A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: When I’m King

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

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.


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.


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

Me and the Legislature: A relationship fostered by Daugaard’s plan for education

Recently the governor of South Dakota, Dennis Daugaard, publicized a plan he is proposing for reforming pieces of the education system. Some of the details are available at the Argus Leader’s website, but the three big basics go like this:

  • $5,000 bonuses each year to the top 20 percent of teachers in each district.
  • $3,500 bonus each year to secondary math and science teachers
  • No more tenure for teachers

Opinions obviously abound, including this one from Jim Shaw, the former mayor of Rapid City who supports the plan and has apparently been waiting for something like it to be introduced:

Facts show we can do a much better job. The U.S. spends twice as much per student compared to most other countries, but our student achievement rankings are near the bottom.

Daugaard’s statistics point out that student enrollment in South Dakota declined by almost 50,000 between 1971 and 2011, but the number of teachers increased by 869 and other school staff by 3,569.

Daugaard also says spending per student in the state has more than doubled during that time, but test scores in South Dakota have remained flat.

Daugaard articulated what many of us have long believed: Simply throwing more money into education without increased accountability is not the answer.

Personally I was not big on the plan, though not due to specific items but due to its overall assumption about what motivates human beings (and teachers in particular). In reading the newspaper’s description of Daugaard’s plan, I flashed back to the research into human motivation that I read about in Daniel Pink’s book, Drive. In Drive, Pink presents a damning case to the carrot and stick methods of reward and punishment that we so often fall back on, at least in the context of creative and problem-solving pursuits.

In one sense, the observation is obvious. We are not motivated by money nearly to the extent that we believe. Would Gov. Daugaard have come up with a way of solving the budget shortfall without making cuts if we’d simply offered him monetary incentive? Of course not. Similarly, teachers are not going to be motivated to teach better because they might get a bonus. In fact, any teachers who might be motivated by such a bonus would likely be the ones on the very opposite end of the spectrum–in threat of receiving the stick of firing.

A decent salary makes me feel valued and helps me decide whether I can enter the profession. Today, however, I am trying to do my best for my students, but I hadn’t thought about my paycheck until I picked up the newspaper and read about this issue. What that means is that my paycheck is not a motivating factor. A decent salary makes it so I can stop thinking about my salary and focus entirely upon why I am here–teaching students.

There are specific details in the governor’s plan that a person could discuss, but it is the overall approach that alarms me, and I hope as the legislature moves forward to evaluate it, they will consider the wisdom of the underlying principal of attempting to motivate a workforce with carrots and sticks.

This is the message that I sent to my state representatives, whom I chose to contact through email. The responses I received were prompt and thoughtful. The legislative representatives and senators recognized my concern, occasionally sharing it, but also recognized a need to do something, and they were glad that the governor came forward with a concrete idea.

In a further response to a state senator, I chose to highlight a secondary area of concern I have with the plan–its potential effect on the culture of the faculty.

The nature of our education system’s given task is team-driven. As teachers, none of our students are ours alone. We are measured as a school and held accountable as a school. At the high school level I am one teacher of six a student likely has at a given time, and there is a real chance at my school that a student could have as many as 30 different teachers during high school. If that student performs well in my classroom, that is great, but the reality is that I am about 1/30th of his classroom experience here. I am part of a team of teachers working to impact that student’s learning; there is no way to pretend I am more significant than that.

In this way, Governor Daugaard’s plan concerns me in its need to rank teachers–an action that strips away the emphasis on team and clearly identifies who is most valuable and who is not. I have heard some folks express concerns that the plan could stifle collaboration–that teachers will be less likely to share good ideas because those ideas are what might make them part of the top 20%. I suppose this could be true, but honestly, I doubt it would be the case in more than a few rare instances. What seems more likely is that teachers will move through their days and interact with colleagues with the aura of competition and measurement hovering over them, and that kind of unwitting obsession definitely undercuts the team-identity. How can a person focus on students when they’re focusing on themselves?

  • “This new hire is pretty sharp. Will she bump me out of the 20%?”
  • “The principal popped his head in the door. Was that activity good enough to keep me in the 20%?”
  • “I got an advanced class–good. Perhaps then my students’ scores will put me in the top 20%.”
  • “She’s been in the top 20% for two years, but we all know she’s not that good a teacher.”
  • “I am just not a top 20%, but I’m not a bottom 20% either, so what does it matter?”

If a basketball team had only five players, would the coach rank them all every week, rewarding only the top two players with special recognition and incentive? How would that motivate the other three? How would that help the team? Does it matter whether I’m the second or third best player on the team, or does it matter whether I do whatever it takes to help the team win the game?

Through my eight years of teaching I will confidently affirm one thing above all others: teaching is quite difficult. A plan that measures and ranks teachers can easily erode confidence that all teachers need–even those who would rank only in the top 40% of teachers rather than the top 20%. I can see such a plan agitating and magnifying teachers’ insecurities and defensive responses to correction and critique, because it places the teachers in a position where they need to think of themselves and their status. I can see it undercutting the true state of our pursuit: a team working to propel the learning of a large group of young people.

Do I have any constructive alternatives? This is the challenge one representative tossed at me, and at this moment I have to admit I don’t have any direct substitutions to mention. I do not recognize some easy tweak to the governor’s proposal that would make it palatable, because it is the underlying approach of the plan that concerns me, and any ideas I would have would admittedly begin by scrapping the plan and re-evaluating the original goal: how can we motivate teachers to improve? It seems to me that much more motivational would be a plan that works to empower teachers to improve themselves and that gives them the time and opportunity to master their profession. I could talk for an hour about a plan like that . . .

And that might be exactly where people like me are failing. The dominant theme I detected in my state legislature’s responses was this: “We can see there needs to be fixing, and no one has any better idea, so this is what we’re going to do.” When the governor presented his plan, I jumped up and wrote to my state legislature to say I did not like it. But before he presented that plan, I never said boo to anyone about ideas I might have to improve our lot.

Duty is a word we don’t use much anymore in our culture outside of Marine commercials, but that does not eliminate it. I think I have a duty as a teacher and citizen to participate more fully in the legislative process; a duty to be not only protective and reactive to legislation that is introduced, but pro-active and constructive about legislation and policies that do not exist yet.

Later this week I think I’ll jot one idea I have, something that fits my qualifications as empowering teachers to improve and giving them time to master their profession. Perhaps it won’t help anything or matter, but it’s better than just complaining.

Just in time observation for teachers’ just in time learning

I’m adding a new category for my postings, one which I’ve stolen from John Williams, a radio host I thoroughly enjoyed when I lived outside Chicago. It’s called “When I am king” – because I periodically have those silly ideas and plans I’d institute if I were principal, mayor, or even king.

Today’s thought: If I were principal.

I’d have a person on staff full-time to be a tutor, much like we have in my school. Here, there is a special room called the Academic Resource Center (ARC), and it is staffed by intelligent, friendly tutors who help students with their homework. Since we’re such a big school, we have one tutor for each core subject area. What I’d do is take a tutor like this and have him or her be a tutor and an on-call substitute teacher.

But the substitute part would not be for emergencies when a sub was not available. This person would have an openly published schedule (on line) and a teacher in the building could claim a slot for the tutor to cover her class. The “covering” is not so a classroom teacher can run to the store or the dentist, it’s for observing other teachers and collaborating when it otherwise would not be possible.

For example, say I hear that Mrs. Smith is doing that great activity where she has students playing games and at the same time learning all their vocabulary terms. The easiest way to learn it myself is to go to her room and watch her do it, so I check the tutor/sub’s schedule, see that she’s open third block and schedule her to cover my class. I email my plans to the tutor/sub, and when the time comes, head to Mrs. Smith’s class and watch her, feeling confident that my class is in good hands, since it is being covered by a competent professional who is familiar with the students. When I’m finished, I fill out a report that takes less than five minutes to write but verifies that the time was used well.

My school attempted something like this last year and the year before, where small groups of teachers rotated for observations – the school hired subs, allowing each of us to watch one teacher and be watched by one teacher. The idea was decent, but the result didn’t always pan out, possibly because of differing ideas about the purpose for the observation. I think one way to improve it, though, would be to have this flexible person available anytime – a person who would be ready to fill in when that “just-in-time learning” moment arises.

Perhaps some of it depends on how good the sub is, but if you could have this guy, who wouldn’t want to participate? When I’m king, I’ll be able to hire him, after all.

Thanks for reading.