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.