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I’m the youngest of five, and when I was little, my older sisters were the ones to tell me bedtime stories. Growing up in a very conservative, Christian home, many of those stories were from the Bible. One of my most vivid memories happened when I was about five. One of my sisters told me the story of Moses and the plagues of Egypt, one plague each night for a week.  When we got to the last plague, the one where the Angel of Death comes through Egypt and kills the first-born of every family unless they have the blood of the sacrificial lamb on their door frame, I missed the part about it being the first-born son and the part about it happening only once.  I was more than just a little scared.  Using the logic of a preschooler, I thought it was going to happen again when Passover rolled around, and that meant that my oldest sister would die this year. The next year it would be my other sister because she would be the oldest, and then my first brother, my second brother and then me! In five years we would all be dead.

Why do I tell this story now? Well, it came to my mind yesterday when I was reading the Chetty research about firing teachers sooner than later. (http://obs.rc.fas.harvard.edu/chetty/value_added.html) The battle cry has become, “Fire the bottom 10% of teachers!”, and I asked myself, what happens when there are no more bottom ten percents?

If you ‘get rid of’ the bottom 10% of teachers based on test scores one year, then the next year, there will be another 10% at the bottom. Do we get rid of those, too? And the next year, and the next? How many years will it take to get rid of all the teachers, and is that the underlying goal of some education reformers? We don’t live in Lake Woebegone where everyone is above average. If everyone progresses, then the average changes. In mathematical terms, average is the midpoint in a set of data. So, if you take out the bottom 10%, you are just shifting where the average is, and thus, creating a new bottom 10%.

That being said, I believe that bad teachers need to exit the profession. I don’t know anyone in education who doesn’t feel the same way. However, I would also ascertain that there are very few ‘bad teachers’. For me, a bad teacher is one who has total disregard for the students in his/her care. This includes teachers who make poor moral and ethical decisions which affect their job performance or the lives of their students.

I don’t believe you can judge teacher effectiveness/quality based on a standardized test that takes nothing into consideration except the hours spent bubbling in multiple-choice questions.

It has been my experience (24 years, two states, two districts – one large & one small, a year of subbing, and multitudes of teacher friends and family around the country), that what we have are not bad teachers, but ineffective teachers. The issue at hand is not to fire the bottom 10% but to help them become more effective. As a classroom teacher, I don’t kick out the bottom 10% of my students to improve my test scores; I invest more time in helping them be successful. The same should happen for teachers.

I have to admit that my first year teaching I spent a lot of time treading water; trying to keep my head from going under. I can’t blame that on a poor teacher prep program. Drs. Cherie Clodfelter, Hazel McDermott, and Barbara Sylvester at the University of Dallas made sure we were prepared in both content and pedagogy. I can’t blame it on my student teaching experience either. My cooperating teacher was a master teacher, and she gladly handed over control and let me teach. What I can blame it on is the fact that no amount of education prepares you for the real classroom: the one where 25 kids from all different backgrounds are demanding your attention at once; where lesson planning doesn’t look like what it did in college because you are preparing for six subjects each day and you need to make sure to adjust for the varying ability levels of your students; where IEP meetings, staff meetings, and grade level meetings eat into your already limited prep time; where test prep and red tape are part of the system.

I was lucky. I was surrounded by veteran teachers who offered advice, lent a helping hand, and encouraged me. They took time to plan with me, to point out my strengths as well as my weaknesses.  This has continued throughout my career. I have been able to build a professional learning network to help me grow as a teacher, even after 24 years, there is still much to learn. I’ve also had administrators who did more than the required evaluations. They modeled lessons, gave constructive feedback, and encouraged me to constantly evaluate and improve my teaching. I view myself as successful because I was supported and given the opportunity to evolve into the teacher I am today.

So, how do we deal with ineffective teachers? Fire them? Absolutely not! We invest in them. We need to build in more collaboration time and professional development. That time should be driven by the needs of the individual teacher, not some mandate from on high. We need to get rid of the red tape that ties administrators to their offices and get them in the classrooms to evaluate, collaborate, and encourage. We need more veteran teachers to step up and take a new or struggling teacher under their wings, not to evaluate but to mentor. We need to remove the culture of fear created by high-stakes testing so that teachers can ask for help, work together, and teach for the good of the children, not the score on the test. We need to acknowledge that there are factors outside of the school day that are beyond the teacher’s control: poverty, hunger, family dysfunction, absences, to name a few. We need to acknowledge that all students do not start the race at the same point or speed and to expect them to finish at the same time only invites failure and despair.

My first principal once said to me, “Jennifer, you can’t save them all.” It was part of a conversation about a student who had been held back twice by 5th grade, whose mother I met for the first time in a local restaurant’s bar where she was falling down drunk at 4:30 pm, whose father had been killed in a motorcycle collision with a brick wall, and whose brother was in jail for stabbing someone. She was right, but my answer was this, “You’re right, but I don’t know which ones I will save so I have to do my best for them all.”

That’s what we should be doing for teachers. Rather than writing them off and tossing them aside, we need to do our best to support and encourage them and to help them grow into the teachers they really want to be - teachers who make a difference in the lives of children not teachers judged on a single test score: a snapshot into one moment in the year of a child.

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