First Person

‘Accountability’: Reclaiming the Worst Word in Education

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Shortly after the Patriot Act had been enacted by the George W. Bush administration, Ani DiFranco opened a concert by saying, “Patriot. What the f&*% happened to that word? Just when we needed it, too.”

Most teachers feel the same way about the word “accountability.” It was always a boring and sterile word, but it has gotten worse. These days, it generally means “punishment through standardized test scores.”

But the concept the word should stand for is a crucial one. If we rephrase accountability as “doing right by our students,” it gets at the heart of our profession.

Education policy often fails because it tries to remove the human element from the most human profession imaginable. You can’t force teachers to feel true accountability to arbitrary cutoff scores on tests that seem to have been written by machines.

More importantly, you don’t need to. Teachers already feel a deep sense of accountability to the people most directly impacted by our work: parents, our colleagues, and the children who only get one shot at the grade or class we teach. Let me give you some examples.

Answering to Our Students

Teachers can lose their way at times. I lost mine just this morning.

I used to pride myself on never yelling at my students. I have come to realize, though, that what I consider “speaking sternly” sounds a lot like yelling to the 2nd graders I teach.

During the first week of school, I always teach my students how to do a “peace talk,” a simple way to resolve their own conflicts one-on-one when they hurt each other’s feelings. Today this happened:

Monique, in a very serious tone: I want to have a peace talk.

Me: OK, great! Who do you want to have a peace talk with?

Monique, pointing right at my chest: You.

Me, gobsmacked: Me?! What did I do?!

Monique: You yelled at us. I want you to quit yelling at us.

Monique, age seven, held me accountable. On the first day of school, I promised my class I would respect them. But my actions this morning didn’t match those words. I had raised my voice, and Monique didn’t hesitate to call me on it.

I try to think through each day from the point of view of a child in my class. Are they getting to move around enough? Are they making enough of their own choices? But attempts at empathy can only take you so far. There’s no substitute for finding out, in students’ own words, what your classroom is like for them.

One way to find out what students like (and don’t like) about your class is to use the "stoplight method," an exercise where the kids write down one thing they want you to stop doing, one thing they want you to start doing, and one thing they want you to keep doing.

A blog post I read this week by Oregon teacher Brett Bigham had a great reminder: “Too many teachers forget that the classroom is home to students for a good portion of their waking hours.” We have to encourage kids to keep us accountable for the way we fill those hours—including students who aren’t as bold as Monique.

Answering to Our Colleagues

We can feel the right kind of accountability to our colleagues, too. Last week, a first-year teacher on our team was glowing after getting some positive feedback from our assistant principal following a classroom walk-through. Our colleague Andy sent her a wise text:

“That’s the thing about teaching: It’s not a job where you get instantly rewarded because you did a good job. No corner office, no huge promotion, no bonus money. You know you are doing a great job when your colleagues recognize it.”

As teachers, our colleagues can be right across the hall, but they can also be scattered across the country.

For example, I didn’t do a good job last year of integrating technology into my classroom. This afternoon I sought help from a friend who teaches in Kansas, 2013 State Teacher of the Year Dyane Smokorowski. She is amazing at bringing the world to kids through technology, and she encourages them to shape that world through some mind-blowing tech tools.

A 45-minute Google Hangout with her was the best professional development in terms of learning-per-minute I have ever experienced. “Mrs. Smoke” gave me several ideas I can act on this month, ranging from Do Ink's green screen videos and images to virtual field trips through Skype in the Classroom that include conversations with experts from around the world.

But she did something else, too. Just by making time in her day to have that 45-minute conversation, she helped ensure I’d actually follow through on the ideas she shared. I feel accountable to her because I respect her expertise. When we touch base in a few weeks, I want to make sure I have something to show for the time and talent she invested in me.

Answering to Parents

Every mother or father would take a bullet for their child. They love their sons and daughters immeasurably, and they know how precious their children are in a way we can’t—especially at the start of the year, when we have only known them for a few weeks.

More affluent parents have a reputation for intervening in their children’s school experience to a fault. But the parents where I teach—many of them immigrants, most of them poor—rarely complain. In all honesty, I wish they would complain a little more. Even dedicated teachers sometimes need the nudge to make sure we’re doing right by other people’s children.

Now that my own son and daughter have started school, I realize how different things can look through a parent’s eyes. Taking away 10 minutes of recess, or failing to immediately send a child to the nurse when she has a stomachache, can seem mean-spirited or neglectful to moms and dads in a way they don’t to teachers.

Part of it is the law of numbers—teachers have 20 or 30 kids to care for, while many parents have two or three. But to moms and dads, that one child is the most important human being on Earth. It’s a perspective worth keeping in mind, especially when we’re tired or cranky at the end of a hard day.

I may not always agree with what a parent wants me to do, and I can’t accommodate every request. But it’s worth putting my actions as a teacher to the “parent test”—if that child was mine, would I be happy with the way he or she was treated?

Many parents are reluctant to offer constructive criticism. But asking them two simple questions early on—“What does your child like about school?” and “What does your child not like about school?”—can reveal problems while there’s still plenty of time in the year to address them.

Honoring the People Closest to Our Work

I love my students. We’re only two weeks into the school year, and already I’m delighted to see them every morning. Already their little faces and mannerisms make me smile, long after they have gone home for the day.

But I will never know or love them as deeply as their moms and dads do. Being accountable to parents for their children’s happiness and progress in school makes sense to me, and it goes far beyond reporting how they fared on the state test that year.

It’s hard for me to imagine a worse botch of school accountability than the systems put in place during the George W. Bush years, left largely intact during Barack Obama’s time in office, and taken to sheer lunacy by state legislatures in North Carolina and elsewhere. But those policy follies don’t discredit the notion of being accountable to those whose lives are shaped by our work.

Parents, their children, and our colleagues have the most to gain or lose from our level of skill, dedication, and professionalism. They can help us get better, and they deserve the best we can become.

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