VAMaholics Anonymous!

I am pleased to share a letter from one of my school’s excellent math teachers. Jennifer is a highly successful twenty-year educator and is one of the more conscientious and passionate teachers I have known. She is also the teacher I referred to in my recent post “To Slay A VAMpire,” when I wrote:

“I recently saw the negative effect of VAMs at my own school. I watched the blood drain from the face of one of my best teachers when I shared with her the VAM score computed by the OSDE using student test results from the 2012-2013 school year. Despite the fact that this educator had over 95 percent of her students pass the Algebra I end-of-instruction (EOI) test, her assigned VAM score was a ridiculous 2.3 on a five point scale. In short, one of my more effective and highly requested educators in my building was given a rating of “needs improvement” from the state department!”

What you are about to read is her very personal and heartfelt response. Of course, I love the fact that Jennifer has been able to turn this episode into the satirical farce. At the same time, her words provide a cautionary tale about the potential impact of these idiotic policies on the hearts and minds of our best educators—the ones who really care about their students and are intrinsically driven by a pursuit of mastery and sense of purpose.

VAMaholics Anonymous

“Hi, I’m Jennifer and I am an ineffective teacher.

It’s been three days since my last infliction of ineffectiveness on my students. I’ve looked for support groups for my disease now that I’m no longer in denial. I’m so grateful for my VAM (value added model) so that I can now deal with my inefficiencies. I know there are other ineffective teachers out there so I’m hoping to reach out to them so that we can connect and work harder to overcome our deficiencies together. We can work through the 12 steps and support each other through this process of somehow becoming effective. I feel if I can’t make these proper improvements then it will truly be in the best interest of my students to find a different profession where I can be effective.

However, to be completely honest, I already knew that I was ineffective. I knew that each year I teach about 140 students, there are always students who leave my class that I know I could have done more to reach them. Every year, I struggle with knowing that some students do not have the skills to be successful in their next class. Every year, I ask myself what I can do next year to make sure that number shrinks. Every year, I get the honor of another batch of kids to see if I can do a better job. Unfortunately, every year, I fail again. I can’t get to every child. I can’t seem to get every child to put all the Algebra pieces together. I can’t seem to make every child to see the beauty in mathematics the way that I do. So I guess I’ve always known it. I just didn’t have that beautiful VAM score to validate that feeling. Now I do.

Now the issue becomes where to go from here. The time of living in denial is over. I want to become better. The question is, “How do I do that?” I could collaborate with other teachers that I know are very good at what they do. I could observe the things they do in their classrooms and try to implement some of their ideas. I could work with them to develop curriculum or talk with them regularly about different ways to present the material we are covering. I’ve always been told that the best teachers are thieves. They steal the best ideas from those they see with success. But wait, I’ve already done this…a lot!!!

Ok, let me try something different then. What about investing time in learning the latest and greatest in technology to use in my classroom. This is quite a feat considering the fast pace of technology. It seems as soon as I master one technology tool it becomes obsolete and it’s time to master the next one. Technology is constantly changing and there are so many options it is overwhelming to know which tools to focus on. This is again when it is vital to look to other successful teachers to see what they use and collaborate on what is the best use of time in the classroom. But wait, I do this too. This is probably where I am the weakest, but it is still something I work on constantly.

So what else could I do? I could work harder to connect with the kids so that they enjoy my class and want to be there. I could give more of myself to the kids so that they know how much I care about them. I want them to know that they are valued and worthy of everything the world has to offer. I want them to understand their place in the world. After all, there is no doubt in my mind that each child has a unique purpose. If they don’t fulfill their purpose, then great things will not be accomplished because it was their job to do. I could do a better job of sharing my love of mathematics and how math is all around us if we just know where to look. But, I also teach them that even if their aptitude is not in mathematics, they still have a unique and special purpose that no one can take from them. They were created perfectly to fulfill their purpose so the aptitude in mathematics is a weakness. I teach them that when we discover where our weaknesses are, then we learn about hard work to overcome them. So now, this is just getting weird because this is actually one of my strengths. This is reason that I love teaching!!

The connection with the kids is my life and breath. It’s why I’m still in the classroom doing the exact same thing now that I was doing at 22 (many years ago). I really believe that teaching is my purpose…why I was put on this planet. This is why getting this ineffective score is so difficult to deal with. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life…at least not yet.

I suppose I could do a better job of communicating with parents. I could work harder at developing relationships with the parents to that we would have a team working together to ensure the success of the child. I could spend more time researching best practices in the classroom. I could spend more time writing grants to see if I could get more money to spend on the latest and greatest of tools in the classroom. I could spend more of my summer getting professional development to make the next year even more successful. I guess are lots of things I could be doing to become that effective teacher.

Wow! It’s depressing. Looking at this list, I realize there is so much more I could be doing so that I could get that “effective teacher” score.

However, the list above is not what I’m concerned about. It’s each of my individual students. Do they leave my classroom knowing they are valued? Do they leave my classroom with the skills to be successful in the next class? If not, did I enroll them in the right class so that the next teacher can teach them in a way that I couldn’t? Did they feel like they had a teacher who loved her subject matter, but loved them more? Did I get them the “pass” score that is necessary so they can graduate from high school?

Unfortunately, not every student will or can say “yes” to the above questions so I know I’m still ineffective. Any teacher would tell you that if you don’t reach 100% of your kids then you still have work to do. In a way, it’s like Jesus who worried about the one lost lamb. Even if we have reached the other 99, we will worry about the one we didn’t. I recently had a parent anonymously reprimand me because she believed that I did not value her daughter because she was not good at math. Instead, the daughter was a gifted writer. I cannot tell you how that affected me, not necessarily because of being admonished but because I wondered how in the world did a child get through my class believing that to be true. I don’t believe that for even one second. I believe that every child has their own gifts and talents. I have four children of my own. They could not be more different…and they don’t all love math as I do!! As stated before, those gifts will be different for every child based on what their purpose is on this earth. So I beat myself up for not communicating that well enough to this child whoever she might be. What should I have said or not said so that she would know her value better? The success and value of a child is what I want to concentrate on.

Therefore, this will continue to be the focus of my teachingI have great support where I teach to continue to make this my focus. I am lucky enough to have a principal that REALLY GETS IT. I’m grateful for this and for the continued support from my fabulous colleagues, parents and, of course, the students. My prayer is that this unbelievably ridiculous legislation is gone before it discourages too many teachers out there who are great at what they do regardless of a preposterous VAM score.

I encourage the teachers reading this to continue on in their purpose of teaching. Listen to those that matter and be willing to hear even the hard stuff. Understand that we never arrive and must constantly be working to get better. Celebrate victories so that you don’t get discouraged and most of all continue to love children. Thank you to all the teachers that have invested in my kids and to all the teachers that continue to invest in our future.”

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