10. Teacher Accountability as a Function of Academic Conviction, Depth and Purpose

Mary Chapman was both fascinated and frustrated with what was being asked of her in the new learning infrastructure’s kind of teacher preparation. It seemed to have too many moving parts and complexities, both seemingly unnecessary in the technology-infused world of the 21st Century.

It reminded her of watching 1930’s biopics that depicted early day inventers, scientists, change agent politicians, intrepid explorers, and others who were societal mavericks. Even rogues in the sense of working against the grain, yet ultimately coming out on top. People who thought deeply, experimented regularly, and risked much. Usually for the betterment of society.

Mary wondered where those people came from. And how they became the way they were.

Possibly they came onto the scene because of their dismay over human suffering. Disease, war, economic collapse, ignorance, hunger, social injustices, and a myriad of other problems. All of them were curious. And had an intellectual itch that needed scratching. Superficial or trivial thinking was not part of their persona.

Then it occurred to her there are many people like that today. Occasionally, in between all the media hype about entertainers and politicians, television producers create a story about a man or woman making unbelievable contributions to humanity. Most of the time the stories are in the “a life well lived” category, of people who made remarkable contributions and did not get universal recognition until after they died.

Sometimes journalists will break through with a wonderful “human interest” story about people of all ages and from all segments of society. During the pandemic journalists have been quick to acknowledge the sacrifices of health workers and other who help behind the scenes. As they should.

But there is a difference between health care workers and teachers. For the most part, health care workers are doing what they always do but in a much more intense and demanding way. That is not the case with teachers.

Teachers have had to come up with all kinds of teaching strategies, to fit every imaginable platform for conducting instruction. Most teachers had to “wing it” with virtual instruction, primarily because they were not prepared to work outside the system’s boundaries. Almost overnight they were forced to become semi-independent agents, figuring out how to work with students in a quite different reality.

Mary, with Celia’s help, is beginning to “get it.” Young students today have much potential for absorbing and mulling over powerful ideas, connecting them to their own perceptions of the world’s challenges and opportunities, and emerging as adults with insight and a sense of purpose. Those are the goals for which teachers must be held fundamentally accountable.

Mary Chapman’s Story Part 8

Celia told me that writing and implementing mastery statements, as well as unit outcomes and components became easier over time. She could almost feel her brain become more active every time she did that work. And the cool part is that they are not just “one-offs.”

Once originally written, their descriptors of action can remain for years. Even better, they are available for others to see online and can be tweaked or radically changed whenever necessary. Colleagues, administrators, parents, and patrons can see them.

Parents can see what is expected of their students at any time, especially if teachers post their instructional calendars or pacing guides. Which means that teachers and parents will again become strong partners in the education of children and young people. Whether they are being taught in standard classrooms or virtually.

And they can be debated and serve as a source of accountability.

All that openness bothered me at the outset of our conversations. How can we trust parents to understand mastery statements, unit outcomes and components? I am certain there are parents who would find their language and structure to be as mystifying as I did.

Debating those statements, outcomes and components is not something I would want to do with some parents. And using them to hold me accountable? I do not think so.

Celia could understand my reservations. For 20 years we have been told accountability is determined by how well our students perform on standardized, high stakes tests. A check for quality at various points on the academic assembly line, to see if we employees are doing the job correctly.

Celia had accepted that idea of accountability at first. It seems logical. Straightforward. Clear. And a good way to compare the effectiveness of teachers, schools, districts and even states. It was theoretically objective and therefore devoid of bias.

But there has always been an underlying suspicion that two other motives were in play. The first is that standards and tests can be developed by, or under the supervision of political leaders. Leaders who may be suspicious of academic motives.

The second is that test-generated data, and their use to compare schools and districts, are good ways to keep costs under control. Educational entities that do not meet expectations as reflected in data, may be penalized financially.

Celia has come to believe that rigid micromanagement of education hamstrings the academic potential of both teachers and students. As much as experts in psychometrics claim otherwise, no written test can be both 100% valid and reliable. Nor can such tests measure the subtleties of the human brain as it evolves day after day.

She also believes competition between and among educational institutions is flawed, because no school or district controls the communities they serve.  Our nation is becoming increasingly diverse, which makes poverty, the educational level of families, and other variables hard to control. And Celia believes it is ridiculous to financially penalize schools and districts that serve lower socio-economic populations and are unable to raise scores on high stakes tests no matter what they do.

The new learning infrastructure is based on mutual goals and ongoing dialogue, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Celia told me it is working in her classroom, primarily because openness has sparked and maintained trust. While deepening scholastic inquiry and exploration.

Celia became convinced the university’s professors are doing the right thing by teaching us to create our mastery statements, unit outcomes and components. And then making us both present and defend them with others who need convincing. Those who question our motives, investigate the depth of our thinking, and do all they can to destroy our logic.

As gut-wrenching as that experience is in a university classroom, it is a mild precursor to what might happen in an open house with parents. Individually or collectively. Some parents and patrons might come at me with a bias I do not understand or cannot accept. If I become arbitrarily defensive no matter what, everything can blow up in my face.

My job is to listen and respond the best way I know how and offer others an opportunity to express opinions. Compromise is not always the best solution, but when I draw the line I do it with evidence, conviction, and with the obvious best interests of my students. If that is not acceptable, those who might vehemently disagree have other avenues of redress.

If that sounds volatile, it can be. But Celia has learned that everyone respects a teacher who demonstrates true concern and is articulate enough to express beliefs and convictions. And does those things with respect and courtesy.  Not everyone, especially young teachers, can demonstrate those characteristics in the early years of their professional service. But more can do so if arduously prepared and learn to find or develop a solid rationale for every point they make.

Celia is sensitive to who over 70% of teachers are and why many of them decide to teach. Often, they are young women who, like me, were good students in public schools. We tended to be attentive and compliant, and appreciative of our teachers. And well behaved.

Our homes were middle class, and we were members of loving families. We love children and learning. Confrontation is rarely something we can accept or live with. Conflict makes us feel vulnerable and unsettled, and we do not even know why people engage in that kind of behavior.

But they can and do. So, in some ways the new learning infrastructure is asking me to do something alien to my nature, and what I thought teaching was. And is. It is not just a matter of writing and using mastery statements, designing down/delivering up, and using effective unit outcomes and components.

The most challenging part is becoming more professionally assertive than I believed possible. To overcome my feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability in the face of change.

To become a professional somebody and not “just” a teacher who performs mechanistically and compliantly.

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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