Teaching vs. Spreadsheets and Programs…

OR…The Essense of a Teacher and How to Kill It

If you are a reader of this blog, you know that my school is a little heavy-handed with the data and the telling of teachers what to put on their walls and the specificity with which all manner of things must be performed, recorded, and reported. This tends to drive teachers crazy and they quit….in droves. And we don’t have much to show for it aside from tanking test scores and a giant neon HELP WANTED sign we roll out of the basement and light up every summer.

My question is always: Could it be different?

An interesting thing is happening right now. I have recently been having, for the first time here, conversations with an administrator that:

1) I do not dread;
2) Are not hostile;
3) Include positive feedback;
4) I learn from;
5) Make me feel good about teaching and want to do better for my students.

It’s a strange spot for Mr. Teachbad to be in, to be sure. Very uncomfortable, but nice. Like the first time you…nevermind…

I’m trying to put my finger on it. I think the best analogy I can come up with is that my school can’t see the forest because the trees get in the way. This has the strength of being not only an analogy, but a cliché as well.

Allow me to explain.

Everybody seems to be an expert now about what makes a good teacher and what constitutes good teaching. And the consensus seems to be that this can be hammered into people within a couple of years by sheer force. And if that doesn’t work, you shame them and fire them.

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that what really makes a good teacher is something like this. It is somebody who:
1) Likes and cares about kids;
2) Is willing and able to plan instruction that meets their needs;
3) Is willing and able to work to get better at #2 over time.

In other words, an ongoing effort at improving the planning and delivering of lessons. This is where the rubber meets the road. What do I do in my classroom? What energy and attitude do I bring? How organized and prepared am I? Do I know my content? Why am I teaching this lesson? How am I engaging my students at different levels?

These are all reasonable. (Though they can all easily be taken to an unreasonable extreme as well. Believe me, I know.) But they are all about TEACHING. They are about why we started to do this in the first place. This is what this particular administrator I’ve been talking to seems to get.

As an organization, however, the school has lost this focus.

You can go back through this blog and find dozens of posts that describe the asinine requirements of my school in terms of:
1) Exactly what types of useless data must be collected;
2) What exactly must be displayed on all of my walls and bulletin boards;
3) How exactly a lesson objective must be written;
4) What exactly must be included in an assessment;
5) How exactly a gradebook must be set up;
6) What exactly should be the lesson structure on each day of the week;
7) And on and on with Ideas ‘o the Month large and small…etc.

Then there are Action Plans, SMART Goals, Ridiculous Rounds…

I would argue that all of this detracts from my ability to become a better teacher and causes me to enjoy the entire enterprise much less. The requirements and unreasonable expectations freak people out, demoralize them, and piss them off. Is that how we want teachers to feel? Does that “put kids first”? Did I really half-ass the planning of this lesson because somebody was bitching that I didn’t have a data wall? How much time have I wasted doing all this stupid crap and/or being angry about it?

I’m not saying that we don’t need any programs, or that we don’t need to keep track of anything. And I am certainly not saying that the balance is easy to strike or that I would be the best principal you ever could want.

But I do think that teachers are overburdened with unrealistic expectations and ancillary bullshit requirements that are designed to create illusions. This is at the expense of supporting teachers and giving them the time and creative space they need to become better at what they love…before they start hating it.

Mr. Teachbad

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20 Responses to Teaching vs. Spreadsheets and Programs…

  1. Rebekah says:

    Thank you! And AMEN!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Passion4Teaching says:

    Wonderfully stated once again, Mr. Teachbad. I always feel as though you have been in my school. It’s starting to get creepy.
    I was reflecting yesterday about how I have not done one single reading group all quarter because of various requirements, most of it data related. At 2nd grade, reading groups are still pretty important considering learning to read is foundational K-2. First, my principal wanted to observe me setting individual goals with my students in reading. It took me about 2 1/2 weeks to get to all of my students. Then I had to work on my PDSA goal; the students have to be involved in recording the data for this, and of course the data has to be displayed on my data wall. It took me nearly a full week to record this data. Next week, I have to begin assessing my students to see if they met the reading goal I set for them in October. It would have been helpful had I been able to do reading groups this quarter before having to assess my students. You know, it’s always good to do some actual teaching before you give a final assessment. :\

  3. JoAnne says:

    I can sort of relate to this. We have a new administration, after 7+ years of a “neutral to JoAnne at best, overtly hostile at worst” head dude who once told me I’d be on his shit list if he ever walked into my room and found my kids reading. The new blood actually seems to take my ideas and thoughts seriously. Well, at least he doesn’t openly eye-roll yet. I’m cautiously optimistic. Let’s hope neither of our glimmers of light gets smacked down…ever.

  4. We just got another new administrator and as we all know, all new admins must prove themselves to be bad ass sticklers for correct jargon, objectives, data, comprehensive learning plans . . . you get my drift.

    Last week I submitted my first lesson plans to the new guy. I have two preps, so two lesson plans for the week. I got the feedback yesterday. One set of plans got all “ok” checked off. The other has monstrous errors such as “objectives not stated in demonstrable terms” or some such nonsense.

    Guess what? aside from the content of what we’re reading *the lesson plans were identical.* Same objectives. Same standards. Same daily activities, including Do Now and Exit Ticket.

    I’d like to use your list of teacher reactions to describe how I feel: pissed off, demoralized and freaked out. Right from the get-go I know there will be no pleasing this man.

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  6. I had high hopes that I would be able to have real conversations like you mentioned with our superintendent when he came 2 years ago (I have given up on the principal), but my encounters with him this year have dampened my enthusiasm. Your main point about what makes good teachers is the thing that always gets lost in the education fads and fixes and bullshit. Thank you.

  7. happyIquit says:

    i love love love love love your blog. i am a recovering teacher. i quit last april to move to a new city to be with my fiance. his mother is a teacher and he’s grown up with her teaching stories which have shifted from love to frustration over time. while he was very empathetic to my struggles in the classroom – i just knew i would be ruining BOTH our lives by remaining a teacher. i mean, how many decades of listening to teacher drivel can one take? and once i left the classroom and was on the other side of just hearing instead of telling about the nonsense, i began to understand how my non-teaching parents and friends must have been begining to feel while listening to me- another version of helpless. listening to his mom (who by the way is one of the most joyful, expressive, loving and passionite teachers about her chosen subject of music that you could EVER WANT a child to have) share what in my opinion amounts to abuse of her love and dedication to teaching just makes me want to cry and go punch her principal in the face.

    one of the reasons that i quit was that as the data nonsense really started mounting up i quickly realized that you either had time to teach OR time to document – but not both. i was never willing to be a teacher martyr, working 24/7 to get it all done, so essentially i just taught what i felt i needed and MADE UP ALL MY DATA. but even though my students consistently outperformed the 9 other first grade classes at my school (and yes that is correct, there were 10 FIRST GRADE CLASSES all with over 20 students in one k-5 school) both the fear that i was going to be “caught” and the constant outrage that anyone could suggest with a straight face that teachers could be realistically expected to keep up everything were just too much.

    SO I QUIT! and coincitentally, i don’t wake up with migranes any more.

    • Not a Dog and Pony Show says:

      Didn’t you know that 98% of statistics is made up on the spot? So, you weren’t doing anything wrong.

      I think I’m about done with education as well…how is it out there in the real world?

  8. louise says:

    (dear phillieteacher, they make photocopiers for a reason… just copy the “good” one and stick it in both binders. Instant improvement. )

    I’d like to think that the principals I have met could sustain a reasonable conversation, but when they want to talk data, they usually admit they don’t understand percents in the first 3 minutes, and the “conversation” becomes pretty much a “because I said so” from them. I just watched a Board of Education committee plunk down $1M on a “new reading program” designed in 2004, because our old one was too old ( it was designed in 2001). The decision was based on anecdotal evidence from 2 teachers out of 8 who “tried this out” – one of the two was a special ed small group. There was no data, no objective comparison. Just 2 women who were willing to say “oh this is the best reading series I have ever used” (maybe the only one, who knows?) and now it’s being inflicted on 400 unsuspecting elementary teachers.
    So I wonder why we are gathering all this data, because when I said maybe we should look at the data, they had a guy hired specially by the district to explain to me that would be way to difficult/irrelevant/not scientific enough.
    Next time I’m asked for data, I’m going to find 2 good students with a good story. i will be the most awesomest teacher everer. er.

    • Not Just Any Data Point says:

      I’m with you on people not understanding percentages. Most groups at our school adopted the goal of showing 10% growth their monthly assessments (no real choice). A blanket statement was made that each group would increase mastery by 10% each month. I pointed out, three years ago, to my administrators that percentage point changes and percent of change are not the same thing and should not be used interchangeably. I explained that a movement from 70% to 80% is a 14.3% increase whereas a movement from 10% to 20% was a 100% increase. Some of the administrators did not fully understand what I was explaining to them and said it was too complicated for most people and therefore we were sticking to calling them both a 10% increase. The district communicates it the same way to the community.

      I find the flawed analysis of the data (as well as flawed collection methods) extremely frustrating because it permeates so many aspects of our job and the discussions we have with each other and the community. I believe that this bogus data eliminates any credibility we have as a profession.

  9. gilda says:

    You truly are a hero of mine. Thank you for putting voice to what so many of us are thinking privately. For one nauseating second I thought you had drunk the Kool-Aid. But as I reread your new post and the comments so far, I caught myself identifying with your cautious optimism–something I have tried very hard to protect in myself from the useless, daily grind of (insert endless list of meaningless requirements here) nonsense we face daily. New initiatives are given NO time to prove useful/useless –its march right along to the NBBI (Next Best Brightest Idea). At my school we call it the Whim of the Week-sometimes the Whim of the Day. Just as you get used to the jargon of NBBI, it gives way to the next one. When you get the hang of posting the ridiculous objective/GLE/standard/rigorous verb/data wall/center/scaffolding activity/etc/etc/etc the way it’s required to be posted, the format gets changed yet again. Honestly, those cute little metal ducks in a shooting gallery have much more stability than most of our reform efforts. Teachers who know what they’re doing know what works with Susie and Kwame–and more importantly–what doesn’t.
    Over the past thirty years, language on academic freedom was routinely put into negotiated agreements and no one on either side of the table had a problem with it. That language has been completely eroded because of the micromanagement of whatever force is driving this so-called educational reform movement. I actually feel sorry for the decent administrators who try to keep the garbage away from us and let us do what we do best-teach. They are in a worse position than most teachers because there is no one standing between them and the policy wonks. We had a principal a few years back who was terrific-kept 90% of the garbage away from us, had our backs when we deserved it, was fantastic at discipline—the school ran as it should. Kids learned. Teachers taught. It all seemed so simple then. That same principal is now in upper administration and is the chief pusher of all things stupid. Is there anyway back from this precipice?

  10. Ms. Kelly says:

    The ironic bit at my school? The precious data is starting to show that what the teachers have been saying since August has merit. Jumping around from idea to idea emphatically does not increase student learning; in fact it impedes it. Somehow now, though, we are each personally to be blamed by administration for having allowed he same administration to bludgeon us into submission. Because, if we were good teachers, we would have gotten fired rather than put the accusers’ bad ideas in place. Oh, and we’re lazy and never did what they told us. But mostly we were too submissive and should have known better than to obey them, and how dare we be so recalcitrant?!

  11. Cupcake says:

    Teach for America newbies in our school showed us this neat thing called a tracker. It is very time-consuming to fill in, but it is the 1 source of data I actually find helpful. Our principal has mandated that we all use trackers.

    The best thing about the tracker is that the kids can understand it and track themselves. Once I realized the tracker was for the kids’ use, I bought in. They love it. Even the slackers ask me when I’ll have the next set of tracker results ready.

    However, writing trackergrading papers, inputing grades to the online grading book, re-entering tracker results in the tracker spreadsheet, going over the tracker results with the kids, etc. takes A LOT of time.

    Unintended consequence: the tracker has shown me that I was right about 4-5 kids who seem to be beyond academic help. As a result, I have to decide: keep doing the tracker for the other 120 kids who really seem to benefit from it OR quit doing the tracker for each objective and spend hours trying to fill out the 20+ computer screens needed to get the 4-5 tested for any sort of special services.

    Since I will get no credit whatsoever for helping the 4-5 improve an imperceptible amount, I’m going with the data tracker.

  12. Cupcake says:

    My last post posted before I was ready!

    I meant to say that not only will I not get credit for helping a few kids improve even a little bit, I will be punished if the other 120 don’t exceed everyone’s expectations. So it is actually THE DATA telling me to abandon the few in favor of the many.

    Teachers don’t like doing this.

  13. >So it is actually THE DATA telling me to abandon the few in favor of the many.

    Same at our district. Administration has decided that the only students who deserve extra help from our School Based Instructional Somebody are the kids who stand a chance to do well on PSSA (PA’s standardized test)

    Anyone else is being left by the wayside.

    This is so anti-everything I was led to believe was my mission. I thought I was supposed to help everybody and offer extra help to the kids who got lost.

    I don’t know how administrators sleep at night. Possibly they sleep on a giant pile of spreadsheets and make love to the numbers. I can’t imagine anything else making them happy.


  14. Schatzy says:

    The tale of the princess and the pea comes to mind. One administrator on a giant stack of spread sheets with one small child buried at the bottom of the pile. If he/she can sense the child is there, he cannot fall asleep and is not good administrator material. If he/she can sleep through the night without sensing the child, he/she is PERFECT!!!

  15. Tracy says:

    We focus on our “lowest third”, ELLs and ISS kids. (Many of these kids overlap in these groups) Why are they the focus? Because we get the most POINTS for any AYP they might make. The kid who came in as a level 4 and stays there? nada. We did not help him, so so why try to…

    But than again, what do I know? I am a ‘disservice’ to students in my classes anyway….(I was told that to my face this year.)

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