Saturday, September 7, 2013

My Name is Claudia and I'm a "Managed Teacher"

“A book is meant to be read, but to haunt you, to importune you like a lover, or a parent, to stick in your teeth like a piece of gristle” —Anatole Broyard

Blogs can do the same. My friend Nancy Flanagan wrote a piece months ago that has haunted me, and forced me to examine my career with new eyes. I’m eternally grateful. She wrote about ‘teacher management,’ the fake invitation to educators to work toward education policy. She gave examples of teachers in her home state being manipulated by the press or policy makers. Manipulated by using the teachers’ good name, reputation, integrity, credibility, to support the policy makers’ point of view.
This struck home for me as I looked back on 39 years of teaching, working with education leaders, trying to make a difference in the bigger world outside my classroom. I came to the ugly realization that I’d been managed plenty of times, and I was able to see once I became vocal, my worth as a managed teacher disappeared, as did ‘opportunities’ to participate in the work outside my classroom.

It went like this: principals needed a group of teachers to go to a conference, participate in professional development and share with the faculty, serve on this committee or that committee. The teachers asked to do this were teachers who had strong reputations in and outside their classes. They had that credibility with their peers. They were known to work hard for positive changes in the profession. I was honored to be included in this group, active and vocal for the changes and reforms my bosses were pushing…Outcome Based Education? I was there. Learning Styles? I came back and did workshops. Reading in the Content area? You bet. Ruby Payne? I was a trainer. Blue Ribbon application committee? I did the writing. Student Leadership Groups? I was the sponsor. I’ve written here about reform fatigue, but didn’t understand it for what it was: manipulation fatigue.

One of my principals knew the right button to push: “Claudia, the kids need you to do this.” And I was sunk…didn’t matter how busy I was, the kids needed me.

Then, after I got vocal about education reform, found like-minded friends online and in professional groups, those opportunities began to dry up. I was actually invited by our State Department to be part of a cadre of teacher-trainers to barnstorm the state giving presentations on Common Core – I was going to reserve my concerns and see if I couldn’t learn to love CCSS. Well, I heard from a friend who worked in the SDE that people read the programs, saw my name, and had a great laugh. I’d been highly critical of our new Superintendent, and had shared my criticism far and wide. My friend laughed at the idea of the new Superintendent having to introduce me at the conferences as a presenter. I contacted the woman who invited me…managed me…used my credibility and integrity to bolster the reputation of the conferences, and sent her some of my public writings. I gave her the opportunity to ‘uninvite’ me if she felt my presence would harm her standing in the office. I was uninvited.

Those other opportunities to be a teacher leader – read ‘manipulated teacher’ – began to dry up. Other teachers were invited to go to this workshop and that one. This conference and that conference. It wasn’t until I read Nancy’s blog that I realized my usefulness to reformers and education leaders who have to play nice with reformers was at an end. I’d damaged myself in their eyes by being opinionated, loud. I hadn’t played nice. I’d spoken up. And the price I paid was no more invitations.

I saw those invitations for what they really were…an attempt to legitimize reforms with my name and my reputation. Shoring up their plans with my and other teachers’ credibility. Ours were the friendly faces that allowed the salesmen to get in the door. They pretended to be equal partners with us, but they were using us.
I know why I jumped at these ‘opportunities’ and I can guess other teachers felt the same. I loved my job. I didn’t want to leave the classroom, but I wanted to contribute to the profession. I wanted to continue to learn, to share what I’d learned with my students and my colleagues. The way to do that, I felt, was to participate in those ‘teacher leadership’ opportunities. I could lead from the classroom. I could make a contribution to my profession, I could be a teacher leader while staying true to my commitment to my students.

I was played. Big time. I stood up for New Math, for Multiple Intelligences, for OBE, for Framework of Poverty. I played the good soldier. And as each of these fell out of favor, or was repudiated, my credibility took a hit…but I plugged along.

Until I didn’t.

I see now, with the wisdom of hindsight, how slick the manipulation was…how I wasn’t a partner, a leader. I was a pawn. I was the token teacher…the classroom practitioner who lent my good name to someone else’s projects. I was the frontman...the face of the trusted neighborhood teacher, know my many in the community. And I was left holding the bag when these ‘someone elses’ lost interest, got distracted by the next shiny, new idea.

As I look at the current landscape, no longer a manipulated teacher, I see the next field of play: Common Core. Anthony Cody proved without a doubt that teachers were frozen out of the process of creating the Standards. We weren’t important enough to be partners at that point in the process, but teachers are being beckoned into the process of implementation. ‘Reformers’ are holding seminars, conferences, state and national meetings. Teachers are being invited to planning sessions for CCSS. They are invited to prepare presentations for other teachers – to be the face of Common Core. Even though we had no hand in the writing or the planning for Common Core, now the ‘reformers’ need us. Now we have to take the mess and make it work in the classroom. Now teachers are being included…uh, managed…to implement.
Too often teachers who are invited into the process end up taking the blame when this reform, and that one, bomb. Reformers seem to be severely ADD, and can’t stay with an idea long enough to give teachers…and teacher leaders…enough time to make things work. And too often when this happens, teachers are the ones blamed for the failure.

I fear for my friends who are being managed; I hope they enter this bargain with strong skepticism, and an escape plan. I know ‘reformers’ are using them, using their credibility, their integrity, their passion for their profession, to hawk CCSS. I know my friends will be in the classroom, with students, long after the 'reformers' have pointed fingers and left for greener pastures.

So, what's a teacher supposed to do? These 'opportunities' often come with great opportunity to learn, to return to the classroom invigorated by new ideas. I would never suggest teachers turn down these invitations. Only go into them forearmed with the truth that our ultimate motivations are very different. They want to manipulate us; we want to find something important to take back to our classrooms. They want to turn a profit; we want to turn a student's heart and mind.

My beloved National Board and National Writing Project have been bought and paid for by Pearson and Bill Gates. Does that mean I stop participating in these two worthy projects? Never. It just means I approach with the knowledge that someone may be trying to use me. Since I know that, I can choose not to be used. I approach these encounters with my own goals, and, remember what that blow-hard, Polonius said, 'To thine own self be true."

One of the many reasons I treasure my profession is the friendships and relationships I've forged. One such treasure is my friend, Michale Gentry. She has taught two of my granddaughters, and we have one more who needs her. Michale has a way of seeing the big picture, and the little one framed therein. " Reformers can steal advanced degrees, stipends, titles, programs, funding, public school reputations...but no one can take the joy or the good, deep, authentic and creative spin we put on whatever lesson, reform,program, class, or piece of the big machine we touched. Going forward, we'll be wiser...think of all we've learned."

We learn when we participate. We choose where we lend our name and integrity. We must look carefully at these partners and keep our own name and integrity intact through these endeavors. 

I was lucky to leave the profession with only minor scars from my run-ins with teacher managers…I hope for my younger colleagues don’t suffer any more than I did, and that their eyes are opened to the dangers sooner than mine were.

Nancy’s final paragraph is important:

"Way too much of what passes for dialogue and scholarship around teachers' professional work has been managed, packaged and sold as authentic. It's not teacher leadership or advocacy. It's slick marketing, using the friendly faces of teachers."

Monday, September 2, 2013

"Is it a Test?"

As a grandma, I'm extremely lucky to have three of my four Grands close enough to spirit them away from their parents when I want to. Yesterday Katie, the first grader joined her Papa and me on a trip to a local arts festival.

On the way up, I reminded her that each of her sisters had chosen a special 'Me and Nana' activity, and she still had a choice coming. The big girls asked to attend a 'wine and palette' make-and-take lesson. For a fee, up to 60 'artists' sit before a palette, follow the leader's directions and create...if not a masterpiece, at least an identifiable picture. There are free nibbles as well as wine and soft drinks available. Haley, my oldest granddaughter felt enough self confidence to actually disregard the teacher and do her own thing...I followed the leader slavishly and produced something different -- and frankly, not as exciting. Ashley and I will paint our sea turtles later this month.

Katie had first said 'no' to the idea of doing a painting class, so we were just thinking of other ideas for some fun time together.

Then, she tentatively said she might like to do the painting class, but, "Is it a test? Will they pick the best ones?"

I was bowled over...I caught my breath and did not cry. That was why she didn't want to do the class...she, as a first grader, already feared being tested, judged, even in creative endeavors. 'Is it a test?' echoed in my head all day. Is it a test? Would the 'best' pictures be praised and others ignored? Would we feel like failures if our painting weren't chosen? Will others think we're not smart enough, or talented enough? Will we be embarrassed in front of others for our work?

I assured her that in this class, we all did our best, that nobody's work looked exactly like the teacher's work, and that was OK. We played with paints, we giggled at our work, and we had a good time. She looked at me skeptically...even this young not ready to trust...not ready to take a risk.

I've spent years now railing against standardized tests...high stakes standardized tests -- here and here and here and here. I've read books  and more books and articles. I've written. I've talked to others.

One boss told me I was fighting a losing battle, 'That train's left the station." Nothing can be done. High stakes tests will be with us and we have to learn to live with them. We have to live with the devastating results: children retained in 3rd grade, students refused high school diplomas even though they have successfully completed coursework, teachers given poor results on evaluations, schools given bad 'grades'. Just live with it...try to nibble at tiny, cosmetic changes to this testing culture, but knuckle under to the concept that tests are appropriate measures of children or teaching or education.

In that moment, looking Katie in the eye, hearing her insecure little voice ask, "Is this a test?", I knew I couldn't knuckle under. I couldn't let her go through her school career living in dread of the next test, and what that test would mean. I know high stakes tests in our public schools is a bankrupt policy, one that will not help teachers teach, or students learn.

I hear others say, 'Well, we had tests too. Standardized tests have always been with us. Nothing wrong with tests, I survived them.' These folks are under the assumption that the testing our children endure is identical to the testing we had AS children. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We took tests one day, forgot them, and had results show up on permanent records that no one looked at. Those tests were, properly, one piece of information about our school career...a piece of information that held no undue sway on our careers. That is the proper place for testing.

Those of us who went on to college might take the SAT or the ACT, as a choice. We could choose to prepare on our own, but weeks of school time were not devoted to test prep. Yes, there were high stakes tests in our lives, but they weren't mandated as they are now.

That culture is a trip through a nostalgic past that no longer exists. Now even first graders are worried, "Is this a test?"

Until parents and teachers and administrators can turn around this sick worship of the almighty test, until we can take back the $1.7 billion from the testing industry, until we really listen to that tiny voice in the back seat, our kids will suffer.

The train may well have left the station, but I'm NOT on it, and I'll find another ride. My ride will include authentic measures of learning, reading, talking to others about what you're learning. Katie and I will go to one of those painting classes, and I will tell her, as every teacher should, learning is the fun and adventure of trying something new.