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 Brian H on April 8, 2015 at 1:29pm
Oh Patricia come on really? The fight? Cuomo payroll? That same song and dance. You're better than that. We're talking about a developing elementary educator with a degree from Columbia. Really? I've never heard of such a thing. She compares a teaching salary to food stamps? Clueless! This woman has never seen a food stamp in her life. Despite this "beautifully" written whiny rant she's not a good teacher in some serious area. Developing? You could be in a coma and rate as effective. The fight the fight the fight...blah blah blah. There is no fight and we both know it. These accountability reforms come and go and the teaching goes on. You know thats true. Ours is the best profession on the planet and if I was to rail against the governor I would've aimed my anger at the common core's impact on students not on my own teacher score. I get I get it you have to say what you say and defend this drivel but you know I am right. I love the commentor who said the governor needed to see this essay! Nah. I would guess the governor's office in albany is stocked up on toilet paper. Come on Patricia...really?!
Comment by Patricia DeCicco on April 8, 2015 at 9:49am

What a sad little man you are, Brian H! Here this lovely lady writes a beautiful piece eloquently expressing her fear and shame in the face of the public education crisis, and all you can do is belittle and antagonize her? Are you on Cuomo's payroll? Time for you to look at yourself. If you have nothing positive to contribute to the fight against education in our state, please quietly step down and let others take over for you. There truly are many of us willing to help the cause and try to support one another along the way.

Comment by Brian H on April 7, 2015 at 10:33pm
Again please except my apologies for my many mechanical mistakes. I'm doing this with a smart phone (the voice dictation) but the essence of my point remains
Comment by Brian H on April 7, 2015 at 10:31pm
Jennifer...I think you're fortunate your superintendent didn't yank you into central office in ream you out for airing this rant. Regardless of what that commentor says your story is not compelling is the same exact story that every single teacher in every single school in every single county and every single state is feeling. And guess what when push comes to shove and not a single one of us would give it up for the world. I would've tonight preferred to read a story about how this convoluted matrix is hurting the students not hurting you and bruising your own ego. If you want to quit go ahead and quit there's 10,000 teachers to replace you tomorrow. And contrary to what you believe Jennifer you are replaceable as wild and crazy as that seems we can find somebody else to greets students with a smile and works late and signs up for committees. I wish you luck in the future. Developing? That's on you it's time to take a look in the mirror.
Comment by Brian H on April 7, 2015 at 10:20pm
Let me preface this by saying that I am a public school teacher at a high school in New York State. This whiny look at me rant is another reason why so many people are down on teachers lately. When will teachers understand that this is a job like any other nobody is going to erect statues for you or name highways after you? In the course of this whiny rant you comment on the fact that you greet your students with a smile and provide not only your grade but feedback on their activities. You mean you do your job as a teacher? Teaching is the best job on the planet because it gives you the opportunity to work every day doing something you love and it allows you the time in life to be there to raise a family and to enjoy the holidays and summers and early hours for the most part. I know I know you work until five in the morning every single day and you work all weekend every weekend blah blah blah. But let's be honest you're not selling cars are chasing lawsuits or working on construction sites. You're on the clock half the year and you're upset about the fact that somebody is trying to hold you accountable because we are paying you $50,000 a year and giving you a fully funded pension. The problem with teachers like you is you don't just want a job you want the world to bow down at your feet and call you the best thing since sliced bread. If that's what you want go back to Columbia get a medical degree in your 200 hours a week for the next 20 years saving lives. And for the record to finish a current New York State evaluation with the score in the developing range you have absolutely done something wrong or have come up short in some serious area regardless of what the Facebook moms allegedly post about you. But that's what your issue is isn't it? Your ego is bruised because you wee labeled developing. My question for you as a fellow teacher is this so what? What does it matter what some convoluted evaluation system has determined when the bell rings the door closes and you have 20 eager students ready to learn? The truth is you are violating rule one of the teaching profession you are making it about you this whole rant is about poor you and how you won't stand for this and how you want to quit blah blah blah. If you don't want to be developing stop crying and be a better teacher in whatever area you have fallen short that has resulted in a score of developing for you. Stop crying and play the game. Because guess what? It's not about you it's about the students it's not about your score it's about their score. You're not curing cancer and you're not chartering flights to the moon you are a public school teacher you are one of 50,000 of them in New York State. Recognize your role put away all this fake praise from your colleagues and commenters and do your job like every other public school teacher in the world and enjoy the life afforded to you by this profession. Nobody wants to hear you took your horn like this or hear how great you are or how hard you work when there are people out there who are struggling to keep a roof over their head and food on the table. Your scores too low? You greet your students when they walk in the room? Try being told you don't have a job anymore and good luck knocking out the mortgage next month. Get off yourself lady you're a public school teacher and it's a damn good job but you're not Martin Luther King Jr. My apologies for any mechanical mistakes in this comment I am doing it on a smart phone.
Comment by Brian H on April 7, 2015 at 10:06pm
Comment by Judi Fouchet on April 2, 2015 at 12:51pm
This letter needs to be sent to every politician in NY especially the Governor.
Comment by Carol Muscarella on February 18, 2015 at 3:21pm
As the principal who has the distinct honor to work with Jenny Higgins, I can tell you first hand that not only is she a highly effective teacher, she is also an amazing person. Truthfully, Jenny's performance in and out of the classroom is consistent : she is a role model for her students, a leader for her colleagues, a therapist and trusted friend to her students parents, a "go to" person for administrators and she comes to school everyday with a smile on her face as if it were her very first day teaching.
Jenny seeks ways regularly to improve our school and to impact student engagement and achievement. Jenny Higgins is the kind of teacher that every student, parent, teacher and administrator wants to be around. The energy that she exudes is contagious and defines all that is good in public education . As Jenny and I tried to rationalize with the irrational APPR score, it occurred to me that Jenny's situation is the epitome of the absurdity with the current plan. She pushes every rubric to its limit and yet she now has the dubious honor of being the "poster child" for all that is wrong with NYSED. Truthfully.... You couldn't find a better candidate to carrying that banner. Thank you Jenny for your commitment to our profession and for being secure enough to come forward with your compelling story. But, most of all thank you for who you are and for what you do everyday to impact the lives of our students . You are the best!
Comment by Patricia DeCicco on February 14, 2015 at 11:50am

Jennifer, thanks so much for your amazing article, for sharing an embarrassing NYS evaluation, and for helping the rest of us to take part in a movement to attack the attackers of our noble profession. Please don't give up the fight and leave your job, you are obviously an outstanding asset to your community. As a fellow educator, I am so disheartened and frustrated by those who want to destroy education from the outside in. We have to keep fighting to take out the evil that wants to prey upon educators currently.

Comment by Robert. B. Vellani, PhD on February 14, 2015 at 8:38am

Clearly, I cannot for the life of me think of any other profession currently whose workers are facing this type of - quite candidly - on the job harassment. 

Could someone provide me with another career where its people run through these kinds of hoops?

Ravtich and others source this war against teachers as payback because teachers unions, as defined in the media, haven't embraced the education reform as proposed by the Educational Industrial Complex of Pearson/ PARCC, et al. Certainly, New York educator feel the Wrath of Cuomo...

Wouldn't we all agree that teachers are perhaps better educated and therefore more discerning when vetting political promises across the ideological spectrum?

It is no stretch to believe that in the New Education Order that teachers are superfluous, standards will be created, impossible to meet (for teachers and students alike), and Big Money will swoop in with high priced tech (more corporate welfare) and American school children will sit before screens in a new kind of cubicle nation.

To borrow a verbal meme: I AM JENNIFER.





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