River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 19 2012

“Students First” or First, Students?

“Mr. Britt, why’d you go to Harvard only to come deal with these disrespectful kids? You don’t get paid enough to deal with this, right?” – 14 year old female student

Recently, I read an article in the Washington Post and it killed me! Reform leaders and public officials are STILL caught up in debates about the best way to evaluate teachers. There is one MAJOR reason this is a debate; policy makers want to base teacher evaluations on the work of students. Okay. But don’t tell me at the same time that the problem with public education is that it employs a 20th century model best suited for factory workers. Why do we spend so much time focusing on what distinguishes a good teacher instead of focusing on what characteristics defines a great student? Recently, a student asked me: “You are so smart…why did you become a teacher?” Not to sound elitist, but it’s also tougher to sell the college dream when the majority of my kids are thinking: “he worked his butt off to attend a great college to come deal with…us? Say what?” My better performing students understand that I’m here to help them navigate their own successful paths, but I can’t help but wonder myself sometimes why I worked so hard to be under-appreciated and under-compensated by society.

Why do Ivy League graduates flock to Wall Street? Umm, hello!? Why not?

Why do we spend so much time focusing on teachers? We have tons of research pouring into teacher evaluation. There’s a shift between focusing on inputs and outputs (scores). A teacher could do the same thing in Long Island or a suburb of LA as he could in the Mississippi Delta and have drastically different results. Is he a bad teacher?  Why don’t we ask what makes a good student? In my experience, a good student compensates for a bad teacher. I’d argue that it is a lot easier for an above average student to survive a below average teacher than vice-versa. Let’s evaluate the students that get A’s everywhere regardless of the teacher. What are their habits? Now, a caveat is that I’ve seen that the lack of good students around them decreases overall rigor and those top students can get an A without doing their best work. Teachers have to focus on problem kids and can’t extend the learning of top students as easily. That’s perhaps one of two reasons I marginally support charter schools.

NCLB has shifted the burden from student to teacher. I can’t hold the hands of students all their life. That’s part of the reason I eliminated the instant gratification of tickets as a classroom incentive system. I’m not giving up but my feeling is like this: “if you can’t read, I’m not rewarding you. I rewarded you with free books and my attention. If that’s not enough, hot Cheetos and candy aren’t going to make a difference.” I reward growth and excellence. Extrinsic motivation helps minimal standards and compliance. That’s counter to the culture I seek to build in my classroom.

Enough of the Blame Game!

I wasn’t in a traditional classroom for math in middle school, which put me on track for AP in high school and I also received enrichment in Language. My favorite class and favorite teacher-mentor was the teacher of this accelerated math class where I had most of the characteristics identify as critical to high performance charter schools: high expectations and academic focus, increased instruction time, high-dosage tutoring, frequent feedback, and data-driven instruction. At the same time, I was ready for that because my mother promoted reading, which I loved to do, and I had the support and habits of mind to prepare me for a rigorous curriculum. That’s not to say that I didn’t feel like slacking some days (I was a teenager after all), but my teacher stayed on top of things despite challenges of the system. This experience reinforced my belief that TEACHERS SHOULD NOT BE MARTYRS IN A FAILING SYSTEM!

As I complete my second year of teaching, I am primarily focused on what my highest performing students are doing. This is not elitist, nor am I giving up on low-performers; I have far too many to do that. On the contrary, I’m just SO TIRED of hearing about the lack of black male achievement, and the achievement gap, and poverty, and lack of college readiness. I’m done. So done. We focus so dang much on the low achievers in this deficit-focus model of thinking. Why not look at what successful black males and African-Americans in general are doing to negotiate the ill effects of poverty and lingering racial constructs? Also, let’s analyze what their PARENTS and FAMILIES are doing to help set them up for success. Again, hello!?

When I think about the best way to set our children up for success in this competitive world, I start jumbling up thoughts of Dubois and Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Should we promote the “Talented Tenth” in charters and send everyone else to vocational school (not that there’s anything wrong with this) and can we finally achieve a merit-based society or will money forever equal merit? The more I read, the greater my sense is that regulations, testing, and restrictions disproportionately affect the outcomes of traditional public schools whereas by definition, charters have more flexibility. Maybe it would be worthwhile to examine whether the lesser extent of red tape contributes to the success of charter schools?

I don’t know. I close with this thought on refereeing. Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure to referee at a charity 3-on-3 middle school basketball tournament. Now, I’m no Jeremy Lin, but I’ve played basketball since I was little on many different levels and currently coach middle school basketball in Mississippi. I’m not the greatest referee but I can get the job done given sneakers, a whistle, and a stopwatch. That said, I couldn’t help but see parallels between these mini-games and my work as a teacher in a low-performing school. I enjoyed the first two games because the match-ups were entertaining and the kids had basic foundational skills that allowed them to basically ref themselves. I looked like a good ref because I was merely a facilitator and could let them play. WE ALL HAD FUN regardless of the outcome. Even though I needed to drive to Jackson later that day, I thought to myself: “this is fun, I can stay a little longer.” Now, in the third game, I had two kids who had shaky dribbling skills and another who was like the proverbial bull-in-a-china-shop. What do you think happened her? Now, my role shifted to that of an enforcer because I had to call a foul within five seconds as the kids who were rough and had less skill were a danger to themselves and everyone around them. If you had watched that game, you would have noticed that my demeanor changed because I had to be more alert, stricter, and therefore my level of stress was up slightly. I was glad when that was over!

Takeaways? This was just a 3-on-3 fundraiser without anyone’s lives or livelihoods at stake. The classroom is a different story- it’s not a game. Having better players inevitably makes the authority figure appear more competent and vice versa. I don’t look at this anecdote from an elitist perspective, however. I simply realize that what my students need as their full-time teacher is someone better equipped through training or expertise to handle their additional needs. TFA’s model was based on the premise that all my students needed were higher expectations and the motivation to exceed them. What TFA has acknowledged is that there are basic literacy and critical thinking skills that our kids need to develop in order to truly succeed not just on state tests but also in college and in life! Why don’t we have TFA for veteran teachers: Occupy TFA!? That’s what we really need. The reality is that so long as the incentives are aligned such that helping students in poverty gain the opportunities they deserve requires more stress, more work, less support, and less pay, you will find only a small subset both willing to do the job and resilient enough to succeed. Is the smarter strategy to develop students early to be able to self-navigate an unfair system? Furthermore, is this fair to these kids? We’ll see…

To answer the perceptive young lady’s question. No, I don’t get paid nearly enough, but as I told her: “I’m here for students like you.”

3 Responses

  1. wonderlandkc

    Insightful post. As an incoming CM, this gave me a lot to think about. One thing I’ve been thinking about lately are standardized state tests and what they really measure. You mention incentives–for teachers and students–and it’s important to keep in mind how big of a role they play in student achievement. In my state, state standardized tests are always ungraded and have no impact on student retention. I don’t think the answer is to grade the students on the tests, but I just have to wonder about the validity of student work if it’s basically their “volunteer” work. I’ve noticed in the classrooms I’ve worked in that any time a teacher tells students that an assignment “isn’t for a grade,” it’s a sure sign that they’re going to give it the least amount of effort (unless maybe it’s a fun, creative activity, obviously nothing like standardized tests). To me, it’s just more evidence that it’s unfair to evaluate teachers on this kind of student work.

    • I appreciate your comment, wonderlandkc. It’s an odd catch-22 of sorts that these tests are high stakes only in at-risk schools. A successful school can just go about its business and have students pass these tests without worrying. The fact that low income schools that “succeed” do so through intense test prep worries me because what you are actually seeing is an inflation of scores rather than a fundamental solution for root causes of the achievement gap. Logically, a high-performing, experienced teacher (exactly what these kids need and deserve) would have to go against common sense and logic to teach in a low-income area. In that sense, standardized tests are a disincentive towards true progress.

  2. Love this.

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Remove Barriers, Raise the Bar

Mississippi Delta
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