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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Visitors: By Invitation Only

Mysterious classroom evaluators are troubling and disrespectful.
By Jennifer Corn
Related Tags: Assessment,All Grades
Credit: Brian Cairns

When the two strangers walked into my classroom, I tensed up. No one had told me I would have company. They were accompanied by my site literacy coach, who smiled nervously and greeted me as she brought them into the room. The visitors said nothing to me but began examining my students' work and asking the kids questions. I tried to take part in the conversation but quickly realized my input was unwelcome, so I watched as they examined the class's language arts workbooks. Then, as suddenly as they'd arrived, they were gone.

As I later learned, "they" were my school's executive director (my principal's supervisor) and our network facilitator, an administrator charged with implementing a new reading program at several schools. This hadn't been a formal evaluation; during the school's two-hour language arts block, the two had visited every classroom.

Afterward, they met with our principal and the literacy coach to deliver their feedback. This process was intended to prepare our school for a possible visit by a state-appointed administrator who had taken over our district with the charge of balancing the budget.

I generally welcome visitors (see "Principals: Take Five"), since it gives me the opportunity to share my students' work and talk about the complexities of teaching English in an urban setting. But a growing climate of suspicion this year, coupled with a steady stream of mandates that I find at best unrealistic and at worst morally objectionable, increased my anxiety in the face of these uncommunicative visitors.

This year, for the first time, my school is implementing Open Court, a phonics-based reading program that most other Oakland, California, schools have used for about three years. Although many of my fourth-grade Spanish-speaking bilingual students began the year reading English three or four years below grade level, I must use the fourth-grade basal reader and accompanying workbooks and may not supplement Open Court with other materials. Many of my students still have trouble differentiating between long and short vowel sounds in English, yet I am supposed to teach such words as cunning, simulate, indignantly, and entrepreneur.

Each day, as I watch students labor to make sense of inappropriate material, I become angrier about the time they are wasting. In my years as a teacher, I have seen many bilingual students progress two or three grade levels in their first year of English reading instruction. But when I am stripped of my ability to teach the way I know how, my students quickly become demoralized. I try to adhere to the directives coming from the district. To refuse to comply, after all, could have serious consequences for my school. But at the same time, I try to find some wiggle room to provide more useful instruction, which is why I felt anxious when the visitors showed up in my classroom. Would they punish me -- and my school -- for not adhering strictly to official directives?

As it turned out, their feedback was positive, and my classroom was singled out as a good example. Still, I felt angrier than ever. I believe these administrators' refusal to speak to me is emblematic of a common bureaucratic view of teachers: We are not thinking professionals with creative ideas, but, rather, problems in the making, to be kept in line through control and coercion.

So, after almost nine years working with Oakland public school students, I am looking for another job. Until now, no indignity or frustration has been bad enough to drive me out of this community -- not a 4 percent pay cut, not a crumbling portable classroom with peeling paint and no working heater, not the fourth grader who started a gang in my classroom and told me that he expects to go to jail one day. But what I am no longer willing to endure is being treated like my professional judgment is irrelevant. I cannot continue to work for administrators who do not speak to me when they visit my classroom. I don't need my colleagues and supervisors always to agree with my judgment; what I need is their acknowledgment of my well-earned right to have a point of view about the difficult and crucial work of teaching and learning.

Credit: Brian Cairns
Jennifer Corn teaches in Oakland, California. She has a degree in educational studies from Brown University, plus a teaching credential and a master's degree from Mills College. Write to letters@edutopia.org.

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