called out for taking the easy route?

But such a panel also provides an opportunity for teachers who are working hard to share with colleagues what they have done. How often do teachers in their normal working arrangements get to share what they are doing with an audience who would appreciate it? It does not happen. Some colleagues of mine who just completed graduate school were begging people to come to their final presentations, which were conducted on a Saturday (the presentations were quite good, by the way–much better than most of what I have seen at education conferences). They had worked extremely hard and were proud of what they’d learned, and having an audience for it was invigorating and motivating. Yet the crowds were small and made up mostly of family and close friends. These colleagues deserved more official recognition of their professional work.

The Reality Check

Would a plan like this cost money? Certainly. If it would work well, teachers would need time to work on the research and reading that goes along with learning and improving. If teachers were to sit on panels they would need subs to cover their classes (or for the two who are on all the panels, perhaps even an extra planning period–a nice perk for taking on the extra responsibility). With a plan like this I’d be of the opinion that teachers’ contracts should be extended with proportional compensation. That might be expensive, but would it cost as much as the governor’s plan, which, according to an editorial in the Rapid City Journal, is going to be one of the most dramatic increases in education funding in state history? All that money for a plan that likely will not even work?

Ultimately my plan is not about money and I share it not so much because it needs to be published but because the governor’s plan needs a foil; it needs something that by comparison will reveal how empty it is. My “plan” is about understanding what it is to be human and what motivates a human being. We are not computer programs needing a new input or upgrade; we are not hogs getting excited about a bigger cup of Kool-aid at the end of the race; we are people.

As people, we frequently need to be encouraged in our goal of guiding children to lives of quality and purpose, and a good way to motivate us, to encourage us, is to approach our profession with a high view, to see us as scholars capable of and interested in improving and learning. To use Daniel Pink’s framework, it means seeing us as worthy of being granted autonomy, as capable of pursuing mastery, and as requiring purpose in our pursuits. The governor’s plan, with its focus on making it easier to fire teachers and rewarding the very top tier, does not take a high view of our profession. It is pessimistic in its core. Perhaps what he and others might consider doing if they want to motivate teachers to improve is begin by understanding who we are and what we are trying to do.

Thanks for reading.

  • Learn on Flickr by Mark Brannan