Education Opinion

Thank You Notes

By Emmet Rosenfeld — February 24, 2008 8 min read
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Teaching for the Test” came out in the Washington Post Magazine a little over a week ago, and if I ever cursed my word-count slashing editor, I’m sorry for that evil wish and now I wish her well.

There’s something about holding it in your hands. The canoe, and the article about it that took me a year to live and write. Five minutes of fame is cool, but what’s cooler still is that I told the truth. And the response has been remarkable.

Right now there are 85 emails in my inbox from readers who were moved to reply. Many are a page long and heartfelt. They are overwhelmingly supportive. Each person deserves a reply, yet instead I’ve spent my weekend catching up on a stack of papers I had to grade for interims. In lieu of individual thank you’s, I celebrate the range of comments here.

From a student: Hi Mr. Rosenfeld. I just finished reading your article, and...wow. It was amazing and really touching to me as a student. I’ve gone this entire year seeing you as one person, my teacher, but it’s nice to see that the teachers struggle too; to make the cut, and get the grade. Your article was a valuable insight to the teaching realm that has helped me understand teaching from a total different point of view, and I just wanted to thank you for that.

From a colleague: On the “burn day” Craig, the mud-carrier you mentioned in the article, was particularly eloquent as he took off time to be guide and educator to the hordes of Mt. Vernon tourists gathered around the canoe. For about 3 hours, Craig was the only TJ student on-site and he was the perfect host: knowledgeable, friendly, and patient with youngsters and oldsters alike. I still enjoy the irony of that situation, by the way, since Craig is a British citizen!... Perhaps a way to beef up your portfolio in the critical piece that you need to resubmit is to conduct a series of interviews of our former students … What about their canoe year informed their learning in the junior year about early American history? What about last year’s process of hands-on learning in a usually cerebral curriculum enriched their understanding? How did they change as learners? What did they discover about themselves in the process?

From another almost: I wanted to simply write you and thank you for your words of wisdom in your article. I too embarked on the same crazy year long journey of self-evaluation to only be told I was not good enough by thirty points. I was devastated, up to that point I had never failed at anything. Furthermore, I had worked on my National Boards with a colleague and she passed on her first try. How could that be, I taped her entries, I edited her work? But the worse feeling was that I felt as if someone was telling me I wasn’t good enough at the only thing I thought I was good at, teaching. I seriously considered leaving the profession.

I teach in Miami-Dade County in an at risk school where 80% of my students are on free lunch and are bussed in from one of the most notoriously crime ridden neighborhoods. Despite their limitations I’ve managed to make the best of it and up to that point I thought I was doing a great job. I particularly agreed with what you said, why don’t they give us some insight on why we didn’t pass? Isn’t that was good teachers do with their students? I still don’t know what I did wrong, yet I have decided to live by what I tell my students, “failure is not predetermined, it’s an option”, so I find myself right back where I was last year, video recording, writing and analyzing. Good luck to you on your retake and once again, thank you for your words of wisdom, you will never know how much they have changed this teacher’s life.

From an already: I write an education column for the Examiner, and was the first AYA Eng. Lang. Arts teacher to be certified in Fairfax County (way back in ‘99) so I have been on your road. (I also taught at TJ for 4 years when it first started.) My lowest score was in the area where I was most confident: the large group videotape of a Senior Seminar, a course I co-created which, eleven years later, is still going strong at Oakton. They just don’t have many nuances in their rubric for all the “aha” moments you’ve created with your kids. My advice is to save all the parent notes and emails, and all the student notes and emails as well. Assuming they will all fit into the allotted pages for evidence, they consider that hard evidence. It will not be hard to raise your score higher than a 1 now that you know what they view as evidence.

As you know, the county has axed the money for certified teachers, but it’s still worthwhile. There was no money connected in 1998 when I started the process, but I figured it would come sometime. Mostly I did it for the dignity connected to the title.

From a never: I do not have my National Board Certification, and I do not plan on going through the rigors of this process. Graduate school was enough for me! However, I do respect your commitment to this endeavor. (The financial gains alone are worth the sacrifice.) There were just a few things that you mentioned in your article which I felt necessitated a response. Perhaps you could even share my thoughts with some of your bloggers. Although I do support the notion of reflecting on one’s practice and its impact on students, I don’t agree with the statement in your article, “what the best teachers do that the rest don’t.” I would not assume that those with certification are always “the best teachers” nor would I assume that those without certification are are not doing what “the best teachers” are doing. Like much of education, there are those that know how to “play the game” whatever that may be.

Now, I am not saying that the process is a farce, but I am not saying that it is invaluable either. I have known teachers who passed Board Certification who don’t have good relationships with students - ie. they are far from motivational. Yet, they knew how to follow the directions. Second, I do not think that comparing yourself to others will truly establish if you are the best. I feel that I have much to learn from my colleagues, but it’s not a competition; it’s an art. Your work may look very different from mine, but they both make a contribution and stir thought and emotion. The audience may have a preference, but that doesn’t change how I view my craft. I do not measure my worth by some outside agency, and I don’t think you need to do this either. Clearly, your students are thoughtfully engaged and that alone is worthy of praise.

From a maybe someday: I am a year shy of obtaining a BA in Secondary Special Education (English Track) from Towson University and I hope that I’ll have what it takes to be certified by the National Board one day. After reading your article, I have a better understanding of what is expected of me in my career. I would also like to thank you for incorporating a part of Native American culture into your curriculum. There are so many universal teachings found when taking things back to the basics in nature. I’ve been playing/making the Native American flute for several years now and I learn something else about myself everyday. I’m glad to see that someone else has made such a strong connection by tying teaching into Native America. It inspires me to do the same with my
flutes one day.

From a lawyer: As a lawyer, I have taken the bar exam. The bar exam is a minimum competency exam, much like the state certification requirements for teachers entering their profession. In contrast, the National Board Certification is marketed as a top credential. As such, it seems reasonable to receive some feedback. If a student wrote a book report that missed the mark by 10 points, wouldn’t any decent teacher provide feedback on how the student could improve on the next assignment? Only a poor teacher would tell the student to “figure out what needs to be improved.” NBC appears to be a gimmick.

Once law students pass the bar and medical students pass their boards, they enter the marketplace. The marketplace rewards hard work, strong skills, innovation, creativity, specialization, and other attributes. Unfortunately, when teachers meet the minimum certification requirements, they enter a government bureaucracy that provides little if any
reward for similar efforts. Instead, every teacher, regardless of quality, is paid the same for years of experience. The NBC is designed to remedy this failure but it falls far short.

From an expert: I don’t know if you are familiar with our work - Understanding by Design - but it can improve your abilities on the very issue in question. The essence of our work is to help people design backward from student achievement as opposed to thinking only about wonderful teachings and activities. A number of now-certified folks have told us that our work was key in helping them think through assessment of goals, and adjustment in instruction to achieve goals.

Here’s my own take on your story (mindful of the fact that you only shared with us the facts in the article): you ended up confusing the meaning they made of the wonderful experience with actual evidence of student achievement. Nowhere did you say, if memory serves me, what the long-term intellectual goal of the project was, and how you were going to assess whether it was met or not.

In other words, like so many teachers do, you may have confused the project with the learning. Building the boat and taking pride in it was not the goal; that was the means. What, then, was the academic goal? What, then, should you have been assessing (and adjusting) en route to achieve that goal? And what should you have assessed at the end to determine how well you met the goal? Hence, what should your own reflections and thoughts about future adjustments been?

From me: Thank you!

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