Sunday, April 1, 2012

Tales from School: Administrators and Meetings

I'm still thinking about school change. Forgive me. I've been reading James Herndon's Notes from a Schoolteacher. Herndon is a better man than me mostly because, at least in his writing, he is able to look at school nonsense without throwing a nutty. I'm getting there, but it's a slow process.

Today, I flashed back on seeing two administrators trying to design a fool-proof teacher rating system and a committee tasked with revising the school-wide grading system. Both are as good examples of school nonsense as can be imagined.

I walked into my principal's office a few years back to find her working with another principal on a paper spread across her conference table. Curious, I asked what was up. They were designing the district's new checklist system for teacher assessment. A four-point system had been mandated to replace the old three-point system. They were trying to word things so that bad teachers could be rooted out and mediocre teachers could be put on improvement plans.

I asked, what about good teachers? They weren't much concerned with them. The system was mostly designed to fix the bad ones. I nodded. I saw their problem. How do you assess teachers you know to be bad in a way that shows they are bad and allows you to put them on an improvement plan or allows you to fire the? With all the union rules, the complicated nature of teaching, and the fact that most teachers get observed in passing only once a year, it was a tough thing for them to figure out.

My principal, remembering that I am a good enough English teacher, wanted me to look at item fourteen, subsection three, point four (or some such) on the rubric to see if I could phrase it right. I found a good excuse to get away and wished them luck.

That was their third meeting over this. They then presented to a committee and revised some more. The project took about four months. Here is the effect of it on us teachers:

Last year, my supervisor sent me a copy of that evaluation form and asked if I wouldn't mind drafting my own observation notes so that he could sign off. He hadn't gotten a chance to observe me in the classroom so if I could just fill out the form...

So it goes.

Around that same time, I was told to join the grading committee so I went. At the first meeting, the assistant superintendent had us go around and tell who we were and where we worked. That was fine. Then she asked us to go around again, talking about why were were there and what we were most focused on about grading. That would have gone well too on a committee without me present.

I had two things bouncing around. One, should we first have a discussion about whether or not grades are the best way to go. Maybe, in alternative education, the usual carrots and sticks might not be the best road to follow. And two, why did we need a uniform grading policy across very different schools with non-uniform kids.

Everyone looked at me. I smiled. No one missed me at the next meeting or any of the others after that.

There goes two reforms. A tremendous amount of time went into them because our superintendent wanted to fix things and make every program look the same on paper. Some school people think such things are important. Most of them work at the district offices, but a fair number teach. I'm just not someone who believes any of that matters. Not even a little.

I'll tell you what matters: making sure that kids and teachers get a chance to write. And that we all continue to write on.