On Teacher Quality and Solutions-Oriented Thinking

Disclaimer: this post started as a meandering comment on another post. I realized after writing it that I wasn’t really talking to the person, a fellow teacher here in Tacoma. I was actually talking and perhaps trying to convince myself.

Because I talk and write about teacher quality, sometimes people say that I think TPS, OSPI and the Washington State Legislature should get a free pass, are doing a great job, or that I am teacher-blaming (that one fires me up the most). I have much to quibble with “the proverbial system”: testing, funding McCleary, our COLAs, ad infinitum. However, I focus on teacher quality because it's something I think "we" (me and the mouse in my pocket) can actually impact. In fact, in my opinion it’s very doable:

  • we can screen, train and hire better candidates;

  • we can conduct better PD and mentoring for teachers (especially early career ones) and

  • we can better identify & retain our most effective teachers, even within the confines of our silly, (profoundly) messed up system.

An intentional districtwide/statewide effort at doing so would be THE MOST IMPORTANT in school reform / improvement we’ve made in my lifetime

Focusing on Teacher Quality Keeps Me Sane

As much as possible I also try to focus on things I actually think I can change / influence / impact because banging my head against the wall about systems I have no influence over or ability to shift is exhausting. I made a promise to myself about two years ago to (as much as possible) spend my time and energy talking about what "I am for", rather than what "I am against" (mom often told me that being an angry black man in public is “never a good look,” thanks mom). There's already so much anti-, anti-, anti- energy out there in the ed policy landscape, I just can't deal with it sometimes. 

Framed differently, yes, I think we test too much (especially that 11th grade ELA SBAC this year for kids who’ve already passed the HSPE). Yeah, I really hate the Legislature's inaction on McLeary, but if all the “toxic tests” went away tomorrow there'd still a laundry list of issues to address: 

There'd still be teachers who miss 20+ days a year (that enrages me).

There'd still be crippling inter-generational poverty.

There's still be kids with no home support.

There'd still be kids who are 14 and bored no matter what you try. 

There'd still be teachers who think loud brown kids don't belong in their AP classes or that Academic Acceleration "waters down the AP experience" (I am tempted to name names, but it's the Sabbath).

There'd still be people teaching lessons that don't engage students, but they've "always done it this way, so it must be the kids fault".

Improving teacher quality is the drum I beat because it's a tune I can dance to. To me institutional low expectations and systemic racism are far more harmful to students, especially those at the intersection of race and poverty, than too much testing or a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

A Proof Point and the Power of a Critical Mass of Teachers

I love talking about teacher quality because we have actual evidence that it works and it’s contagious. The power of people within the profession to help others grow is limitless. When I was young, a friend’s father who was a leader in the local IBEW told me about how the union sets high standards for membership and craftsmanship, because they want people to know that IBEW work is synonymous with quality work and that if someone hires an IBEW electrician they’re paying more, but getting more and the job done right. I want teaching to be viewed the same way.

Lincoln HS, where I work, is a testament to the power of teacher quality: Pat (my technocrat of a principal) recruits / hires well, supports his teachers and leaves us alone so we can do to the work that needs to be done--transforming lives. So despite working with the most challenging population (speaking demographically: FRL rates, mobility and homelessness) of the five comprehensive HSs in Tacoma, our results: AP enrollment, graduation rates, etc. are near or above the district average.

Of course, I have frustrations with the system (I literally cried one Sunday night while working on my Pro-Teach Portfolio to renew my cert) and often struggle with the bureaucracy (don’t get me started on the bureaucracy) but focusing on those just makes me me angry and bitter. Instead, I try to model the solutions-oriented behavior I demand of my students. Focusing on improving my craft along with those of my colleagues doesn’t just make me feel good. It gives me hope. I can get better. My colleagues can get better. And if we do, despite institutional failures and shortcomings we  can change the trajectory of the 98408, 98418 and 98404 ZIP codes.

Nathan Bowling

Republic of Cascadia