You get up on the ledge as a young teacher when you realize that there is no formal system of accountability anywhere. The evaluation process is an outright joke, your intern advisor calls you exemplary, and your BTSA lady pops in so you can fill out some forms. If you’re coming out of an alternative credentialing program, you’re used to having folks in your class daily, dropping those + / ∆ forms like they’re hot, but that’s done now, and trying to find/ build the culture of observation in the typical urban school is like drinking the damn ocean dry. No one is making sure you do your job well. You’re relatively new to all this, and things can be uneven. Instructional quality tends to fluctuate, but no one’s around to praise the times you bring it, and worse still, there is no one to suggest that uh, you better step it up if you want to make it round here.
You’re up on the ledge when you want to know how to get better, but there’s nothing there. The vast store of practical strategies you took from your alternative or traditional route credentialing program seems to be running a little dry and district PD is either non-existent or an exercise in futility. There is no formal plan for post-competency-acquisition development, unless it is in the areas of technology, and you already know how to use PowerPoint. You do, however, have the opportunity to be told occasionally how great you are because you demonstrate basic competence in the context of repeated failure, and that tends to have the opposite of its intended effect.
It gets worse when you do get better. Your level of quality as an educator changes, but title, position, responsibilities, and compensation remain stagnant. At best, you’re on a conveyor belt that ascends with the speed of a Miami-Dade airport people-mover. At best, you "earn the right" to teach higher performing kids who more readily acquiesce to your wishes. You look around at the time and effort spent on bringing about better instruction and better assessment for the kids, the energy and will poured into creating dynamic environments and learning experiences, the grit and the grind of trying to make of yourself that turnaround teacher, the kind that reverses the disastrous inertia of the previous years – you look around and realize that none of it has any bearing on your professional standing. None of it.
You realize the profession incentivizes mediocrity. It does not drive people to show movies all day, or let kids text and screw around in class – ineptitude takes folks there – but it does incentivize using the same lame worksheets you used the last time around, the same crap readings, head-butting against the same, predictable failures to comprehend and achieve. Because the only lever school leaders have to lean on is the level of caring inherent in the individual teachers, the only thing driving you to do more is to care more. But there’s a limit to your caring, and a limit to the effectiveness of your caring.
So you’re up on that ledge. On one side is the descent into mediocrity and professional stagnation. On the other is leaving, that mythical path out of the classroom. You’re up there, and like Dan, you call me while the car’s getting some new oil, some behind the ears scratching that will enable the 120 mile commute. You call and say, talk me down.
I can’t talk anyone down.
You can’t get down.
All you can do is pitch a tent.
I live up on that ledge, man, live there in the tightrope narrow space where you need to struggle against the constraints of the system in which you work. It’s in that space where you know you do it for the kids, where everything is for the kids, where you get paid in appreciations and handslaps and end-of-the-year surveys from the kids, and you love doing it for the kids, and you want to do it for the kids, but why can’t you do it for any of the other myriad reasons available to other professionals? Why must you be limited, less? You f-ing love the kids, but you want to also work for the things that everyone else gets to work for. You want the opportunity to put your best out there and see it rewarded by something that comes out of the other side of the Venn Diagram, the side that doesn’t have anything to do with the kids. You want to be pushed and challenged, and when you rise to the challenge you want to receive some form of acknowledgement that does not, and must not, arrive in the shape of an apple.
I want to grow. I want to excel. I want to feel like I’m not doing the same entry-level job I was six years ago. I want to feel like factors outside of my own willingness and drive to improve are at work in shaping my professional life.
There’s a growing wave of this stuff. When the CTA lady came to the union meeting to specifically alert new teachers to the dangers of proposed merit pay provisions, I shook my head in tight side-to-sides, because true systems of meritorious compensation are the future of the work we do. New hiring practices, the dissolution of tenure, authentic evaluations, performance based pay – this is what’s needed to get us off that ledge and quell the schizophrenia of being an ambitious and successful teacher in a public school.
More: When this post meets ideological entrenchment.