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 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, work on a project, take care of their health, or 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.

The Need for Eccentricity in Education

Good teachers are eccentrics. This does not mean that they have quirky habits and mannerisms or that they stand out in any obvious way. This eccentricity is often quiet; it comes from diving into the subject in order to grasp its essence, then bringing it to the students in a form that they can understand. The teacher acts as a messenger and undergoes transformations. Now she sits absorbed in a book, oblivious to her surroundings; later she bursts into recitation, waking students up into a poem. The teacher’s mind keeps working and playing at odd moments of the day—during walks down the hall, lunch breaks, and the waits beside the photocopy machine.

Education reform doesn’t honor this eccentricity. Instead, it pushes teachers and students toward a norm that it then tries to lift. You can’t lift a norm. Norms are just that: normal, average, unlifelike, heavy. To make schools better, you have to honor education’s spark and wit. At their best, teachers and students work in slightly unusual ways.

Many believe fervently in judging teachers by their students’ test scores. In their view, nothing could be fairer. Let teachers teach in the way they deem best, and judge them by their results. But what is the upshot of this? Teach for America has been working on a formula to identify, in advance, the teachers likeliest to bring test score increases. So far, their most robust findings are that prospective teachers with high college GPAs and demonstrated leadership skills (such as experience running a club) tend to bring about higher test scores in their students. This points to a dubious conclusion that we should give preference to prospective teachers who were presidents of clubs and got 4.0 GPAs.

Imagine the consequences. If you’re an introverted student who loves to dwell on a passage in a story or novel, or who enjoys proving a mathematical theorem in different ways, then you will be set on edge by a cadre of teachers who view education as a means to a material end—who emphasize getting the scores, getting the resume, getting elected president. Some of my most brilliant teachers had roundabout and zigzag lives; they probably did well in school, even spectacularly well, but their GPA was in many cases a side effect of what they did. They had some kind of spirit of leadership, but often it wasn’t overt; they might never have run any club.

Of course it’s fine to bring about test score gains, as long as that is not the primary goal—but it’s folly to identify and favor the personalities who can do so. There’s a fuzzy space where students who show good but not stellar test score gains may actually be learning more than those whose scores excel. Their long-term learning may be greater; their progress may be steady and strong. Their teachers may leave them with things that they remember years later. (This may also not be the case, but the possibility is there.)

Well, say the reformers, that’s why we have holistic teacher evaluations. They balance things out. The teacher is judged not only on the test scores, but also on her lesson planning, classroom atmosphere, and more.

Yes, this is so. But the “holistic” teacher evaluation rubrics favor the well-rounded teacher who has all the recognized components of good teaching. It does not favor the teacher with outstanding, overriding strengths—for instance, the teacher who has exceptional knowledge of her subject but is not especially involved in community events, or the teacher who gives memorable lessons but does not emphasize group activity. Oh, and woe on the absent-minded teacher. Rubrics such as Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching give the highest rating to teachers who set and achieve concrete goals for the lesson, who emphasize small group work, whose classrooms are highly organized, who collaborate frequently with colleagues, and who engage in approved professional development activities.

Test scores and teacher evaluations  can tell us a great deal. But we should be wary of a world in which everyone does everything just so. Education is full of bumps and gleams. Here’s to the teacher who wants students to do well but, even more than that, wants them to walk away with something. That means spending some days hitting the stone with the pick and getting nothing from it. It means bringing students stories and lessons from other times and mines, so that they will know that their work is not a waste. It means releasing oneself from petty pressures, letting oneself be with the work and nothing else. And it means—for teachers and students alike—not worrying too much about what others do and say, or what one’s instant rating might be.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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