12 Winters Blog

Critical thinking, conservatism and a personal conundrum

Posted in October 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on October 22, 2017

I have a confession: I’ve been feeling anxious since the start of the school year. I haven’t slept especially well. I’ve had digestive issues. I developed a case of shingles. I’ve had trouble concentrating, and I’ve experienced some uncharacteristic lethargy (which I attribute to a mild bout of depression). Here’s the problem, I think: I’m a schoolteacher and I’m being evaluated this year. I don’t blame the Danielson Framework directly, but I do blame it for contributing to my anxiety.

This is my thirty-fourth year in the classroom, teaching mainly senior English classes (meanwhile I’ve also spent about twenty years teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in literature and writing — I have an MA and a Ph.D. in my subject area). Pre-Danielson, evaluations were kind of a nuisance, but all in all a positive experience. They would end with me sitting in my evaluator’s office discussing teaching strategies, underscoring things that seemed to work well and identifying an area or two where some tinkering may be in order. For twenty-plus years, I’d leave the office with an “excellent” rating, some food for thought (largely generated by my own self-reflection), and a sense of well-being because I was perceived as a valuable part of the school community. In short, I believed my evaluator was glad I was in the classroom.

Then came Charlotte Danielson and the Danielson Framework. Profit-driven school reformers and the legislators in their pockets embraced the Framework because of its proclivity to find fault with teachers. It was originally designed, after all, to be used with first-year teachers, so of course finding fault (that is, finding areas that need improvement) was one of its chief goals. It is rife with hairsplitting adjectives, adverbs and verbs that invite evaluators to select between categories (“distinguished” versus “proficient” for instance) that are separated by a razor’s edge. For example, right off the bat, in Domain One, “Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy,” evaluators are tasked with differentiating between a teacher who “displays extensive knowledge of the important concepts in the discipline and how these relate to one another and to other disciplines” (Distinguished) and a teacher who “displays solid knowledge of the important concepts in the discipline and how these relate to one another” (merely Proficient).

How does one quantitatively distinguish “extensive” from “solid” knowledge? How many whats are in an extensive understanding, and how many whats are in a solid understanding? Both teachers must show how these bits of knowledge relate to one another, but the distinguished teacher also shows how these bits relate to other disciplines. As an English teacher, I’m not sure what is meant by “other disciplines.” Under the umbrella of English are slightly smaller umbrella areas like literature, composition, and linguistics; and under each of these slightly smaller umbrellas like American literature, versus British literature, versus world literature; then we have Colonial and Native American literature, nineteenth-century literature, twentieth-century literature, and so on. Or does “other disciplines” strictly mean, from an English perspective, things like history, biology, psychology, and physical education? If one discusses character motivation in a piece of literature, is that not touching on psychology? If one discusses setting, could that not touch on history?

Then there’s the whole issue of explicit versus implicit display? How obviously must the relationship be made in order to count as being connected? And wait a second — isn’t the whole idea for the students to be making the connections themselves? Is the teacher who draws the connections explicitly doing the intellectual work for the students? Isn’t it better to lead the students to the point where they can make the connections themselves? How exactly will the evaluator be able to determine who among a hundred different souls made (or will someday make) connections thanks to a particular teacher’s efforts? Therefore, perhaps the teacher who isn’t demonstrating connections is the more distinguished teacher. Maybe Sister Charlotte has it all bass ackwards. Right? (After all, she has extremely limited classroom experience.)

Let’s toss into the chaotic mix the fact that the evaluators tasked with making these Solomon-like decisions almost certainly, statistically speaking, aren’t qualified to teach the subject themselves (they were, say, a drivers education teacher and now they’re evaluating an Advanced Placement chemistry teacher, or they were a choir teacher and now they’re evaluating an art teacher). Also, even with pop-in visits to the teacher’s classroom, they’re still only observing teachers less than 1% of the time they spend with students during the course of the school year.

Wait, you argue, teachers being evaluated under Danielson also have to provide documentation, that is, “artifacts” that demonstrate their abilities in the various Domains. When Danielson first came along six years ago (as far as my world is concerned), teachers would overwhelm their evaluators with hundreds of pages of artifacts, which still only told a tiny sliver of their story in the classroom. Understandably, evaluators weren’t able to wade through all the paperwork — to say nothing of their ability to understand it in any meaningful sort of way. (I certainly couldn’t look at a six-inch stack of handouts from the chemistry teacher or physics teacher or French teacher or P.E. teacher and be able to determine if it all meant they were Distinguished versus Proficient [versus Basic versus Unsatisfactory].)

After that initial round of Danielson-style evaluations, a lot of districts went to a slim-downed approach whereby teachers would only have to give their evaluator the bare minimum of artifactual evidence of their teaching ability. Great. But, hold on, isn’t the idea of providing artifacts designed to compensate for the copious gaps left by their evaluators observing their teaching less than 1% of the time they spend with students? The ridiculously thick binders of documentation only told a tiny portion of the teacher’s professional story, and now the big improvement is that teachers are allowed to provide a tiny portion of the tiny portion. Granted, the amount of material is much more manageable, but does it a give greater or lesser insight into the teacher’s professional skills? Yes, reading only the first few pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses is a more manageable task than reading the whole 650-page novel of dense, experimental prose — but should one be in a position of authoritatively passing judgment on the book? (Side note: Censors used to think so.)

Thousands of teachers find themselves in the anxiety-producing situation of having their livelihoods depend on the assessment of an evaluator who isn’t qualified in their subject area and who has significantly less classroom experience, who’s using an instrument designed by someone with even fewer qualifications and even less experience, mandated by legislators who have no qualifications and no experience. It’s a wonder any of us can eat or sleep at all.

Two years ago, I found myself in fairly serious trouble with my superior. The incident happened after my evaluation was completed (just). I received an “excellent” (our version of “distinguished”), but it was no sure thing; and with the shadow of the incident of two years ago still stretching its gloom over my teaching life, I have no idea what to expect this time around. It’s a complicated story and it’d probably be unwise to get into the details, but I believe it all boils down to the fact that my overarching goal as a teacher has always been to coax my students into being critical thinkers. Every day, sometimes by microscopic degrees, I’m trying to prod my students toward becoming critical thinkers, or better and better critical thinkers.

To think critically one must at one’s core question literally everything. Nothing can be sacred; that is, no subject, no person, no movement — nothing — can be beyond critical analysis. With the rise of the Alt-right and Trumpism, we have seen the most extreme conservative elements in our society emboldened. The media cover the most eye-catching examples: dramatic rallies, violent attacks, policy shifts at the state and federal levels, and so on.

But the rise of extreme conservatism filters into our everyday lives, and conservatism is antithetical to critical thinking. For conservatives, there are sacred subjects: God and guns, for example, the concept of American exceptionalism, and, perhaps most sacred of all, conservatism itself. Throughout my career I have encouraged my students to question everything — all ideas, liberal and conservative, all people and their most heartfelt opinions, including me and mine. Extreme conservatives don’t want that sort of academic environment for their children. They don’t want their children critically analyzing conservatives’ sacred subjects — and teachers who encourage such analyses are considered antagonists.

I’m sure extreme conservatives in our communities have always felt this way, but from my perspective it’s only been since the rise of the Alt-right and Trumpism that they’ve been emboldened to attack individual teachers whom they see as part of some ill-defined liberal conspiracy to indoctrinate their children with unwholesome, impure and downright dangerous thoughts. My methods, however, are not designed to imprint certain kinds of thoughts on students’ brains, liberal or otherwise, but rather to enable students to develop their own ideas based on legitimately generated data — thoughts which may run contrary to my own way of viewing the world, and that’s just fine with me. Nothing brightens my day more than a student showing me a new way of seeing things.

I am not someone who seeks out and enjoys confrontation — most teachers, I would say, are not. But I find myself in a professional and personal conundrum: Do I remain true to my overarching mission of fashioning my students into lean, mean critical-thinking machines, or do I avoid conflict by kowtowing and treating certain topics as untouchable because conservatives consider them sacred? Once those walls of untouchability are erected, their confinements spread like a cancer through the anatomy of critical thinking. In fact, critical thinking ceases to exist.

What is more, teachers in the humanities, and especially teachers of older students in the humanities, are unfairly at risk to come under attack by conservatives. Teachers in the sciences and vocational areas are not duty-bound to engage controversial subjects. Conservatives don’t concern themselves with the way geometry theorems are taught, or which method of accounting the business teacher advocates, or the proper way to apply lacquer to a freshly constructed cabinet.

Life, on the other hand, is different for English teachers. How does one teach To Kill a Mockingbird without entering into discussions of racism? Or Heart of Darkness and considerations of colonialism? Macbeth and ill-gotten political power run amok? How does one teach logical fallacies and propaganda techniques, and avoid contemporary examples related to “fake news” and “alternative facts”?

My seniors graduate to schools like Cornell, Notre Dame, DePaul, Northwestern, and University of Illinois to name a few. They are considering careers in medicine, the law, engineering, psychology. As undergraduates and graduate students they will be in direct competition with peers who have come out of academic environments immune to conservative meddling. My students’ critical-thinking skills must be as finely tuned as I am capable of making them, but in recent years I have been hamstrung with the knowledge that bringing up the wrong topic in class or allowing students to pursue certain lines of inquiry could jeopardize my career. For the material we’re studying I think of apt comparisons to current events, but hold my tongue. Before, a lively and thought-provoking discussion could have ensued. Now we quietly move on to the next page of text.

Compounding the problem is that the complexly nebulous Danielson Framework can be manipulated to find teachers to be whatever evaluators want them to be: from rock star to ne’er-do-well — it all depends on what boxes an evaluator feels like checking: Does a teacher demonstrate solid or extensive knowledge of concepts? To be clear, it’s not simply a matter of ego. What difference does it make, one might ask, whether a teacher is judged this versus that according to the Danielson rubric?

Here’s the answer: Republican legislators have been chipping away at tenure and seniority laws and at teacher unions, and they’ve been successful in Illinois and elsewhere at weakening the webwork of laws to the point where a veteran teacher could be terminated in favor of a less-experienced one if their evaluation shows them to be lacking. It’s all under the pretense of giving school boards the ability to replace old, underachieving teachers with young go-getters. But it could easily be used to replace an expensive teacher with a cheaper one, a trouble-making teacher with a more docile one, a liberally minded teacher with a more conservative one — or a gay teacher with a straight one, a teacher of color with a white one, a female with a male, a Muslim with a Christian, an agnostic with a believer.

Charlotte Danielson herself noted that the biggest problem with her own Framework is the misdirected way evaluators are applying it to their teaching staff. In fact, she recommends that her Framework not be used once a teacher has achieved a particular professional status (tenure perhaps?).

The Danielson Framework, combined with the rise of extreme conservatism have opened the door to a world where ability, experience, dedication and old-fashioned hard work can be rendered moot by a series of checks on a computer screen. This new reality is what’s been weighing on me since the start of the school year, and I know I’m not alone. My posts about the shortcomings of the Danielson Framework and how the Framework is being used in education have attracted around 200,000 readers and hundreds of comments (practically all of them in support of my views) — some posted to my blog, but others sent to me via email or Messenger, or spoken in person, because many, many teachers want to avoid the public viewing of their opinions. They are afraid of reprisals.

This has become the world in which we teach.

I have reached the end of this post. My finger, in essence, hovers over the “Publish” button. My anxiety spikes. My gut takes a turn or two. Will posting this help anyone or anything, or is it merely adding another nail to my coffin?

(Note: Stock teacher image found here.)