October 13, 2007

The Metrics? (part 2)

(Read The Metrics part 1 here)
How we measure our personal success with our students is very important. Our internal metrics are, to a degree, relative to the individual teacher. I have to be careful here because I do not want to suggest for a moment that a teacher who measures their personal success with students by a daily tally of how many smiles he or she receives from their students, or how many apples are left on their desks at the end of the day are either legitimate, appropriate or meaningful ways of determining success in the classroom. They may make us feel good, but the life-long success of students is more important then the feelings of the teacher.

With so many external metrics being used to assess our students, and indirectly our effectiveness as educators, it’s easy to become very discouraged very quickly. Teachers at my campus are now working in “data teams” to evaluated the test results of the students in their classrooms. All the students’ scores on the standardized tests and the common assessments are organized by teacher and laid out for everyone in their team to see. It’s not easy to compare my Algebra 1 scores with your Algebra 1 scores when clearly my students are not as proficient as your students. Your students scored higher, but I know that I am a better teacher than you are and so on and so forth. It can get ugly quickly. The goal is to analyze the data and as a group come to a consensus on how to modify instruction to make it more useful for students. However, some truly inept instructors can be flushed out in the process, and that can be a good thing, but no one, NO ONE, wants to be considered inept among their peers. Add to all of this the steady increasing pressure laid down by NCLB (how many years until 2014?) and the teaching environment becomes one that is strained to say the least. Pressure is also applied by parents many of whom have wonderfully good intentions but that sometimes hold unrealistic expectations for their students and their students’ teachers.

I love teaching and I’m willing to work within the system (however frustrating) so that I can continue to affect what I hope is a positive influence on my students and by extension on the world I live in. That is my main internal metric for teaching.

One way I measure my positive influence is by the number of alumni that I maintain contact with, sometimes daily. My counsel for my students doesn’t end when they graduate high school or grad school. I maintain communication through personal visits and email. Currently I am working with a former high school student who is applying to film school. I am helping him polish his application essays and offering my advice on how best to take the next step. A relationship that started in a high school classroom that grows beyond into an opportunity to mentor a life. That’s how it happened for me too. My high school teachers still provide me with advice and counsel when I ask for it.

Another way I measure my positive influence is through working with other teachers to improve their craft. Four of the teachers I taught at the university last year got hired on my high school campus this year. I am working with the principal to organize an in-service day for the five of us to get together and observe master teachers practicing their craft with students in their classrooms. When I was in my second year I was given the opportunity to participate in a similar activity. I still think about that day and all of the useful tips and techniques I learned from watching the best do what they did best, teach. My goal is that this day will provide an opportunity for these baby teachers to learn and grow.

Some of my colleagues are truly über-teachers. Sublime in their ability to change the lives of their students in positive ways as they teach them mathematics, history, and English, and yes, help them pass the CAHSEE and other mandatory assessments. They may not have started out quite so successful, but they have kept at it, learned from their mistakes, and prevailed in the quest to change the world. Do you think these individuals who excel in their classrooms have allowed their ability to adjust with the ever-swinging pendulum of scholastic reform to determine whether or not they consider themselves successful teachers? Do you think that these masters have allowed the challenges presented by the evolving school population to stop them from reaching out, picking up, and molding those fragile and formidable young lives? Do you think that a falling API score or a “difficult” graduating class ever made these professionals reconsider their place in the world? Any teacher who allows the challenges of teaching to keep them from the higher calling of teaching needs to stop calling themselves a teacher, and move on to the next career.

No one can argue with a changed life. Teachers change lives. How many lives have you changed? Have you tried to keep track? Think about that the next time you get discouraged because Little Johnny won’t listen, or 3rd period failed yesterday’s quiz miserably. Just because a student is struggling, or a quiz needs to be retaken does not diminish the impact and positive influence that we teachers have on the lives of our students, and that should be the major focus of our efforts. I’d like every student in my 3rd period class to earn an A this quarter. But if that does not happen it does not mean that I failed in my efforts to teach my students. And in a population of kids who so easily give up, it’s important that we teachers not quit when the test scores dip a little. Our purpose in the classroom transcends the role of test proctor; our purpose there is to change lives.

The Metrics? (part 1)

I haven’t written in a while. I’ve had a few ideas, but nothing compelling enough to make me actually sit down and work it out. That, plus the introduction of new computers to my classroom have made me feel like a first-year teacher at the start of the school year all over again. It’s been so frustrating that once again I am considering an assignment change, a level change, or perhaps even a whole career change. We’ll see how the school year progresses.

One of the things that is making me crazy this year, again, is the kids. Yea, I know, they make me crazy every year, but this new entitlement generation is, well, special. I’ve never worked with a group that literally felt comfortable with asking for an “A” simply because they came to class occasionally. A group that so easily and openly exclaims “I’m bored,” and then proceeds to simply turn off for the remainder of the period. A population who does not respect adults and authority so boldly that they feel no shame about being asking daily, even hourly, to comply with the simplest of instructions like, “spit out your gum.” This group seems to lack motivation, desire, or any sense of urgency in their lives to do much more then to respond to their next text message, check to see who wants to be added as a friend on their MySpace web page, or get in line for the newest and goriest splatter (horror) film. It’s kinda scary.

My high school recently celebrated Homecoming. We still go old-school with a parade including dignitaries, the band and floats decorated by the different graduating classes. We have a rally, a football game half time show including fireworks, and of course, a dance. My campus educates approximately 3400 kids. At best no more that 25% of these kids participated in the festivities. And the parade that starts at the campus, tours the downtown area, and returns to the school site is increasingly being seen by many in the city as a “nuisance.” There are many traditions celebrated at this over 100 year old public high school that many hold very close to their hearts; and that many others don’t know exist, and aren’t interested in learning about. We teach in a changing world. But who are really the ones that need to change?

Frustrated with all of this, and a 2-4 football record to date, I and many of my colleagues instinctually point to the students as the problem. As a population, the kids regularly disappoint us when they fail to meet our expectations. I, along with others, believe that high expectations are the best way to raise up an individuals performance, improve their abilities, and ultimately teach them how to be successful. However, when the contrast between a teacher’s expectation for student success (hard-work, commitment, dedication) and a student’s expectation for his or her success (just give me an “A” for showing up) is so severe, what’s left is a quandary not easily solved. After all, these kids will be running the country and the planet someday, they need to be well prepared. Unfortunately, too few students in the population I teach have a tangible understanding of their future, why they should set goals, and how to plan to achieve those goals. Sadly, the main goal in life for too many of the kids in my classroom is to “get paid,” without any idea of what to do to “get paid” that doesn’t involve something they heard once in a song on their iPod, or while watching Mtv.

Contrast that with the three sister students I recently had the opportunity to chat with. The two younger girls are twins and their sister is one year older. All three want to go to college and practice medicine. The twins were born with heart problems and had to stay on heart monitors for the first two years of their lives. Now they recognize the value of those doctors and others who helped them live and have built a strong desire to contribute positively to the world. How influential their early life experience actually is on their goals and dreams now I can’t say for sure, and these girls are not an anomaly in the current population, however, they do feel like the minority.

So, for us as teachers, what do we do? We can’t change the students, we can’t change the standards, we can’t change the general blasé in the average student, and we can’t single-handedly change the world. What we can do is change our internal metrics for how we evaluate and relate to our students. Our football team may not finish this year with a winning season. Despite the best efforts of our coaches, they may not be able to turn what is a good group of light-hearted boys into a serious group of dominating athletes. But does that mean that their season will be a failure? Is the record of 2-4 the only metric they should use to measure success? It’s an important metric but it’s not the only metric. Should our student government group who worked so hard to put on a fantastic homecoming event be discouraged by the low participation rate, or by the unfortunately negative attitude of some of the locals? One of the sisters who wants to be a doctor went to the homecoming dance and told me that she had a wonderful time.

Unfortunately, I can’t honestly guarantee that every student in my classes is going to pass my course, or even learn any of the expected outcomes that I have chosen to teach. I can’t force them to participate, come to class on time everyday, or even remember to spit out their gum. I can’t make them care or choose goals for a future they cannot comprehend (yet). Does that mean that I am a failing teacher? The answer depends on how I define my personal metrics for success.
(Read The Metrics part 1 here.)