Contract should help new teachers become great teachers

October 3, 2012

Ivy McDaniel

On Tuesday, the teachers of Chicago voted on the new contract that has been the focus of so much debate both in the city and nationally.  As a future teacher who will look for a job in CPS at the end of the year, I felt a tension between opposing desires during the negotiations. 

On one hand, I wanted to be in the classroom, providing students with the opportunity to learn.   On the other hand, I recognized that a strike was a powerful tool to increase resources for public education.   My students need great teachers, and the strike made me wonder - what do I need to be that great teacher?

The amount of blame I saw leveled at teachers during the strike discussions was terrifying for someone about to enter the profession.   Like our students, the teachers of Chicago feel the effects of unemployment, violence, urban depopulation, and poverty on a daily basis.  Did the responsibility of solving social inequality really fall squarely on my shoulders, as a future teacher?  Such a burden would be unbearable - which may explain why 33% of Chicago teachers leave after only one year.

I have learned in my training that a teacher must maintain high expectations of her students, regardless of their circumstances.   Likewise, I want our district to hold high expectations of me as a teacher, and hold me accountable to those expectations.  But there is another crucial lesson of my student teaching: high expectations alone are not enough.  You can't expect your students to reach great heights without a ladder.  Demanding high achievement without offering support simply leads to stress, frustration, and despair.

Many Chicago teachers are feeling that stress and frustration right now, and many flee the profession before they have the chance to become expert teachers.  I want to stay in the profession for my entire career, and have sought support to make the path more sustainable.  This includes coaching, mentoring, and other professional development from the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation and from my credential program.  But this kind of support is rare and currently unavailable to most teachers.

Our compromise contract holds some promising features.  The union fought to limit the portion of teacher evaluations based on standardized tests, as these have been shown to give greatly varying results even when examining a single teacher from year to year.  As anyone else who has received a bad grade on a paper or test with no explanation should understand, explicit feedback is more useful than an unqualified ranking.  

The compromise is an evaluation system that includes value-added scores from standardized tests, along with evaluations based on student surveys and comprehensive feedback on the teachers' performance in the classroom.  I think this system will encourage me to grow as a professional and strengthen my ability to help students learn, rather than spend my time trying to outwit a test.

(Editor’s note: In the compromise, student surveys will be piloted next year. The student surveys will only be incorporated into formal evaluations the following year upon approval by a majority of a committee of CPS and union representatives.) 

The contract resulting from the strike also tries to balance high, enforced expectations with support. The limits on class sizes were retained and additional money has been committed to reduce class sizes.  This means that I will be able to know my students and give them individualized feedback.  What's more, improved working conditions for school support staff mean that I will have more time to focus on instruction instead of trying to be a social worker for my most troubled students.  

Just as my students must put time and effort into learning their subjects, teaching is a profession that can only be learned and mastered with time and practice.  I hope that the compromise contract will give me, and other new recruits, the opportunity to stay in classes for years to come.

Ivy McDaniel is completing her teaching credential in the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago.