Evaluating Teachers Part 2: My Worst Year

Michelangelo had his worst sculpture.  Pavarotti had a performance in which he missed so many notes, he didn’t return to the stage for the second act.  Ted Williams had a season where he didn’t come close to his typically above .300 batting average.  Over the course of a career, even the greatest had sub-par performances.  Why should we expect more, perfection even, from the rest of us mere mortals?

We have all had bad days. We have all had the worst year in our careers. Michelangelo had his worst sculpture. Pavarotti had a performance in which he missed so many notes, he didn’t return to the stage for the second act. Ted Williams had a season where he didn’t come close to his typically above .300 batting average. Over the course of a career, even the greatest had sub-par performances. Why should we expect more, perfection even, from the rest of us mere mortals?

My own worst year teaching came in 2001. The year started fine, but over the final weekend of the winter holiday, my wife died. I returned to work in a fog of grief and despair.

My colleagues, principal, and students knew something was going on. I couldn’t hide my feelings; I have no poker face. So instead of trying to pretend as if nothing was wrong, I shared with them what had happened.

In hindsight, maybe I should have taken the rest of the year off. However, at the time, I tried to dive deep into work as a way to postpone my grief and keep all of the feelings at bay.  t the time, I thought I was maintaining. Looking back, it was clearly the worst year (so far, I hope) of my teaching career.

My lessons plans were not well designed or thought-through. My learning facilitation was half-hearted. My classroom management was tainted with the simmering anger I was feeling at what seemed to me to be the unfairness of it all.

I had curriculum ready to go from years past. But, unlike most teachers and unlike myself most years, I didn’t spend time fine tuning the lessons to meet the unique needs of that year’s students.

My heart wasn’t in my teaching, and it showed, and I dragged my feet down the hall each day.

And yet, in my mind at the time, I didn’t realize what an awful job I was doing. Quite the contrary, I felt like I was throwing myself into my work as a way to overcompensate for my grief and keep my mind distracted from my feelings.

Thinking about my friend, who is losing her job this year, and some of the comments that blog post got, I wonder if she actually could see her burnout coming. It was so clear to me, sitting as I was on the outside. However, now that I’m reflecting on my own worst year, I see how difficult it was for me to see my own short-comings. I have even more empathy for my friend, as I sit here writing right now.

Back in 2001, my kids and I muddled through, together.

I am fortunate that my worst year teaching came years before educational decision makers began using high-stakes test scores to evaluate teachers. Thinking back on that year, I can imagine with horror if my worst year teaching had occurred in Los Angeles 2010 rather than Eureka, California in 2001. 2010 was the year that the LA Times began publishing the names of teachers along with the average score their students received on the big state exam. One teacher, Rigoberto Ruelas took his own life that year, apparently inconsolable over reading about his “least effective” status in the papers. Had my worst year happened alongside Mr. Ruelas’s, I too may have been ranked at the bottom of the list.

I’m fortunate that I had already five years at my schools, with respectful relationships built with my colleagues and my principal. I had enough trust built in those relationships to be vulnerable and open about what was going on with me.  I had enough good years behind me that my principal knew that this awful year wasn’t my norm.

I’m also fortunate that my worst year occurred after I had earned tenure. Had I been working in a so-called right-to-work state, I might have been fired after this one dismal year. Had that happened, the next dozen good years in my teaching career would have never happened. I’m not saying I’m super-teacher or irreplaceable or anything; another teacher could have led my kids through the various projects we’ve enjoyed together over the years.

What I am saying is this: Take a look back through my blog. Look at the projects my kids and I have done over the years. I’m glad that my career hasn’t been judged solely on my worst year.

I’m also saying this:  In our current educational reform debates, let us not be too quick to rid ourselves of teacher tenure. Perhaps it should take more than a single test score, or two bad evaluations, or even one worst year to end a teacher’s career.

Even Ted Williams got three strikes before he was out.

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