Friday, October 14, 2016

One Exceptional Teacher, 500 Characters

A sacred – if daunting – responsibility for any professor is writing those letters of recommendation that send our students on their way to new ventures.  For my students applying for teaching positions, I try to paint a portrait, tell a story – include that detail that will make a hiring principal or department chair ask “where’s the file on that Rice student, you know the one who….”  created history lessons based on the artifacts she worked with in the slavery museum, or had his ecology students paint a “habitat” wall from sub-terranean and littoral margins to lofty tree canopy to help younger students visualize the interdependence of species, who wrote a short story featuring a hearing-impaired girl after finding so little fiction for adolescents features hearing-impaired kids as central characters, not just “best friend.”   That Rice teacher.

I’ve long ago given up on trying to “out adjective” the competition of superlatives, thus my tradition of writing a strong letter, the opening paragraph emphasizing the student’s solid grounding in his or her subject matter field, then describing our program of courses on theories of learning, education history and policy, pedagogy, curriculum development, and intensive field experiences in our city’s culturally rich and complex urban schools.  The second paragraph tells the story about this particular new teacher:  concrete detail of compelling papers written, inventive strategies developed for engaging reluctant learners, an especially creative and scholarly analytical paper. The letter concludes with my statement of why this young teacher is just right for your particular school, its programs, its relationship to its community, its students.  And of course for years that letter would be printed on Rice letterhead, good quality bond carrying the university’s seal, an endorsement both symbolic and literal:  we claim this student, this graduate, as ours.  Treat with respect.

Such a letter assumes school district officials want teachers who have a deep knowledge of their subject field.  It assumes a principal is actively seeking that math teacher experienced in designing lessons for kids who “hate math,” that English teacher who is attuned to kids’ reading interests and whose first question will be what the budget is for classroom collections of print and digital books.  It assumes someone reading the letter will want to know if this teacher knows multiple approaches to teaching and has a deep and broad repertoire of ways of assessing children’s learning.  Such a letter assumes someone thinks of teachers as intellectual resources, as role models of learning, as guides to students’ development.  

It assumes someone in the teacher recruitment office reads.   As you can guess by now, I seem to keep making these naïve assumptions --- even after all these years!

Recommendation forms went digital quite a few years ago, with boxes to check, ratings to fill in on a three- or five-point scale, with a box for “additional comments” that permitted uploading an actual letter of recommendation. No good letterhead bond, but a chance to tell this teacher’s story, include that distinctive detail.

The “all my assumptions are wrong” shock came this past spring when a former student who had recently moved back to the States from abroad asked me to recommend her for teaching positions in another part of the state.  What an easy letter to write!  She had taught in Europe and in North Africa, had founded a tri-lingual school where she taught math and history.   Her experience as teacher, school leader, and tri-lingual curriculum developer would make her the dream candidate for any urban district in Texas. The letter essentially wrote itself.

I opened the link to the rec form of the school district she was applying to, then clicked through the quick-answer questions.  Yes, yes, and yes.  Then to upload the letter:  No!  A pop-up warning said the “comments” could be only 1000 characters.  I first read that as “1000 words” and knew I was way under that limit.  Then I realized “characters” and saw the added “including spaces.”  What?  I cut, counted words, cut again, re-counted.  The resulting  listing of basic facts did not hang together as a narrative – more like incomprehensible fragments:  French? School founder? Math? Arabic? Is this all one person?  The 999 "characters" did not represent this extraordinary teacher’s accomplishments nor the strength of my endorsement.

Surely the next district’s form would allow me to be more informative. Not so:  the usual irritating check list, then that “comments” box, which I approached with trepidation – could I upload my entire letter?  “Comments limited to 500 characters, including spaces.”   The message might as well have said, “This is all a formality, but you are free to add some sound bites if it will make you feel better.  No one will read them.”  

Our teachers get blamed for everything that’s wrong with education, with “kids these days,” with poor test scores and low school ratings.    And lots of people have an interest in amplifying that blame:  the charter chains eager to pounce on any weakness in the public’s schools, vendors of “teacher-proof” curriculum software, superintendents needing scapegoats for low scores or the slow pace of their latest “reform” efforts.   The politicians wanting to break teacher unions, the chief financial officers whose short-term accounting justifies replacing experienced teachers with new, cheaper ones who won’t stay long, school board members who think of teachers as “labor costs” rather than children’s guides to learning.

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But has anyone looked at the hiring process itself?  Are districts deliberately, or thoughtlessly, screening out strong teacher applicants or perhaps filling slots with teachers whose attributes fulfill a check list of minimum qualifications as though they were workers on the assembly line? 

Does the screening and hiring process itself discourage – or fail to encompass – the teacher who is educated across multiple disciplines, whose professional preparation built on what we know about the ways children learn, who knows and advocate for authentic assessments and close connections to the children’s families and communities?

Schools that hire on the basis of check lists of minimal credentials, with no curiosity about the candidate’s story, are unlikely to seek out and value that teacher who brings to her teaching a desire to know and connect with the stories of the children.

I hate being complicit in this system, in this systemic degrading of teachers, teaching and teacher recruitment.  But I haven’t yet found an effective way to resist or protest or circumvent this 500-character “border” wall.    The rec forms provide no address or person’s name or office for sending a recommendation letter by mail or electronic means. Nor would it be likely to be incorporated into the applicant’s file.    If you have a better idea for how we can advocate for teachers who are knowledgeable, deeply committed to children, even exceptional in their talents and their desire to grow as professionals and as assets to their schools, I invite your advice.  

And limits to the number of words, characters or “spaces” do not apply.

To see exactly what kinds of questions those “check lists” ask about people applying to teach in our children’s schools, see my next post!  (Bring a tissue – you may want to cry.)

To share your thoughts, click on the word “comments” below.

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