Professionalism Without Protection: The Danielson Framework

The Danielson Framework, currently used for teacher evaluation in New York City and many other districts, states that a teacher at the “proficient” level “volunteers to participate in school and district projects, making a substantial contribution.” A teacher at the “distinguished” level (the highest) does all of this but also “assumes a leadership role in a major school or district project.” I have criticized the Framework for its extreme emphasis on student initiative in the classroom; here I will take up the problem of professional responsibilities. When “volunteering” is mandatory and when everyone is supposed to be a “leader,” something has gone off kilter, and teachers have little or no protection of their own lives.

It is not enough to take on an official duty, according to the Framework. The explanatory text states that teachers “are keenly alert to the needs of their students and step in on their behalf when needed”—recognizing signs of abuse, locating a winter coat for the child, and suggesting outside programs and activities. Such teachers “never forget that schools are not institutions run for the convenience of the adults who work in them; instead, the purpose of schools is to educate students. These educators care deeply for the well-being of their students and mobilize whatever resources are necessary for them to be successful.” In the following paragraph, it says that “educators are advocates for their students, particularly those whom the educational establishment has traditionally underserved.” (I object to the latter part of the sentence–but that’s a separate matter.)

In other words, a teacher must be willing to serve the students—especially the disadvantaged ones—from morning to night but is not allowed any “conveniences” for herself. In this sense, the Danielson Framework tries to have it both ways. It wants teachers to give everything (I have only quoted a fraction of the expected duties) but does not accord them privacy, dignity, or reprieve. To go beyond the call of duty is the call of duty. If you have a breakdown or fall ill, the system will march on, and you will be brushed off as yet another who couldn’t quite live up to the impossible.

Perhaps I exaggerate. The Danielson Framework makes some allowances for teachers’ personal lives (this, again, is from the explanatory part of the framework, not the rubric):

At certain times in one’s life, family demands are such that teachers have little space capacity to devote to school and district affairs. Attending to young children or to a parent with a disability can require enormous amounts of time and commitment. Some teachers let it be known that although they must leave school right at the end of the contract day, they can make their contribution through work they do at home, whether it is finding resources on the Internet for a team-teaching project or establishing the roster for students to volunteer at the soup kitchen.

So, even a teacher who “must” leave at the end of the day should compensate by doing something from home (beyond lesson planning and grading), something that shows that she’s still at the students’ service, even though her own life has overwhelming demands. Of course, only those with socially acceptable outside demands (illness, a child) will be counted in this. What if you are going through a difficult period and wish to keep it to yourself? What if you have made a wonderful new friend with whom you are spending time? What if you are working on a project that you don’t wish to announce to the world? Or what if you have family troubles that are no one else’s business? None of this counts, as it is invisible. In addition, putting extra thought into your lesson doesn’t count–a soup-kitchen roster, apparently, matters more than a few evening hours with Kierkegaard.

Now, many teachers do take joy in doing extra things for their students—and this dedication enhances the life of the school. In my first few years of teaching, I directed English language learners in performances of plays and musicals. At other times I given homework help over the phone, offered an elective, or taught Saturday classes; most recently, I have held philosophy roundtables for parents. I have written extensively on education; in the summers, I serve on the faculty of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. I took on these extra duties (some directly pertinent to school, some not) because I had the desire and the room. But teachers also need removal from school—not because of any blatant hardship or crisis, necessarily, but because they need some time to think, to work on a project, to take care of their health, or to deal with some other aspect of their lives. This does not make them inferior as teachers. To the contrary: it sets an example for the students, who can learn from such examples how to maintain good boundaries–that is, how to protect the different domains of their lives and respect the domains of others. It will also teach or remind them that there is such a thing as an end to the day.

Instead of a “give everything, demand nothing” model, I propose two alternatives. A school may state up front that it expects extra commitment from the teachers (who may decide whether or not to teach at that school). In return, it should offer teachers the utmost respect and protection: quiet time for thought and planning, additional compensation, a school-wide discipline code (that is enforced), appreciation of the teachers and what they do, sane priorities, and intellectual substance. The school should be a place where a teacher would choose to lead an intellectual life.

Or else a school might make the extra professional activities entirely optional—passing no judgment on teachers who focus primarily on teaching their classes. In that case, the schools would not be obligated to offer teachers a nurturing environment, nor would teachers be expected to live for school. The school might still have excellent activities and resources, in addition to its regular offerings—but these would come from the teachers’ voluntary efforts and would not be taken for granted.

Teachers should be recognized for the extra things they do—but those should be extra offerings, not requirements, unless the school has made the arrangement clear (and offers something in return). To teach well, and to attain true professionalism, you need to honor your own life–without apology or explanation, and without having to submit your soul for scrutiny.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece since its initial posting.

Children Must Learn Indifference, Says District Leader

In order to ensure alignment with standards, predetermined learning goals, accountability measures, and other papers in the pile, schools now require students to learn and practice indifference throughout the school day and at home, said Mona Nibud, superintendent of Taicsan Mills School District. “We can’t have any rough edges here,” she explained. “Everything must fit in place, including the kids.”

For one thing, students are not allowed to care about anyone in particular. “We switch up the group work—and we always have group work,” said Minnie Fulbad, a success coach. “We make sure no two students sit together very long, in class or anywhere else. That way no one gets very intimate, and no one gets left out.” The idea hails from Great Britain, where some schools have banned best friends. “We think this is great,” she said, “because out in the real world, in the workplace, you can’t have favorites. You have to be able to work with who’s there.”

The push for indifference has affected the curriculum as well. “We need all books to be aligned with the standards,” said Nibud, “and many of the old classics just don’t align with anything. They need to be tossed. Take, for instance, Winnie-the-Pooh. You can enjoy that as a five-year-old, but I’ve heard that even some adults read it. What would the reading level be for such a book? We can’t afford the ambiguity.” In addition, she explained, every text must be efficient in serving a specific purpose. “You might be able to learn about character traits from the Iliad,” she said, “but there are quicker ways of learning character traits.” It hardly mattered, she added hastily, that most of the characters in the approved texts lacked character. “That’s part of the point,” she noted. “We don’t want kids getting attached to characters in books. We want them to perform quick operations on them, take a test, and then go on to the next reading level.”

Teachers are strongly cautioned against passionate lesson delivery. “If you care deeply about a lesson, you aren’t serving the kids,” said Local Instructional Superintendent Steve Geenzin. “You’re supposed to be bringing things out of them, not indulging in your own passion.” So, for instance, a teacher who got excited while discussing Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra was adviced to (a) drop the Nietzsche; (b) think about the skills that students needed to learn; and (c) step out of the way while students practiced those skills in groups. “That’s what schools are doing all around the country,” said Geenzin, “but a few teachers just don’t want to change their old ways.” Any teacher who persisted in teaching a so-called riveting lesson would be asked to leave. According to Geenzin, a riveting lesson was essentially divisive, as it favored those students who found it riveting.

To help teachers, administrators, students, and families change in the approved ways, the district would be setting up self-help groups. Attendance would be voluntary for “reflective” practitioners and mandatory for those whose reflections didn’t meet requirements. During the sessions, all participants would be required to admit publicly to any strong ideas or feelings, which would then undergo a ritual stomp. “We write those feelings on paper, read them out loud, and then trample on them together,” said an anonymous participant. “Then we sit down and recite: ‘Nothing matters more than anything else, unless it’s a test score.’ We recite this for the next hour. When I walk out of there, I feel so numb, it’s amazing.”

Recognizing the difficulty of eliminating passions from those who grew up with them, Nibud predicts that one day children will be taught indifference from the moment they exit the womb. “Instead of all those cries of pain and joy in the delivery room, we’re going to have the baby handled by trained nonchalance workers,” she said. “That way, the babies will get the correct message from day one.” As they began to walk and crawl, they will be monitored for eccentricities. All licensed daycare and preschool workers will enforce a general attitude of “whatever.” “By the time they enter kindergarten, these children must be entirely socialized and task-oriented,” Geenzin said. “Anyone who goes off task will face consequences, and that includes teachers and anyone bookish.”

Why the emphasis on indifference? “It’s kind of funny where it all started,” said Nibud, “but it makes sense, if you think about it. We got a whole load of new textbooks this year. They are completely aligned to the new standards and tests. They’re so dull, a lot of teachers couldn’t stomach them—but since there’s no changing or returning them, we figured it was the stomachs that needed changing.”

With proper effort and practice, according to officials, those who feel queasy over current reforms will soon feel queasy no more.

Where I’ll be for the next week

I may have a chance to post here as well, but if you see nothing, go over to the great blog of Joanne Jacobs, where, starting tomorrow, I will be guest-blogging with Michael E. Lopez until March 26.

Also, visit The Cronk of Higher Education, where I may have a new piece soon (update: it is posted), and where many other satirical pieces may tickle and horrify you. I had a delightful interview with the Cronk’s editor-in-chief, Leah Wescott; you are welcome to download and listen to the podcast.

On the subject of fine blogs: Lisa Hansel, former editor of American Educator, is now the director of communications for the Core Knowledge Foundation and has begun writing for the blog. The CK Blog is a good place to spend an hour with coffee in the mornings (as well as scattered evening hours, when conversations get lively). I have known Lisa as a true editor (the kind who understands what writers are after and helps them attain it); it’s a treat to be reading her writing now.

Now I must rush onward with my day. Just a glimpse of it: my ninth-grade students are reviewing the rhetorical devices they have learned so far (and reading Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Solitude of Self”); the tenth graders are reading the prologue of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (and will soon start Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground), and the eleventh graders are wrapping up the Communist Manifesto, reading various constitutions (including the Constitution of Užupis), and designing their own utopias, dystopias, or realistic plans.

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