Taking responsibility for professional practices

David B. Cohen, NBCTJuly 29, 2016

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This blog post is the conclusion in a series of three posts suggesting we can push accomplished teachers even further with regard to some professional practices. Part One suggested that teachers must be more willing to meet students and families where they are – online. Part Two focused on the need to improve practices around homework, assessment, and grading.

National Board Certified Teachers understand and exemplify the drive to improve teaching, and the value of working with professional peers. The certification process demands clear evidence, convincing analysis, and consistent reflection that will lead to that improvement.

Like most teachers, NBCTs want to be team players. It’s a pleasure to work in a school where teachers share the same sense of mission and strive towards the same goals through productive collaboration. However, as I’ve suggested in this series of blog posts, we have work to do as a profession to improve our collective understanding and commitment to improvement of education overall. The “team player” approach sometimes means that we are less willing or able to raise topics where consensus is more difficult to achieve. And if we do reach consensus to make some more significant structural changes in practice, the uncomfortable implication is that we were wrong in the past, and now face a steep learning curve as we implement change. 

In this series of blog posts, I’ve argued that we can and should ask more of accomplished teachers (not just NBCTs) when it comes to advancing our profession. Better work in our individual classrooms is not enough. In the first post, I suggested teachers need to adapt to changes in technology and communication instead of focusing on the negatives of those changes. The second post argued that too many teachers are unwilling to examine and change demonstrably inferior practices in homework, assessment, and grading. In this, the final post of three, I ask if we’re willing to craft new professional pathways and new roles in schools and districts in order to promote genuine teacher leadership.

Career pathways including peer supervision and evaluation

Teaching is an exceedingly horizontal profession, though perhaps less so now than in the past. While veteran teachers often find a variety of ways to take on informal leadership and added responsibilities at school, there are often minimal contractual or structural differences between the jobs of the new teacher and the veteran. Many mid-career teachers are looking for ways to lead without leaving the classroom. What we offer them varies widely across districts and states. To the extent that we ourselves have created and protected the flatness of the current system, we should be asking questions and proposing solutions now to strengthen our profession.

The public and the policy makers are more than ready to tell us how to improve. We can’t ignore stakeholder viewpoints; as with the “kids today” problem, we can complain about the situation and berate those who challenge us, or we can take a professional approach and try to solve the problems in ways that improve teaching and learning. They think we need more “rigorous” evaluation in order to find and dismiss the bad teachers. Most teachers I know say they receive inadequate evaluation and support. There’s important common ground there. If we can all agree that evaluation and support could be improved, it quickly becomes a question of how to change, not if. Answering “how” is exactly the moment when accomplished teachers need to step up with solutions.

To be clear, I absolutely do not think that firing bad teachers is the path to improvement. Approaching a challenge from a deficit model with methods that promote fear and instability will never bring about the desired effects. Start with the people we have, who are mostly good and often great at their jobs, build on our strengths, and let the good crowd out the bad. We must become so effective in our professional practices outside the classroom that there is virtually no possibility of “bad” teachers, because struggling teachers receive timely and effective support; in the rare cases where someone resists or can’t benefit from that support, it will be clear to them and to their supervisors that teaching is not the right career.

The best way to improve school capacity for effective support and professional development is to empower teachers as leaders in schools and districts. These teachers may have reduced or modified teaching duties, or may rotate out of the classroom entirely for a time. The key is that they must have authority commensurate with their responsibility in order to truly reshape the profession.

The purpose of evaluation

When I worked with a group of teachers to research and write the Accomplished California Teachers (ACT) policy report on teacher evaluation, we quickly realized the importance of articulating clear purposes for evaluation. My friend Tammie Adams, an NBCT with decades of teaching experience, described a “gotcha” climate that made teachers fear evaluation. For the vast majority of teachers, evaluation should be a process similar to National Board Certification in spirit and intent, a cyclical process of teaching, analysis and reflection. The evaluator in this ideal serves as a resource, a sounding board, a critical friend. The effect of this type of evaluation is to provide what teachers actually want and need – processes with actual value to our improved teaching, rather than procedural hoop-jumping that assure basic competence. If significant problems arise through this growth-oriented evaluation process, only then would a different mode of evaluation kick in, offering more remediation and support, and with implications for continued employment. 

How many “direct reports”?

The dominant approach to supervision and evaluation right now puts excessive demands on our administrators. Yes, they can and should maintain the ultimate responsibility for these domains, and we can support them better to improve the overall effectiveness of teachers. For starters, in larger schools, principals are supervising too many people. In my conversations with friends and community members outside of education, I find people with supervision and evaluation duties typically seem to have fewer than ten “direct reports” – people who report directly to that individual. This Harvard Business Review article suggests that my observations speaking to mostly mid-level managers would also generally apply at the CEO level.

Do you know any medium-to-large schools where principals, or even the assistant principals, have only ten direct reports? At some schools, that number barrels way past ten before you even start counting the teachers. Large organizations, carrying out complex work, require more supervisors responsible for smaller numbers of employees than we currently find in most schools.

The next question is clear: who should carry out that supervision? Before I answer that question with job titles, I’ll answer it with descriptors. Those who supervise and evaluate teachers should have expertise in teaching and learning, and should receive training in supervision and evaluation. The two skill sets do not automatically go together. Knowing how to teach children does not qualify a teacher to lead adults; nor do good workplace management skills inform a person how to teach children, especially if the manager doesn’t know the subject the children are studying.

What is the job title then? Do we need more assistant principals so that the number of direct reports becomes more manageable? I suppose that could work, though such an approach raises questions about how we recruit enough qualified assistant principals without pulling too many skilled and motivated teachers out of the classroom. For secondary schools, we might also find it challenging to match the knowledge and background of assistant principals to all of the subject areas in school.

Trained practicing teachers should supervise and evaluate peers

When I first began teaching in my current school, my “Instructional Supervisor” was a teacher in my department, the near-equivalent of a department chairperson though with more responsibility. Every department had an instructional supervisor who had considerable (though not final) say in hiring decisions, “tenure” decisions, and carried out the ongoing evaluations for permanent staff in the department.

At the time, I didn’t realize how unusual that arrangement was. Asked if I preferred evaluation by a veteran English teaching peer in my department, or evaluation by a former teacher of another subject, now well into the administrative phase of their career, I would have chosen the former option. And at the time that I worked on that teacher evaluation report, my former principal, Scott Laurence, agreed:

The content area expertise is the most important aspect of teachers evaluating teachers. As a former social studies teacher, I felt comfortable as a principal observing social studies and English classes, and the early-stage courses of math and science. But in upper level math and science courses I had to spend more of my time watching instruction and management, and give less focus to the content. I also believe that curriculum and instructional practices have changed. I was last in a classroom over 10 years ago. It does make a difference. (ACT Report, p. 21)

My district’s experience provides a cautionary tale as well. It turns out our longstanding practice, established well before my arrival, put us out of compliance with state education code. We have reverted to a more typical approach to evaluation, and some of our teachers understandably prefer the clear delineation of roles and responsibilities – teachers teach, and administrators supervise.

Unfortunately, that status quo is not advancing the profession. Too many direct reports for administrators, and mismatches in pedagogical knowledge, prevent our schools from providing the optimal support to improve teaching across schools and districts. Part of the solution is for accomplished teachers to step up and take greater ownership and responsibility for our professional work. If we focus on a theoretical question for a moment, setting aside workplace practicalities and legal constraints, it becomes clear: Who is best qualified to evaluate professional practices? Expert practitioners in the same profession. There’s no other possible answer.

What remains then is for us to formulate models and bring about policies to make that truly professional approach work for our profession. Fortunately, there are models out there. Three districts here in California are ahead of the curve on transforming professional pathways: Poway Unified and San Juan Unified school districts have ample experience in effective peer evaluation, with joint labor-management governing boards to review personnel decisions. San Jose Unified School District is expanding teacher leadership to improve professional pathways as well.

Win-win-win-win

Maybe for the wrong reasons based on flawed assumptions, education stakeholders and the general public want to see an increase in teacher accountability, including more “rigorous” evaluation. Teachers want evaluations to be meaningful and useful rather than perfunctory and tinged with distrust. Teachers also want more options to lead in the profession without leaving the classroom. Administrators want manageable workloads and thriving teachers and schools. If we can agree on the framework to identify and train teacher leaders for more supportive and evaluative roles in school systems, it would count as a win for policymakers and education stakeholders, teachers and administrators, and ultimately, for students better served by their schools.

David B. Cohen, NBCT

David B. Cohen is a National Board Certified English Teacher and the Blog Editor of The Standard. Cohen taught high school English for 12 years in Palo Alto, Ca. For several years, Cohen co-directed a teacher leadership network called Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). That experience gave him opportunities to learn about and work with teachers from all over California. Having worked with a variety of other networks and organizations, and having built relationships with individuals and groups around the state, Cohen is currently working on a book about excellence in California public education. Follow him on twitter @CohenD.