The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teacher: My student’s cat was dying. A grammar lesson wasn’t what she needed.

(Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Good teachers, as anybody who has given it more than a second of thought knows, do more than teach content material. They also serve as nurses, psychologists, counselors, parents, coaches and dietitians — and that complicates not only how they do their jobs but also efforts to evaluate their performance in the classroom.

For years now, teachers have been evaluated in part — sometimes in large part —  by students’ standardized test scores, despite assessment experts warning against using scores for such high stakes because they are not valid for that purpose. In this post, teacher Justin Parmenter explains why it’s a bad idea and how multifaceted the role teachers play really is.

Parmenter has been an educator for more than two decades. He once wrote that he started his teaching career “believing that I was going to transform every child,” just like many first-year teachers believe when they are placed in schools with a high-needs population, but he soon realized he was “in for a rude awakening.”

His first teaching job was at a school on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in the poorest county in Arizona, where young people face extraordinary challenges. Parmenter said that with support from colleagues, he learned what it really takes to help at-risk children do well at school.

He now teaches seventh-grade language arts at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte and is a fellow with Hope Street Group’s North Carolina Teacher Voice Network. He started his career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania and taught in Istanbul. He was a finalist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Teacher of the Year in 2016, and you can find him on Twitter: @JustinParmenter

This appeared in the Charlotte Observer, and I was given permission to republish it.

You think you know what teachers do. Right? Wrong.

By Justin Parmenter

Recently, before class started, I noticed one of my seventh-grade students sitting silently at her desk with tears rolling down her cheeks. When I asked her what was the matter, she told me that her cat had a tumor, and today was his last day.

I did my best to comfort her by talking with her about pets I’d had that had been like family to me. I offered to let her go for a walk in the halls to clear her mind and went out of my way to treat her with kindness and empathy for the rest of the day. She had more pressing matters on her mind than grammar.

I wondered how many other ways that scenario was playing out in other places at exactly the same time — a teacher stepping seamlessly out of the role of content instructor and into the role of counselor, coach or parent.

How many teachers were comforting a child struggling with loss, counseling an angry student bent on revenge, or working to develop confidence in a child who needed it? How much value were those teachers adding to the lives of the children they were helping?

Common sense tells us there is no way of measuring the occurrence of those scenarios or of quantifying that value. Switching hats is something that most teachers don’t even notice themselves doing. It comes with the territory that for eight to 10 hours a day, educators are constantly identifying needs of all types and devising creative ways of meeting them. Those interactions are what make being a teacher so meaningful and remind us of the tremendous impact we’re having on the lives of others.

Just because it’s common sense that the value of a teacher who doubles as nurse, counselor, coach and parent can’t be precisely determined doesn’t mean that some won’t try to do so. We’re seeing a resurgence of the idea that the worth of educators can be quantified, this time with principals as the target.

With intense lobbying from pro-business education reform organization Best NC, the General Assembly recently passed a new statewide principal pay plan billed as rewarding “exceptional school leadership,” which compensates principals in part based on student test results.

While many will see pay increases, members of the state board of education say the plan will reduce some principals’ salaries by up to 30 percent unless it is overhauled. It will also discourage principals from working at high-poverty schools where lagging test scores might lower their pay. At the classroom level, pressure to raise scores will lead to more teaching for standardized test mastery, reducing opportunities to hone the creativity, collaboration and critical thinking skills so essential to success in the modern workplace. These consequences of performance pay do not make our schools better.

There is a lot of uncertainty about where education is headed in North Carolina. We have a new state superintendent without a track record in education. We have a legislature that has stripped decision-making power from the state board and governor. As we chart the course forward, we need to remember that our work as educators is a complex human endeavor, not business transactions.

It is simply not possible to measure all the important ways educators touch the lives of the people they serve.

Are teachers professionals?