Senate Bill 6 Would Have Doomed Me (from 3-18-2010)

NOTE: This piece ran while Florida Senate Bill 6, which tied teacher evaluation to student test scores (50% of your evaluation) was coming down the tracks. Florida still uses a value added measure, but at a much lower percentage of your total evaluation, and in my district, your VAM cannot overrule your classroom observation score any more.

If Senate Bill 6 had been around back near the start of my teaching career, I probably wouldn’t be teaching today, 17 years later. I’d like to think I’m worth having around.

Senate Bill 6’s proponents want to make it easier to get rid of “bad” teachers, defined as teachers who don’t improve test scores. The sponsors seem to be operating on a paradigm that children are just beautiful blank slates to be written on, or else dry sponges waiting to soak up knowledge. If they aren’t learning, then someone isn’t bothering to write on them or drench them in knowledge. They fail to realize that some slates are far from blank, are, in fact, already written all over with anti-education messages. And some sponges are downright resistant to soaking anything up at all.

Early in my teacher career, I landed a job teaching ninth grade Language Arts at a rural school. After two years of semi-employment, I was thrilled to finally have a job. The thrill wore off quickly, especially when the designated spokesperson for the ninth grade class came forward to inform me that the ninth grade class, as a group, had made one teacher either quit or get fired every year since Kindergarten, and I was next. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.)

What followed for the next few months was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. I was spit on when my back was turned. Students brought hog urine (used by hunters to throw animals off their scents) and sprinkled it around the room. They set off stink bombs. In a Godfather-like move, someone left a severed chicken head in my room. When I had a sub, my grade book was taken and thrown in a boys’ restroom toilet. My license plate was stolen off my car and thrown in a ditch. Every class period was a struggle to get through. I was sworn at across the campus by various students– every single morning. I had not done anything in particular to these students. I was just “fresh meat” to them and they were out to get me. I was nauseated every morning going to work and exhausted when I left.

I asked their eighth grade teacher how she had handled them. Her reply: “I went home every night and cried.”

“Oh,” I said. “I’m already doing that, and it doesn’t help.”

I had supportive administrators who helped me get through the year, and ten years later I was a county teacher of the year. Many of the activities that won me the award were things I invented to try to reach those students during that horrible school year. They were effective lessons, but those students didn’t care a thing about learning. They were too busy plotting the best place to put a stink bomb. With a different set of supervisors, I might have been blamed for what I now see was a horrible circumstance beyond my control. If my job had been dependent on their test scores, those students would have “Christmas-treed” (random guessed) the test just to get rid of me. Getting rid of me was their stated goal.

The people who put forth pieces of legislation like Senate Bill 6 have no idea what some teachers are dealing with, and for all their calls to have “excellent teachers” and get rid of “bad teachers,” I don’t think they would know good teaching or bad teaching if they saw it.

If I’d been a new teacher under Senate Bill 6, would I have been fired for incompetence? Probably. Would I have been fired for not raising test scores? Undoubtedly. I would have been completely at the mercy of the stink-bomb brigade. Would 17 years’ worth of students missed out by not having me as their teacher? Definitely. And would that have been a loss?

I’d certainly like to think so.