Sunday, May 10, 2009

My Hilarious Turn to Talk

In the 1990s, accountability in New York State took the form of the PASS Review, a rigorous, soup-to-nuts investigation of qualitative and quantitative data on the school level. Preparing for the PASS Review at my first teaching assignment, in my second year of teaching, I eagerly awaited instructions from the principal. I admired my principal; she brought a high level of energy and verve to the position, and with her Catholic School background she provided a stern but loving, firm hand that had stabilized a school community that was spinning out of control prior to her arrival. She told me stories of how, just a few short years before, addicts were shooting heroin right on the school steps, gunfire in the playground wasn’t uncommon, and the building was dirty both inside and out.

It all seemed well and good, then, when the first step in preparing for the PASS Review was for her to post the school mission statement in the corridors. “We have a mission statement?” I remember thinking. “I thought that was for IBM and for the Red Cross.” Things took a turn for the worse, however, when the principal instructed the faculty to familiarize ourselves with the mission statement and, when the state reviewers came around, pretend it had been up on the wall all along.

The review was intense, to be sure, and when the results were announced, six or seven of our 100 teachers were cited by the reviewers as “star teachers.” Alas, I was not among these teachers. It was only my second year of teaching, and my first heading my own classroom, so as competitive and dedicated to my students and families as I am, I gave myself a bit of a pass from the passing the PASS. Of course, I wondered to myself, “I’m working so hard. What is it that is keeping me from being a ‘star’?” I decided that I was still novice in the area of planning and pedagogy, but I was on track with implementing the literacy and math instructional practices I was picking up in my graduate courses. I was very much dependent on the basal series provided by the district, but I brought a zest and excitement to it to make up for what I understood to be the chief deficit of a basal (it’s boring for students). And I had a glimmer of literacy stations and Guided Reading coming my way. In fact, within a year, the district literacy staff developer who came around every couple of months not only praised my laminated “Rockin’ Readin’” cards that gave students independence while I conducted Guided Reading lessons, but she actually took photos of my Word Wall to share with other teachers!

Aside from the staff developer’s intermittent forays into my classroom however—and I would be sure to grab her and pin her down for an observation and conference whenever I saw her or got wind of her being in the building—I had very little independent direction in deciding how to get to that ‘star’ category. My principal said nice things to me and about me, and my official annual observation went well, but I just didn’t see a clear direction for improvement.

In my third year of teaching, and second year teaching third grade, I felt I had made a great deal of strides. But I was still frustrated by how disorganized I felt. When the principal made an announcement on a professional development day to do “spring cleaning” and take the opportunity to discard old items that were lying around in our storage cabinets in the classrooms, I just could not bring myself to throw out boxes of graduated cylinders, cardboard bulletin board letters, old-timey readers. I saw a potential use for everything, but had no organizing strategy for how to make use of them. It just didn’t sit right with me to throw away perfectly good instructional materials when I had heard over and over again that the district was starving for resources.

To that end, I eagerly anticipated my next formal observation and review. I planned to be more proactive this time, and ask more questions in the pre-conference. I wanted my instructional leader to give me guidance in specific areas. I knew some elements of where I needed to grow, and I planned to ask for confirmation, advice in those areas and help identifying other priorities.

So it was that my heart sank when, on another professional development day, the principal made an announcement that ruined any chance of having this feedback. Our PD days began with faculty meetings in the auditorium, the only room sizable enough to hold all 100 teachers, and on this occasion the principal made an elaborate show of her enthusiasm for knocking out the challenges before us. As we sat in our chairs and the veteran teachers around me grumbled about “professional retardation,” the theme from Rocky suddenly blared and there she came – our principal, wearing a shiny red robe and huge boxing gloves, running down the aisle to the stage. She was Rocky and though we were the underdogs, we were going knock out whatever issue was on her mind. (I’m not sure if the PASS Review had recommended this metaphor the year before…something tells me not so much.)

It was all well and good, and had everyone enjoying a good laugh, until Rocky put forth her proposal. Time was running down in the school year, it turned out, and she hadn’t had time to start making her rounds of formal observations. With 100 teachers, alas, it just didn’t seem possible to have this pre-conference, full observation, and post-conference with everyone. There just wasn’t enough time, and there were too many priorities for her to waste all that time in meetings and classrooms.

But wait! The PASS Review last year had taught our fighter some new tricks, and she had put together a proposal along with our union chapter rep. She found the reviewers from the state the previous year to be remarkably efficient, visiting all the classrooms and identifying the star teachers in less than three days! So she was proposing replacing our formal observations with an “Internal PASS Review.” She would spend a few minutes in each classroom, snoop through our plan book to see that we were on target, open a few kids’ notebooks and look around the classroom, and after checking off her checklist and be on her way. She only needed a majority vote of the chapter to make this modification to our review schedule. And there was a lot in it for us, she said, to go along with her plan: we would be under less scrutiny, have all that pressure relieved, and also not have to waste all that time in those useless pre- and post-observation conferences. What a relief this plan would be for everyone!

She promptly left the auditorium so that our chapter leader could call an official union meeting and the teachers could discuss the proposal.

A few teachers spoke in favor—what’s the downside? She doesn’t give useful feedback anyway. Those meetings are a pain in the ass and we might as well just get on with it. Are there any pitfalls where she is going to try to trap us into agreeing to a “U” because of something she picks out in our classroom during these visits?

Finally it was my turn to stand up and speak. “I don’t like this plan,” I said. “I have a long way to go in my teaching and I want to have that feedback. I want the principal to come into my room and spend time, and tell me exactly where I have to go next.”

The union rep smiled. She was big—not just physically, but vocally and in the way her presence filled any room. She summoned up all of her impressive energy and massive dialectical power and pointed to the stage, where the boxing gloves were still hanging, an inspiration for our Internal PASS Review. “Don’t you see, Mr. Sink? Don’t you see? It’s all a show!”

Somehow that comment was enough to have the entire chapter, 100 teachers, burst out laughing at me.

Luckily we had what I considered a very positive adult school culture; the comment, the laughs, they were not mean-spirited, but collegially patronizing (if that’s possible). “You’ll get it, you’ll understand someday, Mr. Sink. But this is all a show. There’s no feedback, there’s no professional development. There’s just us, and there’s her, and when she comes around, we put on our show, she puts on her show, and we all move on, and we’re all happy. You’ll get it someday.”

The friendly guffaws continued, a few slaps on the back, old pal, from a couple of the more garrulous veteran teachers sitting around me, a shaken head and “Poor boy” here or there, and the meeting went on.

Clearly the proposal was much favored and passed nearly unanimously.

Some other time, I’ll tell you the one about the veteran teacher, who had confided in me that he was afraid to be too outspoken, and approached me (a nearly brand new teacher at the time) in the office the following week asking me to run for UFT rep.

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