Saturday, October 4, 2008

Teaching standards

On my other blog I was just writing about classroom standards, but there is another set of standards that we've heard both more and less about. The media and the politicians are all in a sweat about "higher standards for teachers," but relatively few schools have gone out of their way to state what these standards are.

In independent schools there has long been a prideful sense that we know good teaching when we see it, and this is probably true. What is harder though, and what may have been doing our students harm over the years, is that many of our schools have not made explicit our standards for good teaching; when teachers have been dismissed or eased out, it has more often been for "cause"--an egregious mistake or act--or because they have been gently counseled out: something in the quality of their work has been deficient, and they are unwelcome. The match is bad, they are told, and they are urged to find greener pastures. In the meantime, some of their only slightly better colleagues stay on, doing work that is just good enough. Everyone may know who these teachers are, but the administration doesn't have the right mechanisms--or perhaps the will, in a culture of benign neglect--to tell these teachers specifically how to improve their practice.

A few years back I sat in a workshop on observing teaching conducted by my friend Steve Clem. On the connection between observation and evaluation, Steve made the wry comment, "Of course your teachers are evaluated against specific standards; all your schools have generated their own Standards for Effective Teaching, right?" A roomful of educational leaders from some of the finest schools in the region (just ask us) looked hard at the floor. By the time I was back at school that afternoon, however, I'd decided that creating such standards at our place would be a worthy and perhaps not so complicated project, and that having them in place might make it a whole lot easier to frame both an evaluation system that was then a work in progress and an increasingly elaborate and intentional professional development program.

The process of generating our standards turned out to be not so hard, and the language of our standards has become the basis for the formal "rubric" part of our evaluation system as well as part of the conceptual framework (that also includes our mission statement) on which our professional development and inividual professional growth efforts are based.

I get to work with a few schools here and there that are interested in professional development, evaluation, and building new and sustaining kinds of professional cultures. The work I do is usually pretty fundamental, and I always leave them with the suggestion that developing standards for effective teaching would be a pretty great next step. It's not that hard, I tell them, but I think for faculties unused to being well and consistently evaluated in their work or treated to engaging and intentional professional development, it looks like a daunting task.

But generating standards for effective teaching in a mission-based, thoughtful school isn't that hard, and I think that any school that needs to explain its own standards, either in the marketplace or within its own walls, ought to make the effort. Teachers who have a clear understanding of what is expected of them are liberated by this clarity, and those who want to grow and improve--and evidence is that most teachers want this very much--can focus on specific and even measurable ways to do this. Schools with clear standards can also help all teachers grow and avoid the tragedy of barely satisfactory teachers who never quite cross the line into "cause" but who yet are never shown how improve--faculty members whose classrooms become limbos not just for these teachers but for their poorly served students.

If you recognized yourself among those educators looking at the floor when the subject of Standards for Effective Teaching was raised, there's never a better time than now to contemplate a process for developing your school's own. Whether you start from scratch or base yours on existing models (the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has a great deal to say on this), a set of such standards can be a starting point for some great work in the development of great faculties.

It also occurs to me that all kinds of schools can do themselves a big favor in the public eye by developing and publishing their standards for good teaching. They should then make sure that teachers are held to these standards and given opportunities to exceed them so that they best of them become true master teachers who can lead their faculties from within even as they exemplify the school's very best work. When parents, politicians, and pundits are confident that teachers are doing the best work they can be against known benchmarks of real performance rather than externally applied measures that make little or no sense, schools and teachers will be given the support they need and the respect they deserve.

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