I opened the newspaper today when I got home from work- I don’t have time to read it beforehand- and the Governor of New York’s State of the State address was dissected on the front page. The headline read, “Teachers, taxes, wages targeted: Governor calls teacher evaluations ‘baloney’.”
Now I understand that this headline is an editorial decision, but it doesn’t make you feel too good to come home from a day of nurturing, guiding and mentoring young people to feel like your back is in the cross-hairs of the most powerful man in the state. But unfortunately, I’m getting used to it. The photo that accompanied the article is a ‘classic’, in every sense of the word. Our Governor strikes a pose not unlike a Roman orator of old. There is a certain irony in that, I think to myself.
*Then I realize that I know the photographer- that he has in fact come up to my upstate school and into my own classroom to photo-shoot a lesson which would go on to change the world. He came to see me.
Me. A lowly public school teacher, one of 600,000 in this state.
From the State of the State: “While Washington fights and gridlocks, we find compromise and move forward…their politics divide, and our politics unite.”
Sorry, but when it comes to the state overseeing the education our youth, that is just not the case. Respectfully, it’s more like divide and conquer. Accept and funnel the dollars from Washington, siphon off the sustenance of the upstate youth to parts elsewhere, and sub-out contracts to multi-national corporations. Hold the money high in the air. Pit one district, one region against the other.
“Last year we said if a school didn’t complete a teacher evaluation system, they wouldn’t get state funding – the excess funding. Low [sic] and behold, 100% of the teachers now have a teacher evaluation system. 100% of the schools adopted a teacher evaluation system. That’s the good news – we have teacher evaluation systems for every school in the system. The bad news is they are baloney.”
Excess funding? Upstate schools have been stripped by Albany for more years than I can count. I teach in a high-needs community, the same community that raised me. I’ve been here, in this school, on one side of the desk or the other for 46 years of my life. In that time I have seen many changes, but few for the better in the economic and social sense, in the decades that we have been held hostage to Albany politics. Just listen any local superintendent. Please. ‘Lo and behold’? And how many local administrators don’t feel like their hands are tied behind their backs?
“To reduce the over-testing of students we will eliminate local exams and base 50% of the evaluation on state exams.”
The Governor is upset because too many teachers are rated ‘effective’ or even ‘highly effective’ under the system that has been in place for only a year, a system that tries to be one-solution-fits-all, and is frankly fairly irrelevant. It doesn’t work, but tossing in a rating that includes a 50% mandate for high stakes exams is literally tossing the baby out with the bathwater. Many young teachers are overstressed as it is, and if enacted, will be “washing out” or heading to the door of their own volition. Eliminating local exams is also irrelevant– the state does not count them anyway-and practice test after practice test, written by an educational conglomerate, are headed your kid’s way. “Over-testing” is just getting warmed up.
Under the “baloney” system our Governor originally called for, I’m rated on the kids who may not find it important to come to school, who despite the best of our efforts just don’t buy into the value of the test “for their own good”- in other words, many, many kids. I’m rated on the performance of the kids who spent all last night gaming or texting, or who come to school not having eaten since the last time they were here. I am rated on the performance of kids who have stolen my personal possessions, or worse. So I guess I’m not surprised- we get used to directives and unfunded mandates- but I’m having a problem with the whole 50% thing.
So I can imagine the response: Well, there’s the door, Mr. Rozell. But now imagine your child’s youthful teacher, once excited and energized, skulking out of meeting after meeting where draconian admonitions are relayed over and over from on high. She’s feeling stomped on, deflated, crushed.
And she doesn’t know, but I can hear her trying to console herself on the way back to her classroom, quietly lamenting the twenty-five years she has to go to until retirement.
Imagining again: There’s the door, Ms. So and So.
This is what I see, in the New York State of mind.
So back to the photograph taken of the Governor this week, and why it matters to me. You see, the very same Associated Press photographer Mike Groll came to my classroom on September 13, 2007, to do a photo-shoot for an article that featured me and my students and the impact that we were making not only on our community but on the world. AP writer Chris Carola did a powerful article that hit the wires and went not only across our great state, but to every state in the Union and all over the planet.
This history class made history. And Mike was there to record it, seven and a half years ago. Thanks, Mike, and Chris.
Later, we would go on to be named ABC World News Persons of the Week. For achievements in the classroom, I would be awarded many top state and national awards for teaching (I even had a national medal pinned on my chest!), and would be recognized by my own SUNY GENESEO alma mater as their 2013 Educator of the Year. NBC Learn even came up from New York last spring to record a lesson with me and my students, in which my seniors really blew me away in demonstrating their knowledge.
So how did the Educator of the Year rate in his own 2013-14 Cuomo Administration teacher evaluation? I scored an 89/100. Not even honor roll. None of the above achievements with students were counted or ‘measured’- and maybe rightfully so, I don’t know. But ‘Mr. History Teacher of the Year Multiple Times Over’ IS NOT highly effective in New York State.
Sour grapes? No thanks. I know where I make a difference every day. It’s just going to get real interesting should this 29 year classroom veteran be rated ‘ineffective’ or ‘developing’ with the new proposals. Maybe even comical.
Maybe I don’t have the answers, but I know what I see. My parents were teachers. My wife is a teacher, and her dad and his twin were both teachers, everyone of us right here in New York State. Today my wife and I are nearing the close of our careers, with our own high school age children, and now we are also primary witnesses to the sapping of the energy and strength of the very individuals who spend the most time in our young people’s lives- our fellow teachers. Apprehension and fear is not the climate you want for those who teach your kids.
“We would pay any teacher who gets highly effective, a $20,000 bonus on top of the salary that that teacher is getting paid because we want to incentivize high performance….they have achieved the highest scores on tests.”
Sure, at the end of every other week there is a check in our box. But we don’t need the extra $20,000 to want to make a difference everyday, to take the time to listen, to smile and guide when it matters most. Think about the persons who made you feel like you mattered, who took an interest, who influenced you and maybe even changed or turned your life. Maybe there is a value to that that can never be quantified or measured, nor ever compensated. But in the Governor’s proposal, in New York State, that is not the point. In his world, that is what is irrelevant.
If our teachers are to become testing technicians for our children, then we must accept the consequences. Lesson planning and sound instructional time has already given way to more beta testing, data analysis, spread sheets, clinical trials, and so on. Now we want to jack it up on steroids? And no amount of testing is going to make up for the real ills that plague us as a society, the lack of pride and civility, of responsibility and respect, that at one time was a given.
Our teachers were at one time our role models. As a young teacher, I got into this game years ago to teach-to create– to nurture– my fellow human beings.
Despite the rhetoric, I’m joyful that I still feel this way-and respectfully, Governor Cuomo, no door is going to hit me on the way out.
Over the course of the past 20 years, Matthew Rozell and his students conducted hundreds of interviews with the World War II generation. One such interview led to the reuniting of a train transport of Holocaust survivors with their American liberators, over 60 years later. He is currently working on a trilogy of narrative histories based on these interviews.
His first book, a narrative of World War II in the Pacific as told through the previously unpublished recollections of over 30 veterans, was released in August 2015. It is available here. His second book, in progress, is on the power of teaching, remembering the Holocaust, and the real story behind the iconic photo of the “Train Near Magdeburg’. He can be reached at his Facebook page at Author Matthew Rozell or by commenting below.
And even though this original narrative history began as a collaboration between the instructor and his students, he can pretty much guarantee that it will count for little in his state evaluation.