Always Be Testing – The Sales Pitch for Corporate Education Reform

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(After the “Brass Balls” speech in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” by David Mamet.)

 

(Rated PG-13 for language)

 

(Interior: a public school classroom during an after school staff meeting. Teachers are seated at student desks including Singer, Moss and Aaronow. Williamson, a middle school principal, stands in front of the room flanked by Blake, a motivational speaker brought in by the state. Singer is furiously grading papers. The other teachers are pleasantly chatting about trifles before Blake calls the gathering to attention.)

 

[Blake]
Let me have your attention for a moment! So you’re talking about what? You’re talking about that kid you failed, some son of a bitch who doesn’t want to pass, some snot-nosed brat you’re trying to remediate and so forth. Let’s talk about something important. Are they all here?

 

[Williamson]
All but one.

 

[Blake]
Well, I’m going anyway. Let’s talk about something important! (to Singer) Put that colored marker down!

 

[Singer]

But I’m grading papers…

 

(Blake)

I said Put that marker down! Markers are for testers only.

 

(Singer scoffs)

 

[Blake]

Do you think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I’m here from downtown. I’m here from the Governor and the Legislature. And I’m here on a mission of mercy. Your name’s Singer?

 

[Singer]
Yeah. Mister Singer, actually.

 

[Blake]
You call yourself a teacher, you son of a bitch?

 

[Moss]

I don’t have to listen to this.

 
[Blake]
You certainly don’t, Madam. Cause the good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is you’ve got, all you got, just one week to regain your jobs, starting today. Starting with today’s meeting.

 

[Moss]

What!? The union contract doesn’t allow you to just fire us all without cause.

 

[Blake]

Union!? There ain’t no more union! This is a Right to Work state now, Bitch. And that means you have the right to work – for less – until I fire your sorry ass.

 

(Assorted grumbling)

 

[Blake]

Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s merit pay. As you all know, the teacher whose students get the highest test scores gets a bonus. First prize is a thousand bucks. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a box of pencils. Third prize is you’re fired. You get the picture? You’re laughing now?

 

[Singer]

That’s ridiculous. Mrs. Moss teaches the advanced kids. All her students get high test scores.

 

[Blake]

What? And your kids are in the general track? They don’t get high test scores? Then step it up, Singer! You want to get a paycheck in this district, you’ve got to earn a paycheck. You got test prep manuals. The school board paid good money for them. Get those workbooks so your kids can pass the test!

 

[Singer]

Workbooks!? That’s not learning?

 

[Blake]

That’s where you’re wrong. Workbooks are the only learning that counts! Kids take the tests that show whether you’re doing your fucking jobs! You want to keep working here? You want to keep sucking at the public tit? You get those kids to pass the motherfucking tests. And those workbooks do that. They teach kids how to pass the motherfucking tests!

 

[Singer]

But my kids are all from poor homes. They’re malnourished. They don’t get the same medical care. There are no books in their homes. Many of them suffer from PTSD from abuse or exposure to violence….

 

[Blake]

And you think they deserve some kind of entitlement? A medal? Fuck them and fuck you! Let me make one thing perfectly clear – If you can’t get your students to pass shit, you ARE shit, hit the bricks, Pal, and beat it cause you are going out!

 

[Singer]

Are you kidding me right now? You want my students to pass these tests. The tests are unfair. They’re economically and culturally biased. The connection between the tests and learning is weak.

 

[Blake]
The fucking tests are weak? You’re weak. I’ve been in this business for fifteen weeks.

 

[Moss]
Fifteen weeks? Try thirty years.

 

[Blake]

Anyone who’s still a teacher after thirty years should be put to sleep. All you need is a year or two. That’s what I’m doing. Teach for America. Five weeks training, two year commitment, then move on to Washington where you can advise lawmakers on what schools need.

 

[Moss]

What’s your name?

 

[Blake]

Fuck you, that’s my name! You know why, Missy? Cause you drove a Hyundai to get to work. I drove an eighty thousand BMW. That’s my name.

 

[Singer]

I took the bus.

 

[Blake]

(To Singer) And your name is “you’re wanting.” You can’t play in a man’s game. You can’t teach them. (at a near whisper) And you go home and tell your wife your troubles.

(to everyone again) Because only one thing counts in this life! Get them to score above basic. Get them to demonstrate the minimum skills necessary!

 

[Singer]

What about what they think and feel?

 

[Blake]

No one gives a shit about what they think and feel. You hear me, you fucking faggots?

 

(Blake flips over a blackboard which has two sets of letters on it: ABT, and AITP.)

 

[Blake]

A-B-T. A- Always, B-be, T-testing. Always be testing! Always be testing!! A-I-T-P. Attention, interest, testing, passing. Attention — do I have your attention? Interest — are you interested? I know you are because it’s fuck or walk. Your kids pass or you hit the bricks! Testing – you will test those students by Christ!! And passing. A-I-T-P; get out there!! You got the students comin’ in; you think they came in to get out of the rain?

 

[Singer]

Actually, many of my students live in public housing down there by the railroad tracks. You know those slums? Roofs leak in half those units…

 

[Moss]

And for a lot of kids school is the only structure they get all day. Their parents are out working two to three jobs. They have to take care of themselves and often younger siblings.

 

[Singer]

And food. Don’t forget food. If it wasn’t for the free breakfast and lunch program, many of my kids wouldn’t eat…

 

[Blake]

Bullshit. A kid doesn’t walk into this school unless he wants to pass. That’s why they’re here! They want to learn! They’re sitting out there waiting to be told what to do. Are you gonna’ tell ‘em? Are you man enough to tell them?

 

[Moss]

I’m a woman. Most of us are women.

 

[Blake]

(to Moss) What’s the problem, Pal?

 

[Moss]

You think you’re such a hero, you’re so rich. Why are you coming down here and wasting your time on a bunch of bums?

 

(Blake sits and takes off his gold watch)

 

[Blake]
You see this watch? You see this watch?

 

[Moss]
Yeah.

 

[Blake]

That watch cost more than your SMART Board. (Takes off his shoe) You see this shoe? Italian. It costs more than your entire salary. (slicks back his hair) You see this haircut?

 

[Moss]

I get it.

 

[Blake]

Do you? Because I do. I made 26 million dollars last year. How much do you make? You see, Pal, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice person? I don’t give a shit. Good mother? Fuck you – go home and play with your kids!! (to everyone) You wanna work here? Test!! (to Aaronow) You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this — how can you take the abuse you get in a classroom?! You don’t like it — leave. I can go out there tomorrow with the materials you got, make myself a thousand dollars in merit pay! Tomorrow! In one class! Can you? Can you? Go and do likewise! A-I-T-P!! Get mad! You sons of bitches! Get mad!!

 

[Singer]

Oh, I’m mad. I’m mad that a shallow schmuck like you thinks he can come in here and tell us how to do our jobs. School is about so much more than test scores. You can’t reduce it all to a multiple choice assessment. These kids need a broad curriculum, not just reading and math. They need science, art, social studies, foreign language, recess – all the stuff the rich kids get at the $50,000 a year private schools. And all you want to give them are standardized tests!

 

[Blake]

You know what it takes to teach public school?

 

(He pulls something out of his briefcase. He’s holding up a hammer and a plastic model of a one-room schoolhouse. He puts the model down on Aaronow’s desk and then smashes it to pieces with the hammer.)



[Blake]
It takes school choice to teach in a public school. It takes charter and voucher schools, schools run like a business – not this mamby, pamby, commie, socialist shit!

 

[Moss]

Choice? Is that what you call letting private interests suck up public tax dollars without the same transparency and regulations as public schools? You mean schools not run by an elected school board, who meet in private and do almost whatever they please with our tax dollars? You mean schools that can turn away the hardest to teach children – unlike public schools that take everyone?

 

[Blake]
I’m talking about schools with balls!
(He puts the hammer over his crotch,– he puts it away after a pause)



[Blake]
You want a paycheck? Do like the choice schools do — Go and do likewise, folks. The money’s out there, you pick it up, it’s yours. You don’t–I have no sympathy for you. You wanna go into your classes tomorrow and test and get your kids to pass, it’s yours. If not you’re going to be shining my shoes. Bunch of losers sitting around in a bar. (in a mocking weak voice) “Oh yeah, I used to be a teacher, it’s a tough racket.” (he takes out a software package from his briefcase) This is the new Common Core aligned diagnostic system. It’s like the MAP, Study Island, iReady and iStation – only better.

 

[Singer]

Those programs suck.

 

[Blake]

This is better. With it, your students will sit behind a computer screen for several hours every day taking stealth assessments.

 

[Singer]

You mean mini-tests?

 

[Blake]

No. Not mini-tests. They’ll run through the program and get instruction on every Common Core standard and their answers will show how much they’ve learned.

 

[Singer]

They’re tests. Standardized tests. Every day.

 

[Blake]

This is the Pearson leads. And to you, it’s gold. And you don’t get it. Why? Because to give it to you is just throwing it away. (he hands the software to Williamson) It’s for testers. (sneeringly) Not teachers.

 

I’d wish you good luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you got it. (to Moss as he puts on his watch again) And to answer your question, Pal: why am I here? I came here because the Governor and Legislature are paying me to be here. They’re paying me a lot more than you. But I don’t have to take their money. I can make that tying my shoes. They asked me for a favor. I said, the real favor, follow my advice and fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser.

 

(He stares at Moss for a sec, and then picking up his briefcase, he leaves the room with Williamson)

 

[Singer]

What an asshole.

 

[Moss]

He may be an asshole but he’s got the state on his side.

 

[Aaronow]

This isn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t why I became a teacher.

 

[Moss]

What did you sign up for?

 

[Aaronow]

TO TEACH! Not to be some… some… glorified real estate agent!

 

[Singer]

It’s funny. We know how crazy all this testing, Common Core, and charter school crap is, but no one wants to hear us.

 

[Moss]

And now without collective bargaining, we can’t even speak up without fear of being fired.

 

[Aaronow]

Fear!? If we don’t push all this teaching to the test nonsense, they’re going to fire us. And if we do, they can replace us with computer programs. We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

 

[Singer]

Not if people wake up. (Moss and Aaronow scoff) Not if the public takes a stand, if parents and teachers opt their kids out of the tests…

 

[Aaronow]

Didn’t you hear the man!? They’re putting the kids on computer programs to test them every day!

 

[Singer]

Then we fight every day. We protest every day. We get parents together and other concerned citizens and we go to the capital and we fight. Call your representative. Go to your Senator’s office. Stage a sit in. Hold a mock trial. Write a blog parodying a scene from a famous movie. Get public attention. Make some noise.

 

[Aaronow]

And you think people will care? You think people will know?

 

[Singer]

We’ll teach them. We’ll show them. That’s what we do.

 

[Moss]

We have no other choice.

 

[Aaronow]

Always be testing?

 

[Singer]

Always be teaching.

 

(Curtain)

 

The Original Scene from GlenGarry Glen Ross:

Unwilling to Help Schools, PA Legislature Attacks Teachers

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If you live in Pennsylvania, as I do, you must be shaking your head at the shenanigans of our state legislature.

Faced with a school funding crisis of their own making, lawmakers voted this week to make it easier to fire school teachers.

Monday the state Senate passed their version of an anti-seniority bill that was given the thumbs up by the House last summer.

Thankfully, Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to veto it.

As usual, lawmakers (or more accurately their surrogates at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who actually wrote the bill) spent more time on branding the legislation than appealing to logic, sense or reason. The bill called HB 805 was given the euphemistic title “The Protecting Excellent Teachers Act.”

Yes, this is exactly how you protect excellent teachers – by making it easier to fire them.

Currently, if teachers are furloughed, those with least seniority go first. Under this new law, teachers would be let go based on their academic rating. Teachers can have one of four ratings: Distinguished, Proficient, Needs Improvement and Failing. Under the new legislation, teachers rated Failing would be furloughed first, followed by those under Needs Improvement, etc. Within those categories decisions would be made based on seniority.

It sounds great – if you know absolutely nothing about Pennsylvania public schools.

First off, in 2015 our rating system found 98.2% of state teachers to be in the highest two rating categories. So at best this bill is next to meaningless.

Second, like virtually all value added rating systems across the country, our rating system is pure bull crap. It’s a complicated measure of meaningless statistics, student test scores and mumbo jumbo that can be twisted one way or another depending on the whims of administrators, dumb luck and the phases of the moon.

A New York Supreme Court judge just ruled this week that the Empire state’s similar teacher rating system is “arbitrary” and “capricious.” But in Pennsylvania our legislators want to make it the axe that slices away teachers from the profession.

Third, the bill isn’t really about seniority at all. It’s about making it easier to fire teachers no matter how good they are at their jobs. Currently, state school districts are not allowed to furlough teachers based on lack of funds. This new legislation aims to remove that impediment.

It makes sense in a way. Pennsylvania lawmakers refuse to properly fund public schools so they have to make it easier to downsize. You’re welcome, taxpayers!

If this bill becomes law, school directors could fire whomever administrators want for whatever reason.

Admin: Mr. Smith, you’re fired.

Smith: Why?

Admin: Um. Financial reasons.

Smith: But I’m rated as Distinguished.

Admin: Not after we adjust the formula, mess with your class rosters and all around juke the stats to show you’re Failing.

Seniority is not perfect, but it avoids all these high jinks. It leaves no questions, nothing that can be easily altered. Either you have seniority or not. And if administrators have been doing their jobs by making sure good teachers stay and bad teachers are trained or let go, seniority correlates with good teaching. If you’ve been in the classroom for a long while, you’re probably a pretty descent teacher. Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

The public has to realize something about teaching at a public school. It is a deeply political job. You are subject to the whims of school directors, administrators, parents or anyone in the community with an axe to grind. You simply can’t do the job without some protections. How else can you fairly grade the school director’s child? How else can you exercise academic freedom to do what you think best if every decision is subject to committee?

This doesn’t mean teachers can’t be fired. They are fired every day. But administrators have to be able to make a valid case. They have to gather evidence to prove you deserve to be fired first.

It is highly ironic that Pennsylvania lawmakers are pursuing this legislation when they have done everything in their power to protect their own jobs first.

You want to talk seniority? Look to the legislature.

Incumbents are almost always re-elected. Why? Not because they do such a great job. They’ve made sure to gerrymander the state. Republicans reside in overwhelmingly Republican districts, Democrats in overwhelmingly Democratic ones.

This is no accident. A few years back, legislators redrew district borders to make sure they’d keep their jobs no matter how crappy they were at governance. It is deeply unfair and undemocratic. The majority of voters do not get a say. Instead, we cater to special interests and protect terrible legislators so they can pass crap like this bill without fear of repercussions during election season.

Do you think lawmakers would have refused to pass a state budget this year until 9 months after the deadline if they thought voters could actually hold them accountable? No way!

Do you think they’d withhold fair funding to the majority of public schools in the state if they thought the majority of voters had a say whether these knuckleheads stayed in power? Absolutely not!

And worst of all, even with Gov. Wolf’s promised veto, the crisis is far from over. When next year’s budget comes up for a vote in June and the Governor again asks for equitable funding for schools, legislators are bound to use HB 805 as a bargaining chip.

“You want some money for our kids’ schools? Then you’d better make it easier to fire teachers,” they’ll say.

Protect excellent teachers? Ha! They’re protecting terrible legislators.

We’ll never have good governance in this state again unless we find a way to redraw our gerrymandered districts. We need a voter referendum, a nonpartisan committee or – here’s a long shot – we need for extremist residents of these gerrymandered districts to revolt against the politicians hiding behind them.

Until then, we will be forever cursed with terrible lawmakers, execrable laws, under-resourced schools and a crumbling state.


Click HERE to find out how your representatives voted on HB 805.

The Only Teaching Evaluation That Matters

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“Yes, my writing got a lot better than what I was, and I love writing now. And you pushed me to do better. Not a lot of teachers push their students, some teachers don’t care about their students.”

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One of my 8th graders wrote that to me on the last day of school.

I had asked her class to fill out an anonymous survey about my teaching. I said that all year I get to grade THEM, but this was their chance to grade ME.

I made sure to explain that they didn’t need to put their names on it. This would not be graded. Spelling and grammar didn’t count. The only thing I wanted was honesty.

I told them I wouldn’t personally collect the surveys. They should NOT hand them to me; they should put them in a pile on the desk by the door when they leave. I promised I wouldn’t even look at what they’d written until class was over. That way they could feel free to write whatever they wanted. If I did something bad or there was some way I could improve, I wanted them to tell me. If I did something exceptionally well, they should tell me that, too.

“Please help me become a better teacher,” I said.

As an 8th grade public school educator, I get evaluated a lot. I’ve spent countless hours gathering evidence that I’m “proficient” at my job.

I’ve had to endure formal observations, informal observations, H.E.A.T. observations, Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), written explanations of specific lessons with appeals to which Common Core standards I would be teaching – and there always seems to be a new one added to this list next year.

But I’ve been giving a version of this simple student survey to my classes on the last day of school for over a decade.

It’s not something I’m required to do. I don’t share the results with administration. The responses don’t go on file, increase my pay or get recorded in the newspaper. They don’t become part of the district’s ranking in the Business Times. No one is going to withhold funding from my district or close my building and convert it into a charter school based on these results. No one ever will be on television decrying the state of public education referencing these surveys. They are low stakes, class-based, teacher-centered and personal.

But I do this because I think it actually gives me useful information. I really want to know what my students think. That’s one of the things that truly drives my instruction. Not politically motivated standards monetarily incentivized and adopted before they were even completely written. Not standardized tests that measure little more than parental income. Not the latest fad handed down by the superintendent. Not a threat shouted at us through an email or at a faculty meeting.

No. I’m motivated by my kids in the classroom and the answer to the question, “Have I helped you learn?”

The survey is quite simple really. It’s two-sided.

On the front page are 5 multiple choice questions:

1) The amount of written homework I had in this class was                             in my other classes.

A) much more than
B) Somewhat more than
C) The same as
D) Somewhat less than
E) Much less than

2) The amount of reading I had in this class was                                in my other classes.

A) much more than
B) Somewhat more than
C) The same as
D) Somewhat less than
E) Much less than

3) The amount of studying I did for this class was                                 in my other classes.

A) much more than
B) Somewhat more than
C) The same as
D) Somewhat less than
E) Much less than

4) I received                                    instruction and comments on my written work.

A) much more than enough
B) Somewhat more than enough
C) Just enough
D) Somewhat less than enough
E) Much less than enough

5) In this class, I learned                                         in my other classes.

A) much more than
B) Somewhat more than
C) The same as
D) Somewhat less than
E) Much less than

When it comes to homework, students almost always say I give too much. The majority (68%) gave me an A or B.

I only require about an hour of extra-class work a week. I don’t think that’s too bad. However, many teachers give less or none. I go back and forth on the value of homework, myself, but I know that once my students get to 9th grade, they’ll have a tremendous load of it. I figure if I don’t prepare them for that, I’m doing them a disservice. So an avalanche of (one hour a week) homework it remains.

Likewise, kids often say I give a lot of reading. A language arts class should give a substantial amount of reading. So I’m glad most kids (69%) give me an A or B. I require my students to read one self-selected book a month. I don’t think that’s too burdensome. If the book is too tough or boring – hey! You picked it! Pick another one. I also provide them with 15 minutes per day to read in class.

Studying is not something I emphasize. But students are almost evenly divided whether I require too much, just enough or too little. I’m not big on having kids memorize something and then regurgitate that on a test. I’d rather spend time getting them to take good notes that they can use on the test. I’m a big fan of open notes or open book tests. But I hardly ever use the word “Test.” I give frequent short quizzes. I think tests (and even quizzes) are limited evaluation tools. I’d much rather assign a multi-day project. That tells me much more than a brief snapshot of what students were thinking at any one given point in time.

I do assign a lot of essays so I’m always anxious to know if I’ve given enough written feedback. The research seems to show that if you mark every error on an essay, you get diminishing returns. You discourage students. So instead I try to focus on a few trouble areas we’ve already discussed per essay. And students seem to appreciate it. Most of my kids (85%) gave me an A or B or C in this area.

Then comes the cumulative question. How much did you learn? I used to have my classes assign me a letter grade A-E. However, answers were all over the place. When I compared the results with surveys from students who had revealed their identities, I found that kids usually gave me the same grade they received in my class. A-students gave me As. C-students gave me Cs, and so on.

When I changed the question to “how much have you learned?” the results changed drastically. Most students (84%) gave me an A or B. Yes, that’s the result I’m aiming for, but I think it’s a more honest answer, too. It doesn’t focus on grades. It focuses on each child’s assessment of his or her own progress. That’s really what I want to know.

But this side of the survey still provides very limited answers. It is multiple choice, after all. It’s useful for a brief overview but not very deep.

The second side of my questionnaire only has two open-ended queries. Students can write as much or as little as they want to the following questions:

6) What did your teacher do especially well this year to help you succeed?

7) In what areas can your teacher improve his/her instruction?

To be honest, when looking at the surveys, I usually skip right to these questions. This is what I want to see – not a bunch of alphabet soup. I want to know what they really think.

What have I done well? Here are some answers from this year’s kids:

-He understood the learning abilities of certain students and helped them to the best of his ability.

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-You made it hard so that we would have to work for the grade.

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-Before we could ask him for help, he asked us if we needed help. He’d help everyone, even the person who didn’t ask for it.

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-He was really good at explaining and pushed me to never give up. Therefore, Mr. Singer is one of my favorite teachers.

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-Well, I didn’t like as much work as he was giving us, but then I understood he was trying to help us with our grades and trying to make our grades higher.

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-Always explained stuff good in class. He was always giving good instructions.

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-He helped me as much as I needed and made things easier to prepare for high school.

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-He helped me understand the concept of simile and metaphor (which I understand now)

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-What my teacher especially helped me do to succeed is writing essays.

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I was just floored by these responses. Talk about data I can use! But there was one answer that stood out above even these:

-He helped me learn what I needed to do and he helped me by being a mockingbird because I think he tried his best to teach me what I needed to be taught.

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No, she wasn’t literally calling me a bird. She was relating me to our last novel – To Kill a Mockingbird. In the text, some characters are innocent victims. They try to help others but come under fire because of it. The author, Harper Lee, symbolizes them as “mockingbirds.” These include: Tom Robinson, the black man wrongly accused of rape; Atticus Finch, the lawyer standing up for a fair trial despite social criticism; Arthur “Boo” Radely, the recluse who saved lives at the expense of his privacy.

And here my sweet little student was including ME in this venerable list!

That choked me up a bit I can tell you.

When it comes to areas for improvement, my students aren’t the most forthcoming. Answers include:

-I don’t think he needs to because he already does his best to teach us kids what we need to be taught and his instruction is easy to understand.

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-None. He was the best teacher! 🙂

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I appreciate the approbation but I wouldn’t mind constructive criticism. I do get complaints about the amount of homework and writing I assign. I also get requests for more free time.

I think if I wasn’t in the room when students took the survey, I might get more criticism. Ideally, I would leave the room for the last 15 minutes of the class, and kids could fill out their surveys. However, this is impractical. I don’t see how I could arrange it given the current climate, lack of subs and skeleton crew staff.

These surveys have given me much to think about over the summer. Maybe I should try to include more group work in next year’s class. Maybe I should revisit the homework situation.

But as June turns to July and then August, I know I’ll be thinking about all that happened this school year.

Some kids came in and out of shelters and juvenile detention. Some were present at a shooting at the local mall. Parents and I had to fight administration over valuing standardized test scores over classroom grades for student placement. The School board enacted a pointless student uniform policy. Students were demoralized and angry over national racial tensions involving Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the Baltimore uprising. Teachers had an active shooter drill for the first time as part of our professional development.

But most of all I’ll think about my students – well, no longer mine – off to the high school and bigger, better things.

For a brief moment I was an important part of their lives and they were an important part of mine. I’ll forget their names. (It’s like my mind is making space for the new ones I’ll have to learn.) But I’ll never forget their struggles and triumphs.

It’s easy to lose sight with all the privatizers and standardizers trying to dismantle our public schools. But even with all the political nonsense, selfishness and small-mindedness, teaching is the best job in the world.

Yes, it really is!

Every day I get a chance to positively impact dozens of lives!

I am truly blessed.

That’s what these surveys tell me.

And that’s why they’re the only evaluation that really matters.


NOTE: Here is a copy of the survey I use in class.

Student Survey

-This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.