We last showed how a veteran teacher can become out of favor to the point her bosses start using her work day as a means to pressure her to quit. A bad schedule is how it starts, but things can then move to documenting minor offenses that culminate in an end-of-year evaluation which sharply criticizes a previously top-rated teacher. This is the point at which these teachers go to the union person in charge of enforcing the contract (the grievance chair, a position I held for many years).
They want to know what can be done to correct the seeming unfairness of their mediocre evaluation. Typically, contracts have a clause mirroring state law which dictates the evaluation process be cooperatively developed, that both the union and the district agree to the procedure. The specific rating the teacher receives (Excellent, Proficient, Needs Improvement, or Unsatisfactory) is excluded from the grievance process, however. You can’t challenge a rating of “Proficient” instead of “Excellent,” no matter how unfair that differentiation seems to the teacher in question. So, little recourse is available to the upset teacher.
Normally, the teacher isn’t rated “Unsatisfactory,” which triggers a procedure set down by state statutes, officially putting the teacher on a remediation plan that necessitates finding another teacher to supervise the problem teacher’s work towards improvement on the specified deficiencies.
Instead, she will be rated, “Needs Improvement” (“Satisfactory” used to be the warning rating), which doesn’t elicit much action, but is a slap in the face of someone who had superior evaluations and “Excellent” ratings her entire career. Instead of the glowing generalizations she had taken for granted in previously, this evaluation is filled with problems and areas needing improvement, all of which seem petty—her teaching is never called into question. But her promptness, cooperation, and teamwork are all seen as weaknesses. We need to explain the usual standards of the teacher evaluation process in order to understand how why this transition is so jarring to the threatened teacher.
Every teacher is supposed to be evaluated according to a schedule. Evaluations are based on classroom observations, informal observations, and whatever else the administrators deem relevant, within reason. Formal classroom observations supposedly count the most. The administrator will meet with the teacher before class to find out what the plan for that period is, observe the class, and then review the class period with the teacher later. This happens as many as six times a year for non-tenured teachers to as few as once every other year for veterans. The notes from these observations, as well as anything else administrators think matters, form the foundation of the “summative,” a formal document which becomes part of teachers’ permanent records.
The summative, created near the end of each school year, is an essay which rates the teacher. Most of them confirm the department’s genius in hiring someone of such incredible quality—hooray for all of us! Yet, the hidden truth is these evaluations and summatives are irrelevant to many teachers. Often, veteran teachers are not observed at all: Department chairs merely pull out the summatives from the previous year, change dates, make a few alterations, and relegate them to the abyss of teachers’ files. Recently, more objective data were mandated to be part of teachers’ evaluations. But as we’ve seen before, the criteria used (things like standardized tests and attendance) don’t really get to the crux of the subjective nature of determining someone’s worth as a teacher.
Back to our story: The teacher understands, finally, that the department chair has her in his sights, that she could be in real trouble here, and she isn’t handling it well. Although teachers get paid to dish out criticism, like the cliché of doctors being the worst patients, we’re not particularly gracious in accepting it.
Initially, she wants to go after the department chair, to discipline him somehow for his evil acts. Once the union grievance chair (who is also a teacher) explains the reality of the situation—that the chair has every right to criticize her in the summative—you can see the life go out of her. She figured the union would come lumbering to the rescue, but its primary role is to enforce contract language and to make sure everyone’s rights are protected. Unions are not in the teacher evaluation business, nor should they be, so determining a teacher’s quality doesn’t come under their venue.
The grievance guy will take a look at all the evaluations, quiz her on the accuracy of the specific flaws referenced, and tell her it could be worse. If she had been rated “Unsatisfactory” instead of “Needs Improvement,” she would have been forced into a remediation plan with a fellow teacher as her guide to help her improve or, failing that, to be fired after 45 days of unsuccessful remediation.
It doesn’t matter that she suddenly needs improvement after twenty-five years of being excellent; all those summatives and ratings just go into her personnel file which nobody ever sees anyway. All the union can advise is to keep an eye on any problems that come up, to be sure to document any contacts with the chair so there will be a clear record of what’s been going on, and not to worry about it—it doesn’t matter much. For the teacher, this confirms her suspicions that unions aren’t much help with anything really important. She is left feeling abandoned and persecuted, exactly the wrong way to feel at this point.
The sense of entitlement some teachers develop over their careers hurts them in a situation like this. Since everything has gone well for them over the years, they can function only with the belief that everyone recognizes how wonderful they are. Once that bubble bursts with administrative pressure, they crumple like a wet Dixie cup. They feel betrayed, disappointed, and distrustful; all of which are precursors to the ultimate cancer of a teacher’s career—fear.
This confident professional who has been striding through the school’s halls for two decades now looks over her shoulder constantly, worrying that the slightest indiscretion will be noticed, blown out of proportion, and documented as evidence of what a bad teacher she is. Her composure ebbs under this added weight, and she starts to look haggard and tired. Instead of getting mad at the unfairness of the attack, she becomes defensive and shrill, only reinforcing the department chair’s belief that she needs to go. Given that an evaluation is supposed to be a tool for helping teachers improve, this one has had the opposite effect. Beginning as a slight personality conflict, this situation has matured into full-scale war.
The department chair, however, is the only one willing to use his weapons. The teacher’s assignment has already sunk to the depths in terms of preparation difficulty and diminished status. He continues to tinker with her schedule, making sure this morning person has both her preparation periods before noon and teaches the last three periods in a row. He moves her desk out of the bustling main office into a satellite closet that has room for two teachers, known as the “Tar Pits” since that is where ancient teachers are sent prior to retirement. Finally, he begins the end game by getting into her classes.
“Getting into” means that he interferes with how she wants to teach. In a Snowflake world, this is the worst thing anyone can do to a teacher. He reviews her scores before she submits them for report cards, signifying his lack of trust in her ability to evaluate her students fairly. He sides with parents in any dispute which comes before him, which only makes parents challenge her authority more, weakening her ability to control her classes. He demands that she submit weekly lesson plans for his approval, demonstrating he doesn’t trust her curricular choices. And in the ultimate insult, he forces her to give him graded papers before she gives them back to the students so he can check to be sure that she’s evaluated them competently, demolishing any shred of dignity she may have had left.
Essentially, he treats her like the most ignorant student teacher, who can’t make any decisions without supervision. It takes a particularly tough individual to accept this new reality, especially after the decades of freedom most of us have in the classroom. To make sure she feels his presence, he increases his observations of her teaching to a weekly viewing which unnerves her even more. From a competent, confident teaching machine, she is reduced to a squashed minion who has to seek permission to breathe. This can’t go on for very long.
When the end of this school year arrives, the final summative for this teacher looms. Once again, the department chair has a list of sins a mile long, which the teacher has come to expect. But he has decided to increase the pressure: An Unsatisfactory rating is a distinct possibility, the worst humiliation a teacher can endure, because regardless of the awfulness of what has happened this school year, hardly anyone knows about it—it’s been a secret conflict. Remediation, by its very nature, is extremely public.
The union officers have to know about it as they participate in the selection of the teacher assigned to assist the Unsatisfactory teacher in recovery.
Naturally, the potential “cooperating” teachers have to know since they have to be asked to be the one to help out the Unsatisfactory teacher.
The school board has to be notified that remediation of an Unsatisfactory teacher is taking place, so all levels of the administration also know what’s going on.
Believe me, once that many people in a school district know something, everybody will know within a week. When the decision to place a teacher on remediation takes place, her humiliation will be public knowledge. She may as well have a scarlet “U” on all her clothes.
What difference does that make? Schools are closed societies where information is distributed via the “telephone” method, that game we all played as kids. As information gets passed around, each individual adds his own creative flair, her own dramatic interpretation to the basic facts. Depending on one’s relationship with the accused, those flourishes can be either positive or negative; but you can be sure that many of those gossiping will be using some variant of, “Well, they wouldn’t be going through all this trouble if there weren’t something wrong with her, would they?”
Suddenly, this independent, aloof professional is being dissected by everybody, from her colleagues to departmental secretaries. When she walks down the hall, she feels like everybody is looking at her and assumes they pity her. Should a conversation suddenly die upon her appearance, she will wilt with embarrassment that her competency is now grist for the faculty cafeteria mill. And, probably worst of all, some sanctimonious fools will actually talk about the situation with her.
Meaning well and doing the opposite, these people assume they can offer some insight from their positions of ignorance which will help this teacher to cope with her plummeting fortunes, that the clichés of superficial acquaintances who know little about her can somehow make her situation better. Most teachers receiving advice like this wind up hiding from everyone—holing up in places nobody ever goes, sneaking in and out of work, and trying to avoid contact with anyone. The transformation can be shocking to witness.
But this teacher knows all about that, having seen it happen three times to other teachers during her career. She remembers how smug she felt while those poor saps went through remediation Hell, slinking through the halls with worried, persecuted looks. Not knowing much about their situations, she’d just assumed that whatever they had done probably merited this treatment. She understands better now, for all the good that does her.
The end is near…