Today, for the first and only time in as long as I can remember, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a teacher. by Jennifer Higgins

Today, for the first and only time in as long as I can remember, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a teacher. The reason? One that I am embarrassed to admit. 

As an elementary educator, there are any number of challenges I face on a daily basis. We’ve ALL been there. Schedules that seem impossible, students who struggle, curriculum demands, parental communication, interruptions for students leaving early or coming late, social drama “spillover”, not enough time in the day, the list goes on and on…and on. We teachers wear many hats – at times, we are parents, coaches, friends, mentors, social workers, psychologists, and cheerleaders, just to name a few. Yes, our job is to teach our students reading comprehension, problem solving strategies, and research skills, but our job is also to remind them of their manners, to encourage them to talk and to listen to each other, to practice kindness so they may model it, to comfort them when they come into school upset because a parent or grandparent is in the hospital, to reassure them when they are nervous about taking a test, to give them a hug and a Band-Aid when they give themselves a paper cut…because if we don’t do it, who will? So, we do. And most of us – myself included – love every minute of it. And because we love it, we don’t just do it – we do it with enthusiasm, with compassion, and with pride. 

I don’t know how you would measure the value of a teacher in a student’s life, but if you could, I would rest assured knowing that anyone whose job it was to evaluate me would notice how I greet each child with a smile every day, how I incorporate Community Building activities into my classroom, and how I work for hours at night and on the weekends planning, giving feedback on assignments, and coming up with creative ways to teach 21st Century skills to my eager learners. In addition to teaching 4th grade in a collaborative, special education integrated classroom, I also actively participate in my school and district community as a Student Council co-advisor, volunteer on our Teacher Center policy board, summer school remediation teacher, and member of various committees including curriculum writing and the OLWEUS Bullying Prevention Coordinating Committee. I would be comfortable with having someone observe my classroom management, read through my plan book, take notes on my rapport with children, view my parent communication log, or otherwise evaluate any number of measures, which contribute to being a dedicated and effective professional.

Too bad that New York State has other plans in mind. Instead of fairly measuring the effectiveness of my planning and teaching by utilizing methods deemed appropriate by actual educators, my evaluation is based on a convoluted matrix, developed by some non-transparent “powers that be”. I have read about it, researched it, had many discussions centered around it, taken countless notes at meetings – and still, I can’t tell you how it is calculated. What I can tell you is this (and this is extremely difficult for me as someone who does not enjoy “tooting my own horn”):

I have been told by my colleagues that they love working with me. I have been told by my principal that I am an exemplary educator. I have been told by parents that I have made their children love school and that I was the best teacher they have ever had. I have been told by students that they wish I could follow them to the next grade. I have been thanked by administrators for my involvement and dedication. I have even recently been made aware that there is a Facebook group for moms in my school, in which I have repeatedly received accolades and compliments.

But… I have also now been told by New York State that I am 2 points short of being an “effective” teacher; that, in fact, after 12 years in the classroom, I am only “developing” at my profession.

So what now? Well, when I heard this news, I did what any person wanting to be rational but acting with their heart instead would do – I cried…and cried…and cried. I didn’t sleep. I had trouble focusing on anything else. And then, the more I thought about it, the more I got angry.

I am angry that I spent hours and hours of time last school year using test prep books that made students miserable. I am angry that some of the brightest students I know received grades on the state test that will no doubt make them question their own intelligence. I am angry that if someone doesn’t know me better, they could look at my score of 72/100 and think that I am not a very good educator. I am angry that there are other good teachers in the same position as me. I am angry because, if I am truly failing at what I am supposed to be accomplishing, there is absolutely no way to improve because I have no idea what I did “wrong”.  And I am angry because I would never give a score lacking feedback to a student, and yet that is exactly what is being done to me. 

Let me be clear: I believe in evaluating teachers, and I am the first one to admit that there is always room for improvement. I self-reflect, I study best practices, and I try - each day, each month, and each year - to be better at my job than I was before. What would a fair system for evaluating teachers look like? I’m not sure, but I know with absolute certainty that it would not look like this

I received a BA from Dartmouth College in Psychology, and I received my MA in Elementary Education from Columbia Teachers College. Sadly, I have been asked MANY times why I went to “such good schools to become a teacher”. The answer that I want to share, but often don’t, is: Shouldn’t a world-class education, from institutions that encourage you to persevere, to challenge yourself, and to think critically, be exactly what we want teachers to have in order to ensure that the next generation will be prepared to inherit the world and hopefully do a better job with it than we have? The answer that I usually give is to laugh and shrug nervously, because NO answer I can give can overcome the fact that the question is reflective of a much bigger problem. The truth is that most of our society still thinks of teaching as a “fallback” job, one that is not to be respected, and one that is undertaken by people who can’t do anything else. Clearly, this is the way we are thought of by the leaders of our state; otherwise, we would not be subjected to such an antiquated and unjust manner of “evaluation.”

Something needs to change, because if it does not, people like me – who have wanted to be teachers since they were little kids and who pour their heart and soul into their profession – will continue to feel at best dejected and at worst outraged. And eventually, those people will leave the field – either of their own volition or because they have been asked to do so because of their low performances on these evaluations.

Today, the reason that for the first and only time in as long as I can remember I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a teacher, was that New York State told me that I am not good enough to be one.

The best – and the only – recourse I have is to take my frustration and sadness and turn it into a call to action. This cannot go on any longer. I can’t sit back and watch it happen. Change is necessary - and it’s necessary NOW.

Jennifer Higgins

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Comment by Robert. B. Vellani, PhD on April 10, 2015 at 8:49am

Again, I'll underscore my original comment: I cannot think of any other profession currently under so much scrutiny as education. Simply return to the ATW-S - poverty, socioeconomic conditions, weigh most heavily on student outcomes. No one holds bankers and hedge fund managers accountable for the state of the economy; no one holds the media (on all points of the compass) responsible for portraying a society where a life of the mind, a critical and informed citizenry on the issues of the day is of value; yet, teachers are wholly responsible for our society's shortcomings; it simply comes down to teachers and school districts often times without the resources to fulfil their function. Remember: don't have the players, hate the game, if you understand my drift.

Comment by Jennifer Higgins on April 9, 2015 at 8:39pm

I agree with a lot of what you said about the public’s perception of teachers and about teachers being easy scapegoats. I also hear you on being thankful for the excellent health care benefits we receive (and I wish continued good health to your wife). However, I will respectfully disagree with your point that statements like mine inspire no one. I wasn’t necessarily setting out to “inspire” anyone, but rather to educate. I do believe that there are many people out there, who believe everything that they hear – which is often anti-teacher. I also believe that there are many people who just don’t know enough about the situation to make a judgment. Why not, then, throw something out there that speaks in our favor and hope it resonates with someone? I know what you mean about reading pieces that come off “whiny”, but after reading mine back many times, I just don’t see it that way – on that point we might have to agree to disagree. I realize you think there must be something fundamentally wrong with me to have received a score of “developing”, but putting your preconceived notion of me aside, and assuming for argument’s sake that I actually am, in fact, a good teacher… if this “evaluation process” does NOT go away, and after 2 years I have still received low state scores, which have been proven to be invalid and unreliable, I WILL be in danger of losing my job. Perhaps you think that is fair, that in the grand scheme of things I deserve it. The point I am trying to make is that I – and others in a situation similar to mine – don’t.  I DO think teaching is an important job, because we have the potential to affect lives in immeasurable ways, but I fully understand your point – I’m not performing life saving surgeries, curing diseases, or fighting on the front lines to protect our country. But, I don’t think it’s fair for anyone, in any job, to be terminated without fair grounds, and teachers are no exception. Unfair and inappropriate tests forced upon 9 year olds do not, in my opinion, constitute fair grounds. The fact that you make a flippant comment that “being developing is a ‘you problem” highlights, to me, your lack of knowledge about what is happening at the elementary and middle school level across New York State. I hope, for you and the other teachers with whom you work, that you continue to remain unaffected by these sweeping changes. Education reform is absolutely cyclical, as you said, but I know that in 13 years, I have never before seen such policies that threaten the entire system. I feel that I would be remiss not to speak out against them.

We appear to be at an impasse, so I suppose there is nothing further to add to this conversation.

Comment by Brian H on April 9, 2015 at 7:41pm
Jennifer I'll end this where I began it, with a question: what do you as a teacher want? You have the best hours, best job, best pension, good pay, safe conditions, stability, safety, and top notch health care. Oh yeah and you have to fill out a bunch of pointless paperwork so the governor can become president. Um...okay. Of course he's using education as his legacy. Nothing is bigger or more costly in nys. Developing... That's a "you" problem, fix it. The only way to exact the change you seemingly want is to get up and walk off the job. But honestly...you'd look demented and delusional in this economy If you did that.
Comment by Brian H on April 9, 2015 at 6:45pm
Jennifer, even the people who are the loudest and leading the charge against teachers know the woes of the world aren't a teachers fault. But the teacher is the scapegoat in society and APPR is the newest nonsense to make people feel better about themselves. Nobody with half a brain believes that teachers are the sole culprits. The governor just realizes he can rev up idiots by saying he's going to metaphorically make teachers pointlessly move a pile from the right then back to the left where it originally was. Then we teachers say "hey, how bout instead of moving the pile for no reason we just leave it here." And the public says "see!!! There goes those lazy teAchers again not wanting to do any work" and we are saying "but it's pointless work" and everyone knows it is but it makes everyone feel better. And in the end the governor is just gonna move the rating line on final exAms and state test rubrics and say "see, I saved eduction now elect me president" It's a game Jennifer and you can't win. Why? B/c you're a teacher. Our only win is the life we get to live as teachers. I'll take it
Comment by Brian H on April 9, 2015 at 6:31pm
Thanks Jennifer I read your response twice and like what you say. Angered? No not angered...frustrated. I just don't see how this kind of approach is going to move anybody, and it hasn't honestly. You are doing the job in the way that thousands are and when teachers present their defense of the gov's draconian measures in regards to accountability the way you did it makes teachers look delusional and weak and whiny, and it inspires no one. The public perception is against teachers right now and its bull shit I grant you that. The blaming of teachers for the woes of the world is like blaming doctors for not curing cancer in a lifelong smoker. It takes a village but parental tone setting is the difference. Jennifer, we are just teachers. And when I hear you talk about this piddly, cyclical crap, I remember two years ago when my 31 year old wife was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. She's alive today and will stay alive b/c she's a teacher and as such was afforded the top notch health care and professional support to beat it. She'd maybe be dead right in some other job. The governors draconian measures??!! Phew, who cares. Don't you get it, Jennifer! The teaching life is the best life on earth. Nobody has it better than you. That was my point. And everyone outside the field knows it and is angry at teachers for it.
Comment by Jennifer Higgins on April 9, 2015 at 5:22pm

Good evening. First, I want to say thank you to Carol and Patricia. Carol, for your unwavering support of me and more importantly, your dedication to making our school a wonderful place to live and learn, I will be forever grateful. Patricia, thank you for your kind comments about my article and for sharing your knowledge about the current state of educational affairs.

 

Brian, I most certainly respect your right to your opinion, but I have to say that I am surprised at the manner in which you chose to express it. I felt like your response was intended to be malicious and demoralizing, which shocked me, especially coming from a fellow teacher. I 100% agree with you that ours is wonderful career, and if you look back in my piece, I mentioned several times how much I love my job. I take objection to your comment that my piece is “all about me”, as my intention for sharing my story was to make it about all of us – teachers, students, administrators, parents, and communities – who are deeply affected by this obsession with “high-stakes” testing. From the majority of comments I have received, here and on Facebook, it seems that my message was well-taken by most, but it is evident that something about it has really angered you.

 

My primary goal in sharing my education background, praise from my colleagues and superiors, and experiences thus far in my career, was to highlight the discrepancy between my highly effective rating as an educator on measures within my school district and the arbitrary ineffective “growth score” I was assigned by NYS, based upon a developmentally inappropriate exam, which is why my overall score fell into the “developing” category. As a 4th grade teacher, like all teachers in grades 3-8, I am subject to receive this score every year as part of my overall APPR score. I’m not sure that, as a high school teacher, you are aware of how convoluted this system is. Basically, we receive a score from the state out of 20 points (which will account for much more in the future), which is based on the 4th grade ELA and Math tests – tests, which unlike the finals or Regents for your subject area, are not based on what children have learned throughout the year, as they have been proven to include material grade levels above the students for whom they are designed. I referenced the necessary feedback I provide to my students not to give myself kudos for doing a job that every teacher does for their students, but to show the stark contrast between what WE as teachers provide and the lack of feedback being provided to me by the state.

 

I saw that you also discussed how you would have rather read a piece about how all of this affects the students. Good teachers leaving the profession, for reasons that are not valid, WILL hurt students in the long run. You may be right that I am completely replaceable, but if you have been following the news, I’m sure you have seen the articles about a drastic drop-off in candidate applications at teacher preparation programs in New York State in recent years.

 

Finally, I just want to say, on a very personal level, that I wrote my piece in September. It took me 4 months to post it on School Leadership, and another 3 after that to post it on Facebook. I sought feedback from many colleagues, friends, and superiors, before posting it anywhere, to be sure that it would not come off as self-centered. My decision to finally post it on Facebook when I did was not a coincidence - after the NYS budget vote, I felt that if I had any voice to contribute, I should – on behalf of people like me, who DO love their jobs, who DO consider themselves lucky to be teachers, and who also know that what is being done isn’t right and is threatening the fate of public education wholesale.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read my piece, and if you’d like to continue with this discourse in a professional and respectful manner, I would be more than happy to. It is an extremely difficult and scary thing to put yourself out there, and I would urge you to remember that when commenting in the future – not just to me, but to anyone who takes that risk.

Comment by Brian H on April 9, 2015 at 5:13pm
Correction: danielsen quotes that 'don't' mean anything.
Comment by Brian H on April 9, 2015 at 4:32pm
Thank you for that comment carol. You've got me over the barrel on a few points. I don't really know what school leadership is and I stumbled across this Higgins post on facebook & my food stamp comment was targeted at a commentor. That was lost in translation. But I am a teacher: high school 10&12 English. 100 percent free lunch district for kids and I love it. I get you guys' frustration with the governor but there's no way that these I'm-so-amazing rants are going to propel anybody into this big fight teachers keep talking about sparking against the governor. Cuomo is clearly using pub Ed as his legacy key but I'm not sure you're on the mark with all you say about the bell curving of teachers scores (Patricia). I've never been less than h.e. Nobody has that I know of. I for one am not following a developing elementary teacher into the fight against cuomo. What fight though? there is no fight. It's not playing dead its realizing what you are on the todem pile. The teacher is the only profession on earth where the person working it has to do the right thing And take the political hit. Unions are powerless and teachers are all talk about making change. Nobody actually wants to dig in and do it. When I read higgins's letter I just thought to myself: ugh, more of this nonsense from a teacher, who's developing on top of that. I thought that and I am a teacher!!! With all due respect to Charlotte danielsen quotes that mean anything I choose to just see the good in the job and believe If you focus on the kids and work hard this political crap will be Worked out in the end. Maybe I'm wrong maybe i need to take a stand but I wasn't at all insired by what ms. Higgins said. I'm sorry I wasnt.
Comment by Carol Muscarella on April 9, 2015 at 2:59pm

I do believe that his very inappropriate and unprofessional "rant" borders on being libelous. Brian H. makes assertions in his diatribe that have nothing to do with what Jenny spoke about such as the comments about food stamps and salary. Nowhere in her piece did Jenny even allude to a question of compensation. And, by the way, how does he now that she has never been on food stamps? What really borders on libelous is the statement: "Despite this "beautifully" written whiny rant she's not a good teacher in some serious area." If libel is defined as: anything that is defamatory or that maliciously or damagingly misrepresents, then I believe that this statement alone, not even looking at all of the many misrepresentations in his comments, fits into a libelous attack on Jenny. 

I have a couple of questions and comments regarding Brian H.

1. He just joined School Leadership this past Sunday. It appears to me that he came onto the site specifically to comment anonymously on Jenny's piece since she had posted it on Facebook on Wednesday. If he had commented on Facebook, he would have been able to be tracked down. Jenny's letter has been up on the School Leadership blog since February and there has been no activity since those few comments in the middle of February (including mine); suddenly outrage from Brian. Brian purposely did not give his last name. Everyone else on that thread had a last name posted. He clearly understood how inappropriate his comments were and needed to ensure that no one was able to actually identify him.

2. I value the School Leadership site and have had many of my teachers and colleagues join. I look forward to Sundays to read every article that is posted and often share these very valuable and professional pieces with my staff. I am concerned that Brian has taken the facebook mentality to this outstanding professional resource and I am concerned that people will be less likely to share their thoughts freely if they are concerned that they will be judged in such an unprofessional and malicious manner.

3. Brian contributed nothing to the conversation in terms of solutions other than to say shut up, roll over and play dead! There are many things that I do not agree with in terms of what the current narrative is putting forward, but I value everyone's opinion as we seek ways to support students, families and most importantly student achievement. His comments were a malicious, and yes, a libelous attack on a courageous and consummate professional, without even getting into his inappropriate response to Patricia DeCicco’s comments.

4. I actually do not believe that Brian H. is a teacher and his unwillingness to identify himself, where he teaches, and what he teaches confirms that for me. Furthermore, if we look at any of the many rubrics that are used throughout New York State, he would most certainly be rated ineffective in Domain 4- 4 d - Participating in the Professional Learning Community and 4 f - Showing Professionalism (Danielson). Interestingly, Brian states: "Jennifer...I think you're fortunate your superintendent didn't yank you into central office in ream you out for airing this rant." As a school administrator, I totally understand why Brian would not identify himself. If he were indeed a teacher, he would most certainly end up being "yanked" (there's a word we don't use often in education) into his principal's or superintendent's office to have a conversation about professionalism and professional responsibilities.

Finally, I will not respond to Brian H. as I do not respond to anonymous e-mails or phone calls where someone does not identify himself, nor do I pay attention to children having tantrums. I will respond to Patricia DeCicco who tried courageously to keep the conversation elevated and on a professional level.  And, most importantly, I will respond for Jenny Higgins, who I value, and have evaluated, as a highly effective teacher not to mention a wonderful, caring person.

I truly believe that out of everything negative comes something valuable that we can learn and that can help us to move forward in our practice. Maybe we should consider creating some norms for comments that emulate what we try to teach our students, but that are not evaluated by a test....

1. Treat everyone with respect.
2. If you don't have something nice to say, you're not thinking hard enough!

Carol Muscarella, Principal

John H. West Elementary School

Comment by Patricia DeCicco on April 8, 2015 at 9:09pm

Brain, I am so pleased that you have such confidence in the political machine that is driving the destruction of NYS public education. Perhaps it is because you teach at the high school level that you are unaware of the inappropriate practices being shoveled down upon primary and intermediate students? Case in point, the 4 years olds coming to school who have never even been to Pre-K or been away from their mothers who are required to take a standardized test in a language they cannot yet understand in their first days of school. And our state constantly changing its game plan so that teachers and administrators will be unable to be effective, because we have no idea what measures will be used to be considered effective, or how to employ them. Our dear Commissioner of Education who recently bailed on the state to accept his next political post even stated in his letter accepting current APPR standards to superintendents,

            “Please be advised that, pursuant to Education Law §3012-c, the Department will be analyzing data supplied by districts, BOCES, and/or schools and may order a corrective action plan if there are unacceptably low correlation results between the student growth subcomponent and any other measures of teacher and principal effectiveness and/or if the teacher or principal scores or ratings show little differentiation across educators and/or the lack of differentiation is not justified by equivalently consistent student achievement results. “

In other words, their intent is to insure that some teachers and principals MUST fall below a standard deviation, formed like a bell curve. It is intended to be random and unpredicatable, so that we can’t know what is coming or how to teach in response. The scripted drivel coming from engageny is a joke to teach at the elementary level. They will insure that 20% of us are found to be ineffective each year to weaken our public schools each year, until charter schools take over and only the very rich can have a quality education which ensures cooperative learning, true problem solving approaches and hands on learning opportunities. Just another way for the rich to insure that their kids stay rich and the poor keep on being poor in blind masses, forced to pay huge interest rates to the 1%ers. Opportunities for public school children are being disseminated at early levels as we embrace the “ intense and demanding rigor” of the Common Core. Yes, they are expected to embrace this rigor, while many students don’t have a warm body at home that can read English and have no idea where their next meal is coming from!

But we can all have faith that all will be well and good, because we have Brian H, who doesn’t teach at the level where Common Core state assessments are utilized, who has faith in our system. I respectfully bow out to your greater knowledge and interest in preserving justice in our schools.

God bless you brother, may you never know an innocent, hard working educator who loses their job to Pearson education’s gluttonous take-over, or a child who cries with anxiety upon taking his 117th exam of the school year. I pray for our sakes that you are right. I guess I’m done ranting and whining now, and we will rest assured that all of us “comatose” teachers continue to be rated effective.  

 

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