When most folks hear the phrase “back-to-school,” their minds immediately jump to images of wide-eyed students sporting new clothes, carrying shiny notebooks, and lamenting the loss of the summer that was. There’s a buzz in the hallways as kids reunite with old friends and quickly make new ones, all while questions like whether their new teacher will like them or if they will be able to handle the next level of math anxiously flutter through their mind.
However, as a former teacher I can assure you that back-to-school anxiety is not limited to just the students. Quite the contrary, I never felt more nervous on the first day of school than I did on my first day as a teacher. Will my students listen to me? Will they laugh at me? Did I print enough copies of the syllabus? What if there are typos? What if I don’t know the answer to a question? Those questions and more bounced in my brain. With my stomach in knots, I could only take one bite of my morning bagel. And my mouth was desert dry no matter how many trips to the water fountain I made.
There is a simple reason why I was so nervous my first day—actually many days I was teaching. It’s the same reason why every teacher can identify with stories of waking up in a cold sweat during the middle of the night, thankful to realize the lesson plan they were just bombing was only a dream. Teachers, despite the common rhetoric shouting otherwise, genuinely want to be effective. Watching an ineffective teacher in action is painful for students and fellow teachers alike. But ask any teacher, current or former, and if they’re honest they will tell you that being an ineffective teacher—even if it’s just for one day or one lesson—is an even worse experience. Nobody likes the feeling of failure, and that sinking feeling is only magnified when you know a classroom full of 14-year olds are staring up at you, suffering from your failure.
This is precisely why the teaching profession should embrace accountability. That’s right, the big, bad A-word.
Accountability is a concept that typically comes with negative connotations. From an early age, humans are taught to be accountable for their actions when they make a mistake. If you break a lamp while throwing a ball in the house, there are sure to be consequences. So, I get that accountability being paired with negativity is a learned association. Nonetheless, it always vexes me when I hear teacher accountability spoken of as a bad thing, particularly by teachers.
I wholly reject the old axiom “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Being a highly effective teacher is incredibly difficult, demanding, and emotionally challenging work. It takes a unique skillset that goes beyond simply being an expert in a particular content area; just because you are a great mathematician does not ensure you would be a great teacher of mathematics.
It is because of how difficult it is to be a highly effective teacher that teacher accountability is so valuable. The very nature of my job as a ninth-grade English teacher was dependent on other teachers being able to do their job. It’s not easy during the digital age to connect with a 15-year old about Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Whitman. But if that 15-year old came to me reading at a second-grade level, the task to climb grows from a hill to a mountain.
Even within the same school, a good teacher’s impact can be greater if they are surrounded by other highly effective teachers. Cross-curricular planning and teaching can make seemingly abstract math assignments come alive in chemistry. Instead of two eyes identifying deficiencies in skills, or perhaps trouble at home, now a team of eyes monitor each student’s progress from day-to-day, week-to-week, and year-to-year. And I was never more inspired to be more creative or engaging than I was right after observing a highly effective colleague knock a lesson plan out of the park.
Further still, the importance of teacher accountability is not limited to increasing student achievement, but also for the betterment of the teaching profession. The reason the axiom “those who can’t, teach” exists in the first place is because ineffective teachers have long been allowed to continue in their careers, no improvement necessary. Not holding ineffective teachers accountable accomplishes several undesired outcomes. The first two have already been noted; it does irrevocable harm to students and makes the job of other teachers more difficult. But in a larger sense, it degrades the entire teaching profession. All the effective and highly effective teachers—those special people who touched each and every one of us somewhere along the way, giving us confidence and inspiring us to be great—become cast in a shadow of “glorified babysitter.”
Accountability shouldn’t be thought of as a form of teacher punishment. Instead it should be viewed as a way to recognize and support all the wonderful teachers inspiring our future leaders, business owners, and difference makers. It’s a way to ensure a profession as historically noble as teaching becomes so revered again.
About the author
Matt Minnick is the Regional Advocacy Associate for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He is a Teach For America alumni, joining the corps in 2007 and teaching courses in English and Public Speaking at the D.M. Therrell School of Law, Government, and Public Policy, in Atlanta, Georgia. A native Floridian, Matt attended Florida public schools from Kindergarten through 12th grade. He graduated cum laude from North Carolina State University, earning a B.A. in Media Communication with a double minor in Creative Writing and Political Science. Following his years as a teacher, Matt earned a J.D. from the Florida State University College of Law, graduating cum laude. While at Florida State, Matt won a Mock Trial championship and spent a summer working for the General Counsel of the National School Boards Association. Contact Matt at MattM@excelined.org