Teaching makes teachers into classroom actors. But their classroom performance is thoroughly divorced from the reform du-jour of “Pay-4-Performance.” These schemes call for teachers to be evaluated and paid, in part, on the basis of their students’ test scores. I want to unpack the idea that “good” teaching is, in part, artistic performance and the ways that “Pay-4-Performance” plans strangle that notion.
First, classroom performance. I begin with the two imperatives facing all teachers whether they teach high school physics, middle school social studies, or kindergarten on Cleveland’s East Side or in Beverly Hills: know your subject (the academic role) and know your students (the emotional role). These competing demands upon teachers require both distance from students (the academic role) and closeness to students (the emotional role).
In teaching first graders to read, 9th grade Algebra or Advanced Placement courses, teachers must convey knowledge and cultivate skills of students. Then they have to judge the degree to which students achieve mastery of each. Evaluating achievement requires social distance in treating all students the same in applying criteria –even if you admire a hard-working, serious student who fails key tests.
But teachers are also expected to get close to students. In university departments of education and in professional development sessions, teachers are urged to know their students as individuals, their background, interests, shortcomings and strengths.
Why? Because that personal knowledge will help the teacher draw students into learning what the teacher wants to teach. In displaying sincere interest in students, bonds of affection grow between many (but not all) teachers and their charges. The relationship, the emotional ties between a teacher and her students, then, becomes the foundation for learning.
Balancing these competing roles, however, is hard to do. Many teachers only embrace the academic role: “My job is to teach U.S. history; my job is not to befriend my students.” Other teachers clasp the emotional role to their heart wanting so much to be friends with students that they whisper to themselves: “Like me and you will like what I teach.” Finding the right mix is difficult; just ask any small high school teacher who is also an “advisor” to her students.
But there are many teachers, those I would call “good,” who balance these competing roles artfully by developing a classroom persona that is distinct and real to students. Their voices, gestures, clothes, verbal tics–all are part of the performance. They improvise when the unpredictable occurs in a lesson.They blend the academic and emotional roles into a mix that appeals to and prods students at the same time. And students who can smell a fake instantaneously come to appreciate the performance.
Beyond Hollywood, there are tens of thousands unheralded teachers who perform artistically in their classrooms combining both roles into unforgettable performances year in and year out. Students remember such teachers for the rest of their lives.
Yet once these artists leave the 900 square feet classroom stage each day they shed their teaching persona and take care of their families, do chores, see friends, and other tasks that fill their non-school lives. The sociological truism that teaching does something to the teacher applies to these performers as they adopt persona nine-to-three and then drop the roles as they move back and forth between civilian life and the classroom.
Now turn to the now fashionable Pay-4-Performance plans among “no excuses” reformers. Keep in mind that such plans are part of a long tradition among efficiency-driven reformers stretching back a century when merit pay, classroom evaluation checklists, and planned curricula were initially introduced by educational experts to engineer a more efficient and effective teacher corps. One of those “educational engineers,” Franklin Bobbitt, said: “Teachers cannot be permitted to follow caprice in method. When a method is clearly superior to all other methods has been discovered, it alone can be employed.” That was 1913.
That tradition of seeking efficient ways to engineer teaching continues with “Pay-4-Performance” plans that use standardized test scores as the gold standard to evaluate and pay for “effective” teaching. These tests privilege facts over concepts and recall over thinking. They narrow effectiveness to what is tested. Once implemented, these plans make it even harder for teachers to balance the academic and emotional roles they must perform since the heavy emphasis on test scores elevates the teacher’s academic role over the emotional one, the glue binding students to the teacher and learning. For those many teachers who have created classroom persona that helps students learn many things, few of which ever become multiple choice items on standardized tests, “Pay-4-Performance” strangles those daily artistic performances that cement teacher-student bonds, make deep learning possible, and imprint teachers into students’ memories forever.
*A chapter on teaching in David Labaree, Someone Has To Fail inspired this post.