Friday, November 16, 2012

Shifting the Gresham's Dynamic or Reclaiming our Voices

This post has been eight years in the making. It is the result of one of those crystallizing moments where someone provides the something you didn't know was missing, focusing the chaotic blast of life into a steady, clear beam of light. To truly understand what I mean, I must go back to the beginning of my career.

I switched major programs halfway through college, abandoning the world of oncology I had for so long known as my future. I stopped science classes and math classes, left behind the triple variable calculus of certainty, jerked violently toward the humanities. I went from double majoring in Biology and Chemistry to double majoring in English and Ancient Greek (you tell me, I was 20). I was in uncharted territory, but it felt good.

I couldn’t stand the embarrassing certainty of science anymore. I enjoyed (and still do) studying the nature of life, the ways chemicals worked together, the intricate mechanics of the human body—all of it. The problem was the certainty of findings, the way my professors worshipped things that were set in stone, but were only waiting for time and understanding to wash them away. Scientists thought they had the human body figured out—until Watson and Crick showed up and twisted our understanding on its head. I needed something more human to examine; something so complex in its design that no one had any answers. So, I picked up literature and began plumbing its depths. I was right, no clear answers.

Why had I done this? Why had I given up a career in medicine for whatever I was going to do with English? I had found a science that bridged my love of biology and chemistry with my need to explore literature: cognitive science. I became intrigued with brain physiology and how it helps us learn. Long story short, I figured the best place to study cognition was in a school (we can evaluate the logical fallacy of that at a later date).

The Hippocratic oath of do no harm was not enough anymore; I wanted to do the most good.

So. I became a teacher.

This is my eighth year; I guess that since I've taught seven years, the unease with which I began this year could be considered my seven year itch. The thing that bothers most teachers, and I know I am presuming but bear with me, seems to be the fact that teachers are a fairly educated bunch of people who are often treated like children. What I mean is that the expertise that teachers bring to the educational discussion is so often under or devalued by people from outside of education. Case in point: One of my professors for my Master of Education degree was a policy guy; he is now a higher up with SACS. In his mind, or at least as he presented it in the class, the last people he wanted to ask about a policy decision were teachers. Sadly, I do not always blame him.

If you are paying attention, there are probably some district-wide changes being made to your evaluation system. In every meeting I have attended about these, I have yet to hear a clear problem and solution from any one. Instead, I hear indignation and anger about the changes. By the time five minutes have passed, the atmosphere drips with the blood of lacerated conversation, phrases and explanations from administrators torn asunder and lying about the room like dismembered limbs. All anyone asks about is the percentage of the evaluation that this will count for, eerily echoing the cries of "what's my grade" emanating from our students. There are no questions about what is being evaluated, none about the practices that will make us better teachers. The practice of percentage counting has supplanted the practice of good professional talk; and the advantage is given to the administrators while teachers lose control of more and more of what happens in our classrooms.

My brother-in-law has an MBA so I often find myself asking him about how administrative thinking works. At his job, he meets cost and management bottom lines that keep his company profitable by finding and firing the inefficient managers, executives, and employees that threaten the company's profits; interestingly, this exact point is where the analogy comes alive for most people in the public: they want to compare teachers with low-level employees and not the managers with whom they are more closely aligned. Teachers cannot fire underperforming students. Rather, teaching is the only profession where managers are asked to identify weak performers and redirect their energy from the most effective performers in order to focus almost fanatically on students who may only be struggling because they resent the school system. Resistant or underperforming workers in a business are asked to leave; resistant or underperforming students are elevated at the expense of motivated or high performing students. There is never discussion of when a teacher has performed well but a student refuses to be taught. There is never discussion of when a teacher exceeds expectations. Some administrators even deliberately evaluate teachers as adequate so that their "egos don't grow." Accountability has become a gimmick designed to marginalize teachers and, more importantly, good teaching practices. The practice of humbling other adults has supplanted the practice of discussing effective teaching and learning. In with the bad, out with the good.

The problem with teachers and the policy decisions being made around them is the Gresham's dynamic. Gresham's Law states that bad "money" pushes good "money" out of the market. This law comes from the days when moneychangers would trade people for their gold and then keep it out of circulation. This hoarding devalued the system of trade by supplanting precious metals with lesser ones. The devaluing of good practice leads to teachers doing what good they can, but not the most that they are capable of doing. Instead of the complexity of working with and serving communities of people, we've reduced our practice to easily measurable data points, pushing realistic and complex measurements to the side. This shift mirrors the task we are asked to do; less qualified teachers are made to fit the mold by turning teaching behaviors into checkboxes and SMART goals. Meanwhile, the more creative and effective teachers are pulled back into the box. The certainty of the science of teaching has replaced the power of its art.

The power is inordinately out of the hands of educational practitioners. Many teachers feel like challenging the status quo leads to targeting by administrators and others in power. They stand by, watch the tide mounting against them, not moving until they have to outrun a tidal wave. Gresham's law holds dominion over all.

I am writing this while I fly towards Las Vegas, home of the 2012 NCTE Annual Convention. Getting ready to attend the conference, I had to fight tooth and nail to get some compensation to afford the tickets. I fight so hard for it because these conventions, and the organizations that host them, are the floating variable in Gresham's dynamic. They provide support and outlets for teachers despairing over the paucity of good practice in their home districts. I half-jokingly call the convention my yearly spiritual retreat, but it really is a place for renewal. While every teacher cannot attend, those that do have a special responsibility to carry back what they learn and share it with whomever will listen.

When I started working on this blog almost four years ago, I did so because I wanted to share the conversations I had at NCTE all year long. I still want to. So, even if all the sharing you do is to tell a colleague about this blog, the secondary section website, the elementary connected community, a Google+ group you find at the convention, some of the sessions you attended, I want to urge you to be the unpredictable variable in the Gresham's dynamic that has come to define our lives in education. Every missed opportunity to talk about best practices is a chance for the bad to push the good to the sidelines. When that happens, the ones who lose are the students; as a teacher, I cannot accept that.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Denée Tyler said...
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Denée Tyler said...

Dan, I also enjoyed the NCTE conference. Do you know if they will post Sir Ken's Robinson talk anywhere? I enjoyed it tremendously but had a hard time understanding parts of it.
I am also in my seventh year of teaching, and I am definitely feeling the itch. I think it's the thankless hours and hours of grading I do while the school worships at the feet of the STEM teachers who live and die by their bubble tests, endless PowerPoints, and test reading machines. They get bonuses every year while I work infinitely harder. Eventually something has to give.

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