Beyond the Plateau

Two days ago, I returned from my honeymoon on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. Before my trip, I never even knew there were rainforests in the U.S. The Hoh rainforest is an ecological wonder, with new trees sprouting right on top of older, “nurse” trees, creating an miracle of sustainable resources. I could have looked at the pictures all day, but I became distracted by an envelope on the kitchen table. I knew it contained the annual summer letter from my principal about our week-long summer institute scheduled for next week.

Even after a summer focused on wedding and honeymooning, I am anxious to get back to school on Monday, for what I fondly call “teacher camp.” My colleagues and I join together, tanned and rested, energized to analyze last year’s data, to newly align curriculum maps, to engage in meaningful workshops (often led by our own teachers). I’ve been at the school for seven years, and I swear each year’s institute is better than the last. Every year, the teachers at my school just seem to improve.

This shouldn’t be, according to empirical data. The 2006 Hamilton report shows that teacher effectiveness begins to plateau at year three. I’m sure that it does, in most schools– in schools with just a few excellent teachers. But if the same analysis were made in schools where a significant percentage of the staff were already labeled as measurably effective, I predict researchers would not find a plateau but an increasing curve.

From the description so far, you might think I teach high-income students in a suburban utopia or in one-of-a-kind charter. I work in a Boston Public k-8 school where I am surrounded almost exclusively by energetic, dedicated and highly-effective teachers. My colleagues get better each year. They push me to get better. I push myself to read, study, innovate, stay late or come in early because of them. It’s evident in the scores of our students and in the practice I observe in my colleagues.

Furthermore, I believe we have a higher standard for what excellence is. Because teachers at my school stay in the profession longer than the average (entering my eighth year of teaching, I am still in the lower half of the experience curve), our definition of excellence is both quantitative and qualitative. We definitely hold ourselves accountable for value-added data, even at the kindergarten level, but we also hold ourselves accountable for the skills teachers don’t learn at first, that aren’t going to come naturally in your early twenties, like how to talk to parents as partners in their children’s long-term educational goals or how to balance your own work life and home life. Yes, I consider balance of work life and home life a part of career mastery. When teachers do not learn this essential skill, they leave teaching altogether. Then three years of growth leads not to a plateau, but to a cliff with a sudden drop, because that teacher who has become effective leaves the children with zero benefit of all he has learned to do.

I work in a school where excellence is the norm among teachers. Like the rainforest I experienced this summer, we are a sustainable system where new teachers are nurtured, thrive, and become excellent mentors, but we are also too rare and too often unseen by the casual traveler. I believe it is possible to replicate the teaching conditions of my school in other urban schools. Providing incentives for the movement of whole teams of experienced, excellent teachers into the schools that need them most is our best chance at closing the achievement gap today and sustaining those gains into the future.

Guestblogger Melanie Allen, Teacher, Boston Public Schools

3 Replies to “Beyond the Plateau”

  1. It’s too bad all schools couldn’t be like yours. It sounds like an ideal environment for anyone who is truly passionate about teaching. I find it very comforting that you still seem to have so much love for your profession after 8 years.

  2. Although it is located in the outer ring of exurban Washington, DC, I have the opportunity to work in similar school culture. A core of committed collegial teachers working with administrators who are willing to share, not just delegate, responsibility can create a vibrant environment that nurtures and sustains a continuum of career educators. As a twenty-seven year veteran I’d like to think I’m one of those nurse trees–still growing alongside my younger colleagues, some of whom are my own former students. Thank you for a lovely analogy and a nuanced perspective on teacher quality retention.

  3. What you say about teachers finding a reasonable work-family balance is an important part of what will make education reform sustainable and replicable. Which school do you teach in? It sounds as if it has figured quite a few things out about helping students learn.

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