All of us want to feel good about ourselves and what we do. We want to feel that what we are doing is meaningful and that we are doing it well. It’s a basic human need.
But like any basic human need, it can be manipulated.
For decades now, teachers have been the targets of an organized campaign of teacher bashing. Politicians on the right and left, billionaire philanthropists, union haters, and technology gurus have made the case that teachers are in it for the easy money, come from the bottom of the intellectual barrel, are lazy, lack innovation, and are failing our students. The campaign really got going with the publication of the dubious study A Nation at Risk in 1984.
In recent years, though, there have been efforts to reward teachers, to give them leadership roles and titles – to make them feel good about themselves.
Full disclosure: I am the recipient of awards of my own – district teacher of the year and a University of Florida Distinguished Educator in 2005. And I felt good about myself. I still do. More on that later.
But within two years after winning district teacher of the year, something happened that made my award seem fraudulent. First, our district adopted the College Board’s SpringBoard workbook program, which basically asked me to abandon everything I used to do in class, the very things that had earned me teacher of the year, in favor of what was essentially a scripted curriculum. We were no longer to be teachers. We were to be SpringBoard teachers.
Along with SpringBoard came the SpringBoard lead teachers, teachers who were trained to help other teachers use the workbook program. Why we needed lead teachers in these positions, I have no idea. At one point a district specialist told my wife’s new teacher cohort that you just needed to do SpringBoard “page by page, day by day. You don’t even need to think about it!” Why do you need coaching for a program that requires no thought? Unless maybe you need to be coached not to think.
After SpringBoard had been in place for about a year, and after I had skewered it in my comic strip as “Teach By Number” and been called on the carpet about it, we went to a school year kick-off event where numerous teachers were given SpringBoard Superstar awards for using SpringBoard with fidelity. It made me a little nauseous.
This was teacher praise as manipulation.
You are a good teacher if you get on board with this agenda, this product, this standardized thing we want you to be compliant about. If not, then you are not a good teacher.
There are consequences to this form of teacher praise. For me, it was eight years of alternating between depression, stress, and defiance until SpringBoard finally went away. For a colleague who went to a SpringBoard training to become a lead teacher, it meant returning to an empty hotel room one night after a day of training and sobbing, feeling as though they were being asked to join a cult.
At a dinner at a national teaching conference a couple years back, the subject at the table turned to curriculum, and my wife and I mentioned how much we disliked the coercive nature of SpringBoard. The teacher we were chatting with, it turned out, was a SpringBoard lead teacher who not only loved SpringBoard, but felt she was performing an important service for her district by going from class to class at her school and reinforcing fidelity to the workbook.
She had been rewarded, and she felt good about herself – so don’t dare to criticize her.
It is hard to say this in a time when teachers are being bashed right and left, but we need to be careful what praise we take to heart. We need to follow the money. Who is manipulating us, and to what ends? Follow the money – who benefits when a program is successful? How does my feeling like “Superstar” at that program contribute to its success?
I am now seeing this phenomenon at work as teachers get awards, and rewards, for using technology. There is now the “Nearpod” teacher of the month at my school. Microsoft had a big Teacher Leader conference a few years back that several of my colleagues attended. Do we really not think Microsoft has not agenda? Who really benefits from districts buying teacher evaluation systems? The teacher evaluation system companies. Who really benefits from the Value Added Model (VAM) that purports to show how good teachers are by how much they raise test scores? The testing companies, and the state legislators who want to ruin public education by making it all about the test, by pitting teachers against teachers in search of the meager rewards meted out by such metrics.
How do you manipulate teachers? By bashing them into submission and then offering them praise when it really benefits someone other than the teacher.
The state of Florida recently put out a list of high impact teachers in my district (based of course on some variation of VAM), and an online discussion arose that grew a bit heated. Was the list a welcome bit of praise in a world that all too frequently bashes teachers, or was the list a way to manipulate teachers into teaching to the test, a way to create divisions between those on the list and those who didn’t make the cut? The question was raised – did some of us who didn’t make the list begrudge the honor to someone who received it?
It isn’t a question of begrudging. It is a question of – questioning. Why are they giving this award? What agenda does it push? Who benefits if teachers feel good about themselves for raising scores? Does raising scores necessarily mean you are doing right by students? Is it possible to raise scores by teaching students tricks to pass this test, only to leave them unable to transfer those skills to real life? I have seen too many teachers who boasted of their scores but who taught to the test in ways that were harmful to their students’ intellectual development.
I will admit – I used to pride myself on my Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT) Writing scores. My eighth graders used to do very well: they had a high passing rate, and a high average. What I was most proud of though, was that I didn’t get those scores by teaching to the test. I taught them real-life writing skills, not simple formulas, and it paid off. But these days I feel sullied by the pride I felt. My playing into the testing game help validate it in a small way.
We are suspicious when a student comes on too strong with the praise, telling us we’re their favorite teacher, laying it on thick and hoping for a little extra credit to nudge up the old average. Flattery is one of the oldest games around.
If we are suspicious of the flattery game when our students play it, we should be even more suspicious when a company plays it, or a state department of education plays it.
I can only speak for myself, and I know it sounds awful – but I am always suspicious of praise these days, especially when it comes from an entity instead of a person.
I was very happy when an entity, my district, made me teacher of the year. I went through a dark night of the soul two years later when that same entity told me none of that mattered and I needed to start getting with the program – with fidelity.
Where should we get our good feelings about teaching from? How can we know we are doing a good job? Who is our duty to as teachers – to the state? To students? To parents? To our subject? Good questions for another time.
For now – I will continue to be skeptical about where praise comes from and who’s giving it. I owe it to myself to be better than that and even more so to my students.