The photograph above is of my favorite tree, the Caucasian Wingnut at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Aside from having a fantastic name, this tree is (as you can see) big and beautiful. It looks like it’s been around forever, which is a quality I appreciate in trees.
If you look closely, however, you can see that this massive tree probably wouldn’t be around if the good folks at the garden weren’t supporting it. Low to the ground, stretching out to the left in this picture, one of the tree’s massive limbs is unbalanced. It only stays upright because of a small beam of wood (visible in the photograph) that one of the gardeners placed there for support.
Without the space and support it needs, this tree might survive, but it would not thrive. Certainly, it would lose that massive limb, a trauma from which it might not recover. At the botanic garden, however, this tree is given what it needs to flourish– and so it does. The garden is a good place to be a tree.
In this metaphor, the tree is not a student; it’s a teacher. Last month, I wrote a piece for The New York Times about the experience of being rated unsatisfactory. While, as I stated in that article, my school was given an “A” rating, it was an awful place to be a teacher. Teachers were micromanaged and bullied by the school’s administrators, creating an environment of tension and distrust.
Luckily, I got out of there. I now teach at a very good school. It’s good for lots of reasons, but for me the biggest difference is that the environment simply feels healthier. When I return from vacations, I’m happy to see my colleagues. In no small part, I think this is because the school’s teachers are given the space and support we need. This is a credit to the school’s administrators, who trust that we are all competent enough to do our jobs.
In this healthy environment, I am a better teacher. I’m comfortable taking risks, trying new things in the classroom, and going to my colleagues for advice and support. The lesson, it seems, is an obvious one; healthy environments breed healthy organisms. Toxic environments destroy them.
It’s no surprise, then, that programs like merit pay, designed to put teachers in competition with each other, do not improve teacher retention or student learning. These programs create unhealthy environments where self-interest and short-term success are prioritized over trust, collaboration and long-term thinking. If politicians are really serious about improving teacher quality, they’ll focus on improving our school environments and stop blaming teachers for their own failure to support our public schools.