I recently heard a familiar, stinging remark from a policymaker:
Allison, if we’re going to increase education funding significantly, we must address the issue of bad teachers in our classrooms.
I resisted the temptation to jump on the term "bad teachers," but I couldn’t argue the underlying concern.
To be honest, there is ineffective teaching in every school.
It’s an uncomfortable truth, and few educators are truly transparent about the prevalence of ineffective practice in the profession. We loudly recognize excellence and celebrate innovative ideas, but we hide from public conversations about encouraging unmotivated teachers to find a new career path. Perhaps we feel protective and defensive, knowing how challenging the complexities of instruction are, or maybe we feel illuminating the truth will weaken an already marginalized public program. Either way, there is ineffective teaching in every school, and our students deserve better.
As we focus our efforts on recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, it is critical that we also explore where ineffective teaching begins and endures.
Teaching is emotional labor, and teachers of all ability levels experience compassion fatigue. For many veteran teachers, observing the exponential increase in students’ social and emotional needs over the years has contributed to overwhelming frustration and negative attitudes about student potential.
Less-effective teachers may be tempted to blame their lack of progress on perceived injustices:
- “These kids don’t want to learn.”
- “Parents aren’t doing their part.”
- “I’m not paid enough to deal with this.”
- “My principal expects miracles.”
Teaching is unquestionably hard, but a teacher’s inability to recognize and manage emotions may be the greatest barrier to effective teaching.
In a pack of animals, the weakest are soon isolated and become susceptible to prey. Our weakest educators often become isolated in their rooms and prey to negative attitudes. Teachers with a limited capacity for content or weak instructional skills may isolate themselves by being dismissive of observational feedback, coaching efforts and collaborative planning. Exhausted by their unreciprocated efforts, administrators, instructional coaches and colleagues are often drawn away to work with teachers who are hungry for feedback.
We appreciate the support education associations provide with due process for educators in need. However, long before a struggling teacher reaches out to his or her association for help maintaining employment, that teacher deserves a different due process: one of specific, timely and reflective feedback.
Through coaching, formal observations and evaluative feedback, there should be no question where a teacher’s skills are and the specific steps the teacher must take to develop effective practice. Teachers who have been closely coached, supported and held accountable are far less likely to claim they have received unfair evaluations and deserve exceptional treatment.
While there is no one evaluation tool that will quickly solve the issue, there are definitely key players in positions to increase the drive for instructional excellence.
University professors must be transparent in discussions with teacher candidates about the necessity and power of feedback. The most effective teachers are relentless in their quest for effective strategies, and practicum students should develop this kind of mindset during university study. The recruitment of strong teacher candidates begins in preservice programs which include robust practicum experiences and mentorship support.
School administrators must be authentic and professional in their feedback, focusing on what the most effective teachers do rather than how poorly a teacher is performing. They can shorten the feedback loop, revisiting teachers to whom they’ve given the need for specific instructional improvements. And of course, they need to build authentic relationships so difficult feedback is depersonalized and easier to work through.
Simply put, be there. Avoiding uncomfortable conversations may seem easier, but avoidance actually sends conflicting messages to teachers who need clarity regarding their performance. Offering unearned evaluative marks is a form of educational malpractice that is guaranteed to worsen the situation.
In the end, teachers own this. We cannot continue to publicly declare how challenging teaching is … and then respond defensively when receiving a less than glowing observation score. We cannot have it both ways. If teaching is truly difficult, even the most experienced teachers are in need of skill development.
For teachers with challenging students, there can be a perceived injustice in receiving low observation scores. Yet, being dismissive of feedback will do little to strengthen one’s confidence and the learning experiences of students with the greatest needs. Teachers must embrace the idea that instructional practice is a work in progress and acknowledging feedback is a professional and ethical necessity. Those who are not willing to do so may well want to consider a new career choice.
There is ineffective teaching in every school. But there doesn’t have to be.