I’m the best teacher in the world. I just spent four days teaching a writing workshop and you would not believe how much those students improved in an incredibly short time. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m awesome. I deserve a giant raise!
No, wait. I’m the worst teacher in the world. Two years ago, I taught a class for an entire year and even after a whole year with me, many of those students demonstrated no growth that could be measured. In fact, most of them didn’t even graduate from high school in four years. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I suck. I should be fired or put on an improvement plan.
Say what?! How could one teacher—me—be so highly effective in one class and so grossly ineffective in another?
The students were socioeconomically similar, all students of color from low-income families. I am the same teacher using similar techniques. In fact, I actually used a whole lot more techniques in the second class; I used every single technique I could think of and when I ran out, I hit google long into the night dredging up anything I could possibly imagine. I got advice from my wise and experienced assistant principal, from my colleagues, from anyone I could find. Nothing worked.
Because it is a complete myth that all effective instruction looks alike regardless of context. And it is also a myth that if students aren’t learning, regardless of context, it’s always because the teacher ineffective.
Yes, some teachers are incompetent and shouldn’t be teaching. But let’s keep it real: some students have a long way to go emotionally before they’re ready to grow, an act that is itself a leap of faith that the struggle to learn, which is often difficult and sometimes painful, will be worthwhile. The reality is that I’m neither a genius nor an idiot who should be removed from the classroom. I’m a darn good writing teacher—if the students are emotionally ready to trust me or trust adults in general. If they’re not, no matter how good I may be or how hard I try, I’m likely to fail and fail again.
The thing is, despite their demographic similarities, the two classes I’m describing actually were quite different. In the first, the students were high-testing, highly motivated students; some of them had parents who had attended college. Teaching these students was a dream. I’ve never experienced anything like it. These kids were eager. Everything interested them. They loved challenging themselves. Teaching that class was like tossing a beach ball into a crowded swimming pool: just lob a thought out there and the kids would toss it around joyously just for the sport of it. I never had to explain anything twice. They were so excited about learning that the classes would often spill over through lunch while our discussions raged on.
Teaching students like these is exhilarating. It’s definitely work to keep up with them intellectually, but it’s just fun, fun, fun. At the end of the day, I’d be energized. I’d feel successful—and their progress on the rubric demonstrated measurable results.
The students from the second group were low-testing 11th graders who had flunked many classes and were at risk of not graduating. A large number of them were English Language Learners. None of them had parents who had been to college and many of them came from extremely troubled families. One boy had a mother who had disappeared the previous year, simply vanished, as far as anyone could tell. Another girl had emigrated here from El Salvador to find that her mother had remarried a man who did not want the girl in the house. Another boy had a single mother who would scream at him every day that he was a loser. One girl had run away the previous year and joined a gang for months; she had only returned to school because someone had tried to shoot her and it freaked her out. One boy threw pencils and called me a fucking bitch when I asked him to stop.
Teaching these students was exhausting and demoralizing. Many of them had difficulty sitting still or concentrating for more than ten minutes at a stretch. The girl who had run away simply could not stop talking. The boy whose mother had disappeared was seething with anger and sometimes frightened the students around him with his hostility. For all the frustrations, I truly loved the students, and they seemed fond of me as well. When the kids found the courage, the strength and the persistence to turn their lives around, as a few of them did, I swear to God I never witnessed anything as deeply inspiring. But if anyone had measured my success by any kind of data, it was a total failure, which is ironic, because I worked about 8 million times harder than I did in my successful class.
One of the main reasons I took this sabbatical was that I became obsessed with this second class, the very at-risk students I couldn’t reach and that nobody at my excellent school seemed to be able to reach consistently. I wanted to see if anyone had unlocked the magic solution, if there was some effective technique to be used. But across the city, I saw the same situation. Whenever I saw a class with a large number of very at-risk students in high-poverty communities—by which I mean students with a long, negative history in school and very low skill levels from families in chaotic, sometimes traumatic circumstances–no matter how great the teacher was, progress was slow at best and many, many of the students were falling off the rails. Across the board in very at-risk communities, classes were significantly smaller in May than they’d been in September, sometimes by as much as half, because students had “checked out” or dropped out.
What the best teachers do in these situations is persist anyway. These teachers are somehow able to let go of the need to see measurable results immediately; their strength is in their ability to see the potential of their students and to hang tough in that belief in spite of all of the student’s negative behavior.
That persistence, that belief, that strength—these are qualities that go beyond our notions of effectiveness or measurable results. And yet for very at-risk students, these qualities matter as much or more than the “effective” teaching techniques we are currently valuing. The truth is, for the students who find the strength to turn around, those turnarounds are close to miraculous. And often students who appear to be failing actually are listening on some level. I recently ran into the pencil-throwing guy who called me a bitch–a kid I’d inexplicably come to be extremely fond of in spite of everything. Two years later, he had somehow managed to graduate from high school and was now in community college. I have no idea how this happened or whether my class was a factor–I’m sure there were many, many factors, including my school’s willingness to stick with him–and I’ll never know. Sometimes teaching looks a whole lot like the deepest kind of faith.
That’s why I’m really concerned about merit pay. Any system I’ve seen is based on a combination of classroom observations and data that generally are tied in some way to test score growth, but these observations and data are going to look way better when students are eager and ready to learn than when they’re very at-risk students with low skills who have may have trust issues. Even “VAM,” or value-added formulas that factor in socioeconomic conditions, wouldn’t measure the differences between the two classes I taught. Once merit pay kicks in, we’re basically going to be incentivizing teaching kids like the first group of my students, high-performing, high-functioning students and punishing teachers who work with our most at-risk kids, like the students I taught two years ago. How do we value faith? How do we value the ability to see potential in every child, every day, no matter how angry or self-loathing or traumatized that child may be? How do we value the teachers who come in every day and see intelligence in every child despite the lack of measurable evidence to prove it yet?
Ironically, this work, the work with our most at-risk students, is in my opinion the most important work in education. It is also by far the most difficult. If we’re going to talk at all about merit pay, we must first make the teachers who teach these students our priority—by finding a language to recognize and support their strengths and a system to reward them so that these teachers, like their students, will not continue to vanish from our schools.