We’ve discussed how administrators have less decision making power than they think, but hiring and firing differ. The first person with whom aspiring teachers come into contact (outside of you vital secretaries) is an administrator. Usually an assistant principal or department chair determines which candidates get interviewed to narrow the field with the principal picking the tentative winner to send on to the superintendent. Ultimately, though, superintendents have to present their candidates to school boards for approval. Hiring is a hierarchal process, with higher ups granting permission throughout the process.
Hiring new teachers, therefore, has become another slice of turf administrators feel they must protect: “My recommended candidate reflects on my abilities as an administrator which means the failure of my candidate signifies my failure.” That simply isn’t true, however. Just because graduates got good grades in college and gave good interview don’t mean that they will be good educators; the art of teaching demands unique skills from each individual that only time can bring out.
Teaching is a solitary activity for teachers. Either you can quickly learn the skills required for that kind of independence, or you can’t. The power aspect of the hiring process has led to too many administrators’ being unable to look at the people they’ve hired objectively. To admit that a mistake was made in hiring Teacher X is to lessen one’s status—which translates into a loss of face.
Since most administrators see hiring as a reflection on them, they don’t like to fire anyone they recommended. Instead, we’ve come up with “mentoring” programs that sound wonderful, but in reality, are just a few more artificial hoops for new teachers to jump through in order to demonstrate compliance as opposed to skill.
Don’t misinterpret my meaning: Mentoring—experienced teachers helping new teachers make the adjustment from normal human to super educator—is fantastic. Veterans have many insights to share with neophytes. Eventually, though, no matter how much help new teachers get, they will be alone in the classroom with those kids, they will be sitting at home with papers to grade, and they will have to figure out what they’re going to do fifteen minutes from now since the computers aren’t working again.
We currently have programs designed to confirm that new teachers are wonderfully obedient. They are taught to be passive in their educational process: “We know exactly what we want in a teacher,” the system tells them. “And we’ve objectified the process into these steps, which—if you listen to us—will make you a great teacher.”
Mentoring programs are often not designed to make better teachers, but to indoctrinate new teachers into becoming the kind of automatons administrators like. “Don’t” is the most useful word new teachers learn under most of these programs: “Don’t make trouble, don’t ask too many questions, and don’t challenge the status quo,” sums up their curriculum.
Basically, what most learn during their mentoring years is how to function within the system, regardless of how well they teach. Then, the administrator in charge of hiring can proudly point to his astoundingly high percentage of “successful” new hires, without really knowing how good these people are in the classroom.
We need to be more realistic with new teachers. Remember that all the ideas presented here are infused with the premise that teaching is an art, not a replicable science, so trying to train teachers to be exactly the same is the dumbest thing any school system could do. The key traits I would want my teachers to have are a good work ethic, self-discipline, creativity, communication skills, and fundamental morality. This approach would make it tougher to select a teaching candidate using current methods, which are lengthy applications, college transcripts, letters of recommendation, and interviews. Notice, however, that none of those things really have much to do with teaching.
We can do a better job of assessing character before hiring. Previous experience needs to be examined carefully. If I were considering hiring someone who had worked in another district, I’d want to sit down with someone who’d worked with that person. I’d like to talk to a student who’d been in that teacher’s class, if I could.
Of course we should do interviews and check transcripts, but there are other areas we should consider to give us a better picture of how this person might work out. For teachers fresh out of college, we should always talk to the teachers for whom they student taught. It’s not enough to look at vaguely positive letters of recommendation. We need to check out how teaching candidates have taught, as much as we can, before we hire them. People who have observed them working, then, are one key to determining if we think they’d be good for our schools.
All that done, however, we still can’t be sure. The observations of fellow or cooperating (those assigned to student teachers) teachers could be as flawed as the impressions of interviewers, although, I’d be willing to bet that my method would produce a higher percentage of excellent teachers over time.
Conceding there’s no foolproof way to know if someone who seemed good will be good, we need to move to the next phase of the hiring process: The First Year. As mentioned previously, mentoring programs try to mold the new teachers into…what? That’s one fundamental problem with our mentoring programs: If we can’t objectify what good teaching is, how can we possibly expect any program to produce it?
Instead, we wind up with administrators’ “visions” of good teaching, which is likely to be more about cooperation, compliance, and meekness than about the imagination and initiative it takes to be an exceptional educator. No, what I’m suggesting would actually be much simpler: Turn’em loose.
That’s right; no elaborate orientation, no days of curricular seminars, no assigned mentors, and no god-awful “Hi, I’m new!” t-shirts. Instead, “We want you to succeed and believe you can. Here are our standards of success and the tools which can be used to achieve those standards. Here are your class assignments. Now, go and succeed.” Stressful for the innocent new teachers? Absolutely—what better way to see how they will respond to the challenges of their jobs?
To show an extreme example of what I mean: In my first school, I was hired in a five-person junior high Language Arts department. One of my assignments was low-level eighth graders, who needed extra reading help. When I asked my department chair about the curriculum for these children, he told me (and I’ll never forget this), “Oh, I didn’t know what you’d want, so I didn’t order anything.” So there I was, right out of college, one week before class began without any materials to use, teaching a class nobody else in the building taught.
Obviously, my resiliency, creativity, and work ethic were needed right away. That I made it suggests I passed this unintended test. While this example is a bit extreme, more challenges for new teachers would help them understand if teaching should be their chosen profession.
Once we’ve set them up and told them what we want them to do, observations should take place regularly, both formally and informally, with evaluators consulting with experienced teachers about how it’s going. In my thirty-three years of working with scores of new teachers, no administrators ever asked me my opinion on how new teachers were doing. They should have.
Mentoring programs—many of them mandated by states—should be scaled back so they don’t mask the skills of the new teacher by focusing too narrowly on taking teachers out of class for seminars. Additionally, most mentors volunteer for the job, tilting the balance towards those particularly helpful teachers who want to make sure nobody ever has any distress or worry. Instead, new teachers should be allowed to ferret out their own help, watching colleagues and focusing on those who can provide useful direction. Just as survival of a species requires the ability to imitate, adapt, and maneuver; so too should new teachers be coldly assessed their first year, with the weaker ones being culled from the herd as soon as possible.
Make no mistake about that “culled” analogy; we should get poor teaching candidates out of the profession with alacrity. Presently, when a bad new teacher does catch administrative attention, what happens speaks volumes about our flawed methods. Typically, evaluations of this teacher have been positive, sometimes for a couple years, so this naïf has no clue how poorly everyone thinks he’s doing. Then comes the last evaluation: Suddenly, there are many problems—lateness to meetings, lax grading scales, parental complaints, and unprofessional wardrobe are just some of the “issues” which have come up over the years for non-tenured teachers I have known.
Sure, those things have little to do with teaching, but documenting a teacher doesn’t teach well is time consuming. Instead, administrators generate a few basic procedural complaints. At this point, the teacher in question is done—he won’t be back next year. Sadly, nobody tells him this, so he scrambles around, trying to address the bogus problems on his “death sentence” evaluation: He’s early for meetings, gives more Cs than As, caves to every parent’s request, and wears a tie every day. All to no avail, because once evaluations show problems, it’s over.
The fateful day soon comes. In my district, teachers got called in on Fridays. In fifteen minutes, the principal executioner would explain that the school and this teacher “were not a good match.” No specific reasons would be given, but it’d be clear this teacher would have to go. But, the district would be willing to give the distraught teacher an out: If he would submit his resignation, the district would “accept” it and would then be able to give him positive recommendations to be used when interviewing for his next job.
Wait a minute here—“We’ve determined that you suck so badly you can’t work here anymore, but, if you go quietly and don’t make us admit we screwed up in picking you, we’re willing to tell the next place that might make the mistake of hiring you that you are wonderful.” If that’s not messed up, I don’t know what is. Regardless, that’s exactly how it worked many times in my district.
Actually, it’s not that messed up for the district. If a teacher resigns “for personal reasons,” which was what our fired new teachers were told to put in their resignation letters, then that teacher could never sue the district for an unreasonable dismissal. Plus, the administrator who hired him wouldn’t look bad. Finally, the district wouldn’t be liable for any unemployment contributions because the teacher wouldn’t qualify for unemployment since he “quit.” That it’s wrong is beside the point, I guess.
Let’s face it—teaching is a tough job that not everyone is meant to do. Some of us simply do not belong in a classroom, and that reality is not some amazing insight. Hey, I don’t belong anywhere near an emergency room or a sales meeting; and if I were to try jobs in those settings, it would be an act of mercy for someone to throw me out. We should do the same thing in education instead of passing bad teachers around like toxic waste nobody wants in his backyard.
Administrators should focus only on how candidates TEACH, not their meek conformity. But if new teachers are not up to the task, better for them to find a profession for which they are more suited than to move from district to district until they find ones slipshod enough to let them stay. My Darwinian approach might not be as gentile as the current system, but it would improve the quality of instruction in our schools.
Firing tenured teachers, however, is a completely different situation, and we’ll see how that works next time.