By James Noll
I didn’t set out to write a screed against standardized testing, though I did precisely that, at great length, last month in “Two More Things Destroying the Souls of the Teachers of America: Thing One.” You can read it HERE if you missed it and if you’d like.
If I’m being honest, standardized tests, when applied correctly, can be used as valuable diagnostic tools. Don’t tell that to the politicians and educrats, though. They are to education as a turtle is to sadomasochism. (That’s a little SAT joke for you.) Even if I did explain it to them, even I sat them down with a very simple PowerPoint presentation (their favorite mode of communication), replete with cartoons, Venn Diagrams, and graphic organizers, and hammered information into them to the point that they finally, truly understood why, when, and how to use standardized tests, they’d figure out a way to mess it up.
What I do want to write about is The Great Mini-Marshmallow and Spaghetti Tower Challenge, also known as “professional development,” i.e. “How to Be a Better Teacher.” This will soon make sense.
Once, during a faculty meeting, I heard a real live adult person compare teaching to practicing medicine. After the laughter died down, this real live adult person belabored the comparison.
“Why do you think they call it medical ‘practice’?” he asked.
I wanted to say “Because they’re not good at it yet?” but I am also a real live adult person who has been yelled at too many times for saying hilarious things, so I rolled my eyes instead.
“Because they’re continually learning,” my fellow live adult person continued. “And that’s what you have to do as educators.”
Well, yeah. But teachers aren’t doctors. I mean, some doctors are teachers, obviously, but the connection between education as a profession and practicing medicine as a profession is gossamer at best. The pay differential is massive for starters. The average salary of a teacher in the USA is around $65,000. The average salary of a doctor? Nearly four times that amount. Then there are the working conditions. If a doctor tells someone to stop smoking and that person ignores the advice and eventually dies of lung cancer, nobody blames the doctor. If a teacher tells a student to get off her phone and complete an assignment, first the kid throws a fit and gets referred to Admin, who sends the kid back a minute later with her phone and a lollipop, then later the parents or guardians of the kid fire off a threatening nastygram to the teacher (“That is her PERSONAL PROPERTY!”), then the teacher gets called into the principal’s office to explain why he isn’t trying to build relationships with his students, the ultimate result being the student stays on her phone the entire year and fails the class, at which point everyone calls teachers socialists, accuses them of indoctrinating kids with science, and makes them attend some kind of half-baked professional development on how to reach difficult students.
As previously stated, I’ve been subjected to hundreds of hours of professional development. In Virginia, teachers have to clock at least 180 recertification points (or the equivalent) every five years to maintain their licenses. In the first decade of my teaching career, I often logged double that amount per year. Once, I earned over 400.
(Recently, the VDOE expanded the time between re-licensure from five to ten years. They did this because very few people want to teach anymore, so rather than make meaningful changes to the system to entice candidates to apply—like raising pay—they thought “let’s just train them less.”)
The movie The Town is a Big Heist flick starring Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner. They play best friends from South Boston who rob the gate cash at Fenway Park. Anyway, one of the counties I worked for made all of its new teachers attend something referred to as “Beef Soup For The New Teacher’s Soul.” I think it was supposed to help us, but all I remember is the first meeting when the instructor reeled out a SONY Trinitron (the Goliath of analog tube televisions) on a cart (this was before streaming) and showed us the scene from The Town where Ben Affleck’s character asks Jeremy Renner’s character to commit Assault and Battery. The scene goes like this:
Ben Affleck walks in. Jeremy Renner is watching TV.
Ben Affleck: I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we’re gonna hurt some people.
Jeremy Renner thinks for a moment.
Jeremy Renner: Whose car we gonna take?
I think it was an attempt to introduce us to the idea that we should all have each other’s backs no matter what, but I think the message got lost in the promise of violence and blood and bat-beatings.
Years later, the county instituted something called PLC meetings. For those of you not in education, PLC stands for “Professional Learning Community.” Depending on the county for which one works, PLCs are also known as CLTs (Collaborative Learning Teams), PLTs (Professional Learning Teams), CLCs (Countywide Learning Communities), PLT v.2 (Professional Learning Time), VTMs (Vertical Team Meetings), GLMs (Grade Level Meetings), SBTs (Subject Band Teams), or SLTs (School Leadership Teams). The idea behind these kinds of meetings is to provide time for small groups of teachers who teach the same thing to meet up, share lessons, strategies, classroom management ideas, and disseminate the holy grail of educrats everywhere, data.
I don’t entirely disagree with this.
Well, the data stuff, yes, I do disagree with that because of the invalid and unreliable nature of the tests. But sharing resources? Helping each other out? Giving each other ideas? All of these things are what teachers should be doing.
In fact, for the first several years of my career, my colleagues and I did this without prompting. Sometimes it was in the form of our monthly department meeting; sometimes it occurred organically. The department meetings were instrumental in the formation of my teaching skills. The veteran teachers were a wealth of knowledge and abilities, and I felt like I could go to any of them with a question or a problem and receive any number of amazing responses or solutions. This led to me doing independent work, running ideas by my co-teacher in the hallway and developing them over the course of several classes or collaborating with teachers in other departments.
That all stopped the year the county introduced PLCs.
To sell us on the idea, an administrator from Central Office came to the first faculty meeting of the year (during the work week prior to the first day of school) to sell us on what they were making us do. The opening line of his pitch was something like “Nothing great has ever been achieved by one person alone.”
He then showed us a PowerPoint presentation.
The first slide displayed an image of The Beatles. The Beatles, he explained, worked as a group to achieve their greatness. And that’s all PLCs are: working as a group to improve teaching and learning.
The next several slides broke down exactly how every meeting was supposed to be held. Teachers would be divided into teams based on grade level and subject. Each team had to meet at least once a week for no less than 45 minutes during the school day. Each teacher on the team would fulfill a role: Facilitator, Recorder, Timekeeper, or Reporter. Each team was to come up with a set of norms they had to follow and read at the beginning of each meeting. Each team had to create a SMART GOAL to achieve, and each team had to document, in detail, how each meeting took steps to achieve that goal. Minutes were to be submitted to Administration for review no later than 24 hours after each meeting. Finally, each meeting was to proceed the same way.
Which is EXACTLY how The Beatles wrote their songs.
What transpired over the next five years was nothing short of professional malfeasance. Administration used the PLC meetings as an opportunity to exercise their authority to maximum extent. Team norms that were deemed unacceptable were sent back for revision multiple times. Teams that were seen as problematic (in other words, those that didn’t fit the mold of the PowerPoint decree), or which were seen as “pushing back,” or which were comprised of “rebellious” teachers, had their meetings attended by administrators to compel compliance.
It might surprise you to read this, but my group was one of these.
Halfway through the year, all four administrators in our school showed up unannounced to one of our meetings. We tried to run it the way we’d planned, but that was derailed when we were informed that our PLC was flagged as not meeting meeting standards, and what did we think about this? I remember saying that our PLC meetings had turned into a way for them to micromanage us in a way that had nothing to do with our jobs. All four administrators denied that that was the case, then proceeded to tell us we needed to improve our meetings so that our meetings better met the standard guidelines for better meetings.
The following year, as I fulfilled my duty as the Timekeeper, I was reprimanded for telling our principal, who had once again taken over our meeting, that we were running out of time. Later that day, I received an email from him ordering me to “come to my office to discuss your behavior at the PLC meeting.” During that meeting, after I explained that I was merely doing my assigned role, and he was the one interfering with our PLC norms (the norms he made us write), he told me, “I’m the principal of this high school. I can do whatever I want.”
This brings us, naturally, to The Great Mini-Marshmallow and Spaghetti Tower Challenge.
Here’s how it unfolded.
Someone must have realized the faculty hadn’t bought into the PLCs, so they scrapped the program entirely, issued apologies for their unprofessional behavior, and gave us all $5,000 bonuses.
Again, just kidding.
To rectify the situation, Administration scheduled a two-hour faculty meeting after school on a Thursday. After spending an hour on the usual housekeeping concerns (Here’s what’s coming up on the calendar, please stand in the hallway during class changes, here’s a list of teachers who took a Friday off and aren’t they horrible people?), we were corralled into the cafeteria where we sat in front of the aforementioned bags of mini-marshmallows and boxes of spaghetti.
Some of us sat in groups. Some of us sat alone. For clarity’s sake only, I’ll call the group-prone “DORKS” and the singletons “COOL KIDS.”
“Here’s what I want you to do,” the principal said. “If you’re sitting in a group, work together to build a tower out of the marshmallows and spaghetti. If you’re sitting solo, do it alone! Go!”
The goal, of course, was to prove that, no matter how much we might disagree, people work better in groups. Based on the outcome of the marshmallow and spaghetti experiment, I suppose that is kind of true. Some of the DORKS did build towers. But so did some of the COOL KIDS.
The rest of us were not as successful.
The problem was that uncooked spaghetti tends to be dry and brittle. The off-brand quality didn’t help. We, DORKS and COOL KIDS alike, kept breaking the sticks, after which they were deemed useless. We soon ran out. Some of us started to eat the marshmallows.
I don’t remember how the whole thing ended. Maybe one of the administrators tried to shade the results as evidence that group work is superior to un-group work? Eventually, we were dismissed, leaving behind a sea of shattered food and a few listing stick-figure structures for the janitors to clean up.
For the next three years, my group continued to slog away in our PLC, never knowing when an administrator would take umbrage with the way we formatted our minutes or scold us for starting a meeting too early or ending one too late. After a while, all we did was engage in data digs of the scores from the invalid Benchmark tests we were forced to give our students, which at least allowed us to copy and paste each meeting’s minutes from one form field to the next. We never shared strategies. We never came up with interesting lessons. We never learned a thing.
No, that’s not true. I learned one thing. I learned that I’ve been misreading Joseph Heller for thirty five years. Catch-22 isn’t a satiric attack on bureaucracy. It’s an instruction manual for school administrators.
Admin must have grown tired of dealing with the “rebellious” PLC because around year four they split us up. The other teachers were assigned to PLCs that aligned with other subjects they taught. I, however, was placed with two teachers, T1 and T2, who taught two completely different grade levels. We all taught English, to be sure, but the curricula were as specific as they were incompatible. The year after that, T1 joined a different PLC, leaving just me and T2. Since T2 traveled between schools, our schedules didn’t match up, making it impossible to meet. We were told to “Meet anyway.”
If the last three years have taught us anything, it is that the teacher shortage in this country is real. While the largest issue keeping people from becoming educators is the low pay, the work conditions of the variety I describe run a tight second. It isn’t that using standardized tests is entirely wrong, and it isn’t that PLCs are a bad idea. It’s that a bureaucracy as massive as our education system, with its tin-eared leadership, propensity for punitive remediation, and retaliatory work politics will never be able to properly execute either of them.
James Noll has worked as a sandwich maker, a yogurt dispenser, a day care provider, a video store clerk, a day care provider (again), a summer camp counselor, a waiter, a prep cook, a sandwich maker (again), a line cook, a security guard, a line cook (again), a bartender, a librarian, and a teacher. Somewhere in there he played drums in punk rock bands, recorded several albums, and wrote dozens of short stories and a handful of horror, sci-fi, and post-apocalyptic novels, including Raleigh’s Prep, Tracker’s Travail, Topher’s Ton, The Hive, The Rabbit, The Jaguar & The Snake, and Mungwort. You can check him out online at silverhammer.studio.