Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Transferring Teachers

Imagine this:
  • You are a progressive and innovative teacher who engages students.
  • You have worked hard to become very knowledgeable about how children learn and in order to meet all of their needs, you understand that you can't pretend that all students have the same needs.
  • You have shifted away from believing that curriculum is something that is designed, laminated and mailed to the school by distant authorities to believing that curriculum is something that is co-constructed and negotiated between teachers and students in the classroom.
  • Rather than doing things to students to get short-term compliance, you work with them to nurture long term engagement. 
  • Your classroom is grounded in a culture of learning -- not a culture of testsandgrades.
  • You understand that real learning can not be reduced to numbers, so you have substituted grades with informative feedback that allows the students to see what they've done well and what they can do to improve. Even though the most important things may not be quantifiable, they can always be observed and described.
  • You understand that sixty years of research tells us that we don't internalize knowledge by simply being told to do so. Real learning is constructed from the inside while interacting with others, and that's why your students spend most of their class time on project-based-learning and performance assessments that are collected in learning portfolios.
Now imagine this:
  • You are approached by your grade-level or subject department head or a teaching colleague and they are concerned that you are not giving the same worksheets, textbook assignments, quizzes and multiple choice tests on the same days in the same manner as the rest of the school or school division.
  • You are "asked" to meet with your administration and they are concerned that you are not a "team player" and that you are not "collaborating" with your Professional Learning Committee
  • You explain in detail how and why you are doing things differently. You show how your teaching is grounded in evidence and research, and that you are getting results via student engagement.
  • You are told by your principal that your teaching assignment is changing next year. Instead of teaching courses that match your expertise and passion, you are teaching something that you have little to no expertise or passion. 
  • A year later, your administration observes that for some reason you appear unhappy so they suggest you transfer. When you hesitate at the "offer", your administration reminds you that you really don't have a say in a transfer.
Are there good and bad teachers? Yes. But let's not pretend we can agree on who is good and who is bad. There is no agreement on what constitutes good teaching.

Some people complain that it's nearly impossible to get rid of bad teachers, and there might be some truth to it -- but I find it sadly ironic that too often we treat good teachers so poorly that they leave. If we talked about making good teachers even half as much as we talk about firing bad ones, we would probably get somewhere.

Keep in mind that the tactics used in the example above by administration can be used on any teacher regardless of their quality. Transferring a teacher like this can have two goals:
1. This is an effective way of getting rid of lazy, incompetent teachers who refuse to engage competently and professionally with students, parents, colleagues and administrators (of course, it doesn't actually get rid of them, it just makes them someone else's problem) -- but it can also be an effective way of getting rid of outspoken teachers who refuse to mindlessly comply with every top-down, drive-by directive dispensed by distant authorities who are as geographically distanced from the classroom as they are pedagogically.
2. By making an example of these teachers, administration can keep other teachers compliant.
Sometimes transfers are a breath of fresh air that allows a teacher to re-energize. But sometimes the threat of a transfer can be an instrument of control between the powerful and powerless -- that's why sometimes teacher transfers have less to do with learning and teaching and more to do with compliance, punishment and power.

Innovation can be intimidating because it often involves ambiguity and change -- but ambiguity and change can often challenge competence which is why some of the most competent people can sometimes be the largest obstacles to change.

It takes courageous leadership to empower teachers to engage students in progressive and alternative ways, but that means we have to stop using the threat of a transfer over teachers to merely get them to do whatever we want. Changing and improving school will only happen if the people most responsible for implementing changes are actively engaged in the process.

Giving teacher's permission to make school different and better is not the same as telling teachers to just do what they are told, and you can't expect teachers to be innovative and progressive as long as the threat of a transfer looms over them like a guillotine.

The problem with getting teachers used to simply doing what they are told is that they might get used to doing only what they are told.

If teachers resign themselves to being nothing more than agents of the state for delivering top-down mandated, prefabricated, content-bloated, scripted curriculums then it makes sense to do whatever it takes to manipulate, bribe, threaten, bully, harass kids into doing whatever it is we want them to do. If this is our perspective, then as long as the kids do what we want, even begrudgingly, we consider compliance our mandate. And if this is how we want to treat children, then I guess it makes sense to treat teachers this way too.


...if teachers see their responsibility as engaging every learner in a personalized journey in discovering and constructing their passion, we come to see authentic engagement as infinitely more important than compliance. And if this is how we want to treat children, then I guess it makes sense to treat teachers this way, too.

Ultimately the best teachers come to see school not as something done to kids, but something done by them and with them. Likewise, the best administrators and even policy-makers see school reform not as something done to teachers, but something done by them and with them.


  1. Hi Joe,

    Your post resonated with so many of the thoughts going on in my head! I have recently encountered this idea that going 'above and beyond' accentuates an imbalance among the school team, and it has been suggested that I simply follow along with the majority. For example, while writing comments for social studies is not "required" for progress reports, I filled the box with meaningful feedback for both students and parents. However, when they lined up in comparison with the core comments [i.e. Language], they were perceived as being 'too much', and I was asked to remove them. The reasoning: it is unprofessional practice to 'out number' the comments that others had written. As I recent permanent hire, I obliged and recorded only check marks for 'progressing well'. I am, however, struggling with this internally -- since when has good enough ever been 'good enough' for our students? I don't want good enough from them -- I want them working hard to achieve their best, whatever that is based on their individual needs and interests. I know I am seen as progressive in my teaching practice, but I do what I do to engage and differentiate for the needs of my students. Don't they deserve the best from us? Standing out in the crowd can be uncomfortable, and you're not always well liked for being different than the majority, but I'm OK with that. I'm struggling with the balance between being seen as a collaborative and supportive member of the school team, and my personal desire to give the most of myself for my students -- that means, I'm going to give them feedback in whatever length or detail, regardless of the standard, because it's what I know is best for them.

    What advice might you offer? I know I can always count on the support of my PLN!


  2. Hey Joe!

    I think you stole the "Imagine This" scenario right out of the last few years I was teaching. It fits it perfectly. The only difference was, I quit, tried a charter school for a year, and quit teaching altogether. It was too painful, too menacing, and too egalitarian to stay.

    Michelle, hold out as long as you can. I did too.

    Somewhere, someone will get where we're coming from. Unfortunately, at least in the U.S., it's going to get worse before it gets better. Get ready for the implosion of public education.


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