Why not use The Golden Toilet Award to improve risk in teaching?

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By insisting we keep tenure rather than require performance reviews, we implicitly support a play-it-safe mentality. If students fail to learn, we make the argument they do not try hard enough. “If our good students do well,” we contend, “we must be doing something right.” Such behavior denies our responsibility to design teaching to meet every type of learner. We need to be willing (in fact required) to take initiatives to improve instruction, to seek and receive feedback, and to support one another when trying to change. We would be wise as a faculty to establish the Golden Toilet Award for any colleague who takes a risk to try something new then fails (an idea from Robert Evans). When we fail, we at least know we tried. If we never try, we never know if our ideas could improve learning.

At the same time, we should not be afraid to honor teachers who succeed. We can no longer pretend all teachers “are fine” and ignore those who design and implement exceptional practices. Teacher of the Year, even Teacher of the Month, misses the point, as this often becomes more political than instructional. Is there only one teacher worth citing? No, it should become common practice to acknowledge all teachers’ good work whenever it appears. Everyone wins, particularly when other teachers learn about the good work of their colleagues and make use of it. Teacher of the Week, Teacher of the Day, Teacher of the Moment—it’s a no-brainer, really.

And, why not encourage teachers to share Golden Moments, to celebrate the wonderful times that make our teaching worthwhile, such as breakthroughs with parents and students, new collaborations that open doors among colleagues, and moments when students “get it.” Such celebrations bring diversity and exploration into the school culture and move us away from feeling pressure to stay under the radar. Nobody wins when everyone stays at the bottom of the cage.

Ultimately, the crabs-in-a-cage syndrome supports a sub-culture to guarantee jobs. Although we teach in isolated classrooms, we make tacit agreements to teach from the front. We know the accepted behaviors we need to follow so no one will bother us. If we give good grades, especially to “honors” students (particularly in high-powered districts) we will please everyone and avoid complaints. Also, when we limit the number of students we send to the office, the administration will likely view us as effective teachers. In cases where teachers face difficult groups (often from the luck of the draw) administrators become annoyed when students are sent to the office and assume the teacher is doing a poor job—and often prejudge without any in-class observation or offer of help.

For more on this crucial issue see Chapter 12 “Abandon the Crabs in the Cage” in Teaching from the Middle of the Room: Inviting students to Learn from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Middle-Room-Frank-Thoms/dp/0615358918.

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