First Person

Measuring My Value

I came to teaching more than eight years ago by way of the law — having graduated from Fordham Law School in 1992. So I knew full well how intricate, malleable and unreliable evidence could be. When the New York City Teacher Data Reports came out and were touted as measuring my “value” as a teacher, I was deeply annoyed. Invalid, inaccurate and irrelevant, these data were no more useful in proving or disproving teacher value than the temperature on a single day could prove or disprove global warming. It’s not that I don’t think I’m a good teacher, I do. I simply measure it in ways that cannot be captured on a test. My reaction came as a surprise to some of my family, friends and co-workers because I was ranked in the 99th percentile.

As the first notes of congratulations began to arrive in my inbox, I understood that people meant well, yet I felt annoyed that anybody would and could delve into my professional life. Notably, I also felt grateful that my numbers would not force me to ashamedly try to explain them away. I was keenly aware that the rope that would have me swinging back and forth in jubilation could just as easily have been wrapped around my neck in humiliation. I felt sickened by the numbers next to the names of my colleagues who I know to be hardworking. I wrote back to those who sent their well wishes, disavowing the data and explaining that the so called “evidence” meant nothing because it could not measure that which makes a teacher valuable.

Now in my ninth year in the classroom, I understand the art of teaching, that is, those things not measurable by multiple-choice questions or by assessors armed with clipboards and checklists who believe the breadth and depth of learning in my room is revealed by the freshness of my bulletin board or the sheer quantity of newsprint hanging from my walls. I could teach in a hut with a dirt floor and be an excellent teacher because what makes me excellent is, in large part, an unquantifiable aesthetic that cannot be captured by a mathematical procedure. Inspiring students, giving them something to think about long after the school day is over, pushing and poking them to be their best selves, nurturing wisdom, stimulating passionate efforts, assisting discovery, facilitating connections, determining when to lead, guide or let go — these things cannot be found using an algorithm.

Armed with this belief about teaching and the positive responses of those I loved and valued, I reached out to other teachers in the 99th percentile to see if they felt the same. Many of them did and a group of us have signed a statement renouncing the data’s usefulness and publication.

Still for all the motivating anger I felt, I also felt demoralized and quite simply sad. The data had no power to prove my worth, yet, since it was being used for political purposes and to misinform the public, the data did have the power to make me feel worthless. And that is when a very unlikely visitor reminded me of the true value that I add to my students’ lives.

A wonderful hallmark of my brief teaching career has been a constant flow of former students who come back to visit me. I can always count on the previous year’s crop to return but last week a student whom I hadn’t seen since my first year came by.  Lena was the type of student a teacher could never forget and not for any positive reasons. She presented a world of problems at a time when I had the fewest skills to deal with them.  She was angry, oppositional, violent and absent a lot. She was the first student to call me a “bitch.” Once she was so mad about something, she put her fist through a glass partition at school. Another time, she and a fellow student got into a fight, which led to a suspension after she hit a police officer who had tried to break it up. And since teaching can generate wildly conflicting emotions, it should come as no surprise that I had loved this girl, prayed for this girl and had also been downright grateful when this girl was not in attendance.

I wondered if my face betrayed all these emotions when I saw her standing in my doorway. She was a bit taller and fuller in the face but otherwise unchanged. We exchanged a long, strong hug in front of my current students. I felt like crying as I thought to myself, “She’s still alive” (something I had wondered about many times over the years). She said she had business nearby but couldn’t miss her chance to see her “favorite teacher.” It was the use of that phrase that filled my eyes with tears. A veteran teacher once said to me, “All you can do is plant seeds. You may never know whether or not they grow.” Her words manifested themselves before me as I looked at this “seed” I had been uncertain would grow. Lena is going to school to become a dental hygienist. She has a 3-year-old daughter and reported that overall things are going well for her. I know there is more to her story that she chose not to share. I know her life is not perfect but still she was alive and working toward a stable future and quite frankly that is more than I had expected. On top of that, to have her call me her “favorite teacher,” well — that was unbelievable given how incompetent I was my first year, how troublesome she had been, and how often we butted heads. We spoke a bit longer and before she left, I tried to hug her long enough to last awhile, as if the strength of my embrace could shield her from trouble. I want so many good things for her.

After Lena had gone, I turned to my current group and said, “Teachers don’t get paid a lot, but when students come back to visit it’s like getting an extra paycheck. I want you to remember that when you are walking by this school one day. Come up to see me; it does my heart good. And to have Lena say that I was her ‘favorite teacher’ — well, that is why I work so hard, because 30 years from now when you have your own children and see me on the subway, I want you to say, ‘You see that woman. She was the best teacher I ever had.'” And as I stood there before my students, having made this confession, generous voice after generous voice said, “I’ll come back to see you, Mrs. Whitehouse.” For a little while, we were all a bit verklempt, me most of all for having been shown my true value.

Figure out a way to put that in an algorithm and perhaps I will accept it as providing some relevant evidence about the value I add to a classroom. Until then, keep your 99th-percentile rating. I prefer a letter of recommendation from one of my students.

Maribeth Whitehouse is a special education teacher at IS 190 in the Bronx. She is in her ninth year of teaching eighth grade.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.