I taught in public schools for 11 years. When I began, I had a lot to learn, and when I accepted my next role in education, as a human resources administrator, I still had a lot to learn about effective teaching.
After I completed my first year as a teacher, some of my first-graders had not completed the reading curriculum. I knew I had not done for them what they needed. With the help of the two star teachers on our grade-level team, we considered what I needed to do differently the next year. Those teachers provided me support and helped me improve my practice. We were a professional learning community before that phrase was popular.
The most important part of my job in human resources was to recruit and hire the best teachers we could find. This required that I make the science and the art of effective teaching a compelling topic of study.
Going into a classroom and watching a teacher make the magic happen is one of the most deeply satisfying experiences you can have. I had that experience just last week in one of our schools, just as I do every time I make a school visit. You can only shake your head and marvel at the skill, heart and knowledge it takes to pull it off successfully day after day.
I resist the use of the word “incentivize” when we talk about rewarding and recognizing our best teachers here in Pittsburgh. What we ask our teachers to do each day cannot be bought; they must freely give their passion and their heart. It truly is a calling.
Our work with our union and our teachers has been incredibly rewarding, and we have done some hard things together. We are at a point of disagreeing on one element of that work: How do we define proficient teaching? Eighty-five percent of our teachers already are proficient or better. And we define proficient as earning at least 50 percent of the 300 points available on the rating scale.
The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers opposes this standard as too rigorous and out of line with what other districts are doing. But our range is not a quota nor a bell curve; all teachers can and, we hope, will be proficient or above. The goal of any teacher evaluation system at the end of the day must be to improve outcomes for the students we serve.
There has been a lot of focus on the 9 percent of Pittsburgh teachers rated as “failing,” but the real effort must not just be to declare them lacking; it must be for the whole teacher corps and school administration to improve our practices. Our work in the Pittsburgh Public Schools must focus on professional growth for everyone. We all must be “all in.” We must be life-long learners and, as painful as it is, we must be ready to consider negative feedback. Being open to learn is risk-taking behavior for us as adults, just as it is each day for our students.
Are there some teachers who in spite of their best efforts should not be in classrooms? Of course there are, just as is true in any profession. I do go in some classrooms that are painful to watch. These teachers too will have the time and be offered opportunities to help them to improve their practice. Our process provides teachers this opportunity.
Our teachers and administrators have together directed our efforts toward becoming the best we can be for our children, our families and this city. We know this is necessary to help our students graduate and ensure they are ready and prepared for their next steps.
It has been a long time since I was teaching every day in a classroom. It is tougher now than it ever has been. One thing, though, has not changed: Every day in all our schools there are teachers taking on the challenge and creating a culture of learning. In some classrooms, though, teachers are struggling. Both groups need to get fair evaluations of their work and adequate support to grow.
Linda S. Lane is superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools.