Yo Teach…! Or how to avoid teaching like Jason

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 11 2012

What we lack in skill…!

I’ve never spent much time on this blog saying anything flattering about my teaching skill. That’s because, like most first/second year teachers, I don’t have much. I’m sure my principal (and coworkers after a few beers) would agree that especially in my first 2/3 of a year, management and organizational issues often prevented me from using my time well in the classroom. Yet, when I look at my data on the NWEA MAP assessment (a tri-annual adaptive online test that I have found quite precise and useful as a teacher…as far as standardized tests go) my students grew about as much as, if not a little bit more than (in my second trimester), the students of the (5+ years experience and quite talented) teachers I worked with and replaced (I was a long-term sub for those on maternity leave). My time with students often overlapped perfectly with testing cycles, so I was in a unique position to see how fast my students grew with me compared to those I replaced.

If we assume that this assessment paints a reasonably accurate picture of student growth, the question is, why did my students do so well (relative to my skill)? My hypothesis is, what I lacked in skill, I was able to make up for by constantly being in “overdrive” mode…complementing lessons with added activities and practice, designing websites for further practice during centers/at home, working with students on weekends/after school, etc. This scenario is not ideal. It wore me out, and probably made school a bit less fun/creative/meaningful for my students. I think most corps members understand this, and I would predict this is why our data, on the whole, isn’t so bad, even though we lack a lot of skills most teachers have.

To test this theory, I will compare my students’ growth and mastery relative to my coworkers last year to this year. This year I am teaching in a highly regimented charter school that forces teachers, all teachers, to be in this constant overdrive mode every single day. Every minute is planned, filled with review exercises, warmups, test-prep, complementary activities/worksheets, etc. If I wanted to go above and beyond, I would have about three minutes in the day where I could implement my ideas. My coworkers this year are similar to those last year: career teachers with at least five years of experience under their belts. So far, the data fits my hypothesis: they are kicking my butt. Since I no longer have the advantage of working harder or using time more efficiently, the only thing that differentiates us is pure skill. And it shows. We haven’t tracked growth yet, but on mastery assessments the numbers essentially fall in line based on experience.

So what conclusion do I draw? For one, I am certainly not convinced that the students at my current charter school are lucky to have teachers that force them (and are forced) to be in overdrive every minute (especially when it’s done in such a dehumanizing way for the teachers). Nevertheless, perhaps there is something to be said for regimenting inexperienced teachers  to ensure that they are in this overdrive mode, and therefore making up some of what is lost in their inexperience. But the costs of forcing experienced teachers to always be in this mode (in ways that may not be natural to them)–higher teacher attrition, fewer experienced teachers, less responsibility for outcomes (see previous two posts)–I believe are likely to outweigh the  benefits on tests. But, my experience at least shows that experienced teachers who are working a bit more in overdrive mode can make dramatic gains compared to inexperienced teachers. Can this happen in a way that makes teachers feel more autonomous? Do KIPP and Uncommon schools (and other famous charters or public schools) find some perfect balance?

While I abhor a lot of the things about my current school, I will say this: based on growth, even the fantastic teachers at my old school were “not effective.” I don’t think this is a teacher problem (based on anecdotal evidence of my amazing coworkers), and I don’t think it’s a testing problem (I was not surprised by the teachers who had the strongest/weakest gains). It is therefore, I think, a school problem. But what is the solution? The implication is that perhaps there needs to be a bit more organizational strictness to ensure that time is used effectively in the classroom. Or maybe better resources? It’s frustrating, because  my current school I think is the opposite extreme of imposing bureaucracy, but I wonder where the perfect balance lies.

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