Emily Dickinson, Demons, and the NYS Teaching Standards

Teacher EvaluationJust as teachers must define what students should know and be able to do, the NYS Teaching Standards define what teachers should know and be able to do.  Adopted by the Board of Regents in January 2011, the Teaching Standards are deceivingly simple at first glance.

  1. Knowledge of Students and Student Learning
  2. Knowledge of Content and Instructional Planning
  3. Instructional Practice
  4. Learning Environment
  5. Assessment for Student Learning
  6. Professional Responsibilities and Collaboration
  7. Professional Growth

Closer examination of the Teaching Standards document reveals a web of interrelated criteria referred to as Elements and Performance Indicators – the “what” and the “how” of the seven broad categories listed above.  The tentacles of the Teaching Standards reach far and wide, impacting the life span of an educator from pre-service until retirement, as demonstrated by this NYSED statement:

“The Standards will form the foundation for teacher evaluation through the APPR process and, as such, will inform schools and districts where to focus effort and funds on teacher induction and teacher mentoring. Areas identified during the evaluation process as needing improvement will be highlighted for teacher professional development and, through partnerships with teacher preparation, will be used to inform and modify teacher education programs as needed. The Standards are meant to be used and useful throughout a teacher’s career — preparation, induction, mentoring, evaluation, professional development and movement through a career ladder”
(NYSED, “Questions & Answers”).

Seven sleek standards now lay before us, standing at attention – a concrete testament to the reform seizing education nationwide.  The design and desire fueling the flames which forged the NYS Teaching Standards were, presumably, of noble intent. One could argue the Teaching Standards have set the profession on fire, but not necessarily in ways which spark excitement, growth, and understanding.  Emily Dickinson, poet extraordinaire, once wrote “Whenever a thing is done for the first time, it releases a little demon.” Surely Dickinson’s demons are open to conjecture, but the path of good intention is often strewn with the carnage of unintended consequences.

So what “demons” have been released since the adoption of the NYS Teaching Standards? Through my own unscientific and limited polling of educators, it is painfully evident the “growth-producing feedback” purported to be the hallmark of the Teaching Standards has yet to materialize. Although the Teaching Standards are clearly written for teachers, it is a safe bet administrators are better versed in these standards, elements, and performance indicators than the intended audience. During mandated Lead Evaluator training, they are heavily schooled in the collection of evidence and the use of the Teaching Standards rubric during observations. Ask any administrator what the Teaching Standards are and he or she will tick them off – no beats skipped – right down to specific Elements and Performance Indicators. Ask teachers the same question and the conversation quickly focuses on their “score”, the number that will be cause for celebration or soul-searching; the best practices embodied in the Teaching Standards never make an appearance.

Initiative fatigue is reaching epidemic proportions as educators struggle to keep one nostril above the water in the face of unprecedented change. They instinctively recognize the import of each area of knowledge outlined in the Teaching Standards; however, fear, lack of communication, public humiliation, –name your “demon” – are all factors preventing the rich feedback loop of professional learning and growth from taking root.

Dickinson’s words speak volumes, feel prophetic, and soothe all in the same breath. Although only twenty-four months young, the Teaching Standards are border-line geriatric in terms of academia shelf-life. Make no mistake, however; the path has been set. Will the Teaching Standards succumb to its demons or will those involved valiantly rise to the quest, much like the knights of lore, to face and conquer the seemingly unconquerable? Dickinson, anyone?

ReneeRenee M. Burnett
Coordinator – Network Team


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