Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Unearned Privileges of Teaching Complicit Students and Why I Left Teaching in Georgia


If you follow me on social media, you have no doubt been privy to my move from Georgia to California. I’ve been recalcitrant to write here about the topic as the reasons for the move were still so close and so hard to sort. This year marks my eleventh year as an Art teacher. Not unlike those of you who read my blog, I love teaching Art. I also love the intersection of culture and education. My passions often found me working in underserved schools with at-risk students. While this work was and is challenging, I loved working with the students and there was a sense of pride associated with what I did. At the same time, I grew to hate my work, and sometimes myself, due to poor leadership and changes in educational policy in Georgia.

During the 2014-15 school-year my Georgia school district piloted a new evaluation system for teachers. This evaluation program was a required part of Georgia receiving Race to the Top (RTTT) funding. RTTT does not provide a specific teacher evaluation model, but it does require the state/district create an exhaustive teacher evaluation model. This requirement was modeled on recommendations stemming from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation research.  These recommendations are designed to help teachers learn and grow, but they are also utopic and unrealistic. For instance, one of the recommendations is for administrators to observe teachers at least ten times and to provide exhaustive feedback. Think about how many teachers and administrators are in your school and consider how much time that means in terms of administrator hours. It means that your administrator would have no time to do anything other than to watch you and your colleagues.  Unsurprisingly, Georgia developed the most bass-ackwards teacher evaluation ever.

I’m going to get a bit political here and tell you I severely dislike the governor of Georgia. I’ve personally met the man and have no respect for him or his office. Almost every teacher in Georgia agrees with me. You can read about that here, here, and here, Oh, and here too. Georgia needs more money for education, and RTTT funding seems like the answer. The governor simply decided to find the quickest solution from point A to point B, but he didn’t consider the possible impacts on students and teachers. The state wants the easiest method to compare data to evaluate student learning and teacher effectiveness, and that means quantitative data (although I doubt most of them know what quantitative means).  In addition to the teacher evaluation madness, the governor is openly advocating moving towards teacher merit pay. This means that Georgia teachers will not be paid according to advanced degrees and years of experience. Teacher pay will be directly linked to performance on the very broken evaluation model. 

The evaluation model relies on three main areas: 1) standardized tests, 2) student evaluation of teachers, and 3) administrator observations of teachers. Last year, my students took two standardized basic skills tests, and a standardized test in every class. My students, many of whom struggled to read, got to evaluate me via an online Likert scale.  Finally, my administrator who had never worked as a teacher, observed me five times, gave me feedback, and then gave me a final score.


 Yes. My students had to take a standardized test in Art. I taught a divergent-thinking class, and my success as a teacher was based on the results of a convergent-thinking assessment. I’ve wondered why the state wouldn’t let Art teachers (or heck any teachers) use a portfolio of student work to show development, but I realized that data can’t be filtered down to a number. Yes, many of my students couldn’t read and had severe behavior struggles. They got to vote on whether they liked me or not. And, yes, a person who has never worked day-to-day in a classroom observed me and rated me as a teacher.

You know, that sort of pissed me off.

I saw the writing on the wall in Georgia. I realized that I couldn’t be the kind of teacher I want and seek to be, and still be considered an effective teacher in Georgia. I realized that I either had to find a new profession or get the heck out of Georgia. And, since most of the state governments in the South are buying into this poor model, I realized getting out of the South was key.

It really hurts to say that I had to get out of the South. I love my home, but enough is enough.

Simply put, I was made aware –through an awesome friend and colleague- that an opportunity to teach in California might be available. I flew out to the town, checked out the school, went to lunch with the teachers, and thought heavily about the choice. I agonized over the move, but honestly, in the long run, it was a pretty easy choice. A few Skype interviews, and one more in-person interview, and I was hired.

There was nothing so glorious as the day I was able to tell my friends and colleagues that I was escaping the regime of educational nonsense in Georgia. Some were skeptical, some were jealous, and some just had to say negative things. But, one person stated it best, “Look, we’re all just jealous you’re getting out and are still going to get to teach.”

I’ve been teaching K-8th grade Studio Art, K-5th grade Digital Art, and High School Art at a charter school dedicated to Arts & Technology in Central California since August. It is glorious. There is a two-year waiting list for entry into the school.  The school, if it wasn’t a charter, could actually qualify for Title I funding, so not everyone who attends is wealthy. The difference is that the charter of the school makes for the inclusion of familial buy-in when it comes to student life. And, families can be asked to leave the school if they do not abide by the charter outlines (attendance, tardies, involvement in school activities etc.). There is tremendous buy-in from the families.

I never had time to think about laminating or not at my old schools. The laminator was usually broken and/or out of plastic too. At my new school, there is a person WHO DOES THE LAMINATING FOR ME. Whaat?!?!?

The first month gave me whiplash; the change was so profound and different. It has made me realize that so many of the voices we see writing ArtEd blogs have it good, like I currently have it good. We don’t have to constantly worry the many trappings of at-risk environments. It means we are able to do a lot more with our students at school because the basic needs of our students are already met at home.

Recently, I was presenting an Art project to a few local teachers who teach many at-risk students. When I stated my current home school, I was met with the eye roll I used to give teachers who teach at the “easy” school. Teachers of at-risk kids, you know what I mean! It seems like every professional development lecture you attend is run by some “expert” who has never had to face the challenges of low SES, poverty, and at-risk kids. All of the “expert’s” advice works because s/he works with highly complicit students. And, even though I’ve got it good now, I totally get it. Inside, I’m eye-rolling a bit too. Instead of acting as if I was an authority (ahem, I’m SO not), I acknowledged that I’ve got it good, and explained that I’ve also taught at-risk kids and would be providing some of the options and modifications you can use when teaching the same project to at-risk kids. I got some grudging respect.

This experience got me thinking about all of the unearned privileges that go along with teaching in highly complicit educational settings (I totally just made that phrase up, and I love it). There are so many things that I don’t have sort through anymore that make my teaching life so much easier. I thought I’d share them with you for a few reasons. Firstly, I don’t want to get too comfortable and become one of those teachers who refuses to acknowledge that it’s easier to show gains with highly complicit students. Second, I think it is important to acknowledge the unearned privileges so that when we share projects we can consider modification and accommodations for other academic environments. And, three, these unearned privileges may provide some insight into how we, as teachers, can facilitate change to provide more for all of our students.


The Unearned Privileges of Teaching Highly Complicit Students:
1.       There is enough funding. The parents know they have a voice and they utilize it. As a result, there is more than enough funding. We get funding from the charter and some from the district. The rest, and main source of my budget, comes from parent boosters. These parents aren’t messing around. While not all of the parents are wealthy, they are all in stable enough situations that they are able to donate time and money to the school for support of programs.
2.       Students view school as a good and fun place. Students are enthusiastic about learning. Their parents value education and they instill a love of learning in their children. I overheard a kid shouting on his way into school, “I LOVE SCHOOL!” My students get agitated about being absent and are bummed about missing school days. I can present any topic as a Good Thing to Study, and my students are raising hands to add to the discussion.
3.       Discipline is usually as easy as redirection. Parents are involved in school and in disciplining their children at home. They expect their student to behave at school, and good reports from the teacher are held in high-esteem. Typically, if I ask a student to stop, they will stop.
4.       Since everyone’s basic needs are met there is little struggle over materialistic things. My students pretty much all view themselves as being the same regarding social and economic status (even though some families have more income than others). My students don’t fight over which shoes they have or which pencils etc. Differences are generally accepted.
5.       Since discipline is easy there is virtually no bullying. Someone got made fun of during recess and it was a red-letter day. My students were stunned someone could be purposefully mean.
6.       There is not a constant struggle for authority. My students are taught that adults are in charge. As my students do not have to raise themselves or their siblings, they succumb easily to adult authority. My students walk into class and sit down. They respond when I call their name. They make eye-contact when we speak.
7.       Students don’t steal materials. I had a habit ofalways buying cheap duct tape whenever I saw it to track pencils and markers. I saw some the other day, went to buy it, and then realized that I don’t have to track all of my materials so aggressively anymore. The students just return them. I think it is because my students’ families have the time to teach respect for these small items, and also have the funds to supply such items (so they are not so enticing when they see them in my room).
8.       I don’t have to think about how students might potentially weaponize art materials when planning a lesson. Yes, I really used to have to do this for the safety and sanity of the students.
9.       Teacher approval is important to students. Since the adults in my students’ lives’ are not in crisis, they are able to provide consistent support to the students. As such, students aren’t suspect of adults and actively seek approval from them.
10.   Extra help. Advanced student have extra periods during the school day and volunteer to help in classrooms. Parents actively seek me out to volunteer and help. I constantly am able to better utilize my time because of volunteer support.

I know there are more unearned privileges that I am not listing. I think that not being aware of the privilege is part of the unearned aspect of it. . .I am so happy that I have made this move. At the same time, I do feel whole-heartedly guilty that I have left my Georgia students behind. I honestly do not know what to say regarding the fact that I am fully capable of teaching at-risk students (a job that is not for every teacher) and am instead using my time to teach privileged kids. Once upon a time, I read a comment on an arted blog in response to a blogger writing about a challenging work environment: “You have to put in your time at the bad schools, and the move up to a good one.”  Even though, I strongly eschew that statement, according to outward appearances, this is what I have done. I don’t know what to say/write about that, but I do feel that it must be acknowledged.


I do know that I wish you all the job joy I currently enjoy. 

1 comment:

  1. hate Georgia lost u...but, I understand...I teach in a small private school in Georgia. My public skl teacher friends are sideways....Great blog, btw!...Good luck with your continued "Californication!"

    ReplyDelete