How long has it been since you read To Kill a Mockingbird? So dadgum good. One of my favorite scenes was Scout’s first day of school. Miss Caroline was the new teacher, and for the first day of school she wore high-heeled pumps and a red-and-white-striped dress. Scout said her crimson fingernail polish coordinated with her auburn hair and pink cheeks. According to Scout, “she looked and smelled like a peppermint drop.” Straight out of college, Miss Caroline was sure she had all the answers for teaching those sweet babies how to read.
Miss Caroline began the day by reading us a story about cats…. she seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature. Miss Caroline came to the end of the story and said, “Oh, my, wasn’t that nice?”
After reading the class a quaint story about cats, she began printing letters on the board. Much to her dismay, most of the children already knew the alphabet since most of them were in the first grade for the second or third time. The day progressively declined as Miss Caroline got into an argument with the school bully, who refused to sit down.
'Burris, go home. If you don’t I’ll call the principal,” she said. “I’ll have to report this, anyway.’
The boy snorted and slouched leisurely to the door.
Safely out of range, he turned and shouted: ‘Report and be damned to ye! Ain’t no snot-nosed slut of a school teacher ever born c’n make me do nothin!”
He waited until he was sure she was crying, then he shuffled out of the building.
How did Harper Lee so accurately capture that first day? The truth in those fictional pages. Literary honey on my tongue. I feel like every day of my first year of teaching had at least a little touch of Miss Caroline’s shattered hopes for perfection. She dressed the part, studied the part, hoped for the part. But what she hoped for versus what she experienced were, well…. spot on. And every day since - every year since - I have functioned under the assumption that I will eventually get it just right.
But here’s the thing about striving for perfection - it can be our greatest enemy.
“Satan does not tempt us to do wrong things; he tempts us in order to make us lose what God has put into us by regeneration, [namely] the possibility of being valuable to God.”1
Satan uses both good things and bad things to pull us away from God’s purpose for our lives. Example: Teachers are often tempted to “vent” about a particular child, complaining about things that are completely out of the teacher’s, and often the child’s, control. That’s a bad thing. This we know. But Satan uses good things to pull us away from God’s plan for our ministry lives as well. Example: Teachers often want to have the best data results. In and of itself, a great motive. But often Satan uses that good thing to draw us further from our God-given purpose.
Confession time: When value-added came to our district, I became a totally different teacher. A little clarification as to what value-added is:
“Value-added measures, or growth measures, are used to estimate or quantify how much of a positive (or negative) effect individual teachers have on student learning during the course of a given school year. To produce the estimates, value-added measures typically use sophisticated statistical algorithms and standardized-test results, combined with other information about students, to determine a “value-added score” for a teacher. School administrators may then use the score, usually in combination with classroom observations and other information about a teacher, to make decisions about tenure, compensation, or employment. Student growth measures are a related—but distinct—method of using student test scores to quantify academic achievement and growth, and they may also be used in the evaluation of teacher job performance.
...Value-added measures consider the test-score trajectory of the students in a given teacher’s class, at the time they arrived in the class, while also controlling for non-teacher factors, to determine whether the teacher caused the trajectory to increase, decrease, or stay the same. 2
Based on the standardized testing results, every teacher receives one of three ratings at the end of each school year - red, meaning the teacher’s students performed below the expected growth requirement, yellow meaning the teacher’s students did not perform at expected level but they’re darn close, and green, meaning you took those kids beyond expected growth level and you’re a rock star. (That’s the abridged version.) And since, unlike previous evaluation systems, this one takes into account student ability, previous knowledge, and growth projections, this is basically, a no-excuses results platform.
When value-added hit my district, I was elated. There was finally a fair and accurate mark of who was the better teacher, and I bought in. My goal, at any cost, was to be the most green value-added teacher in my department.
People! Tell me that you see how potentially, foreseeably, statistically possible it is to allow that to define you. It shouldn’t, but tell me that you don’t feel like it defines you. I’m that girl that knew I did a good job, worked my tail off, got good test results back, and I still held my breath come value-added time because value-added DEFINED. ME.
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
So picture if you will, that first week of classes after learning about the adoption of value-added in my district. Here’s me looking at my lesson plans: “Okay, that activity gives the kids an opportunity to talk through their own opinions and responses to the reading, but we don’t have time to talk. We just need to write. Scratch it. And that three minutes in the middle of class where we transition from one activity to the next so they don’t get bored - yeah, scratch that too. We don’t have time. We need to hit standard 10.4B harder. So I will add this homework to this lesson to give them more opportunity because we aren’t going to get to it in class. And why are we reading this piece on culture? The standardized test won’t cover that. I don’t have time to expose my kids to this piece just for the sake of broadening their perspective. Scratch.” Two solid years of that business right there.
The previous seventeen years I spent confident in my ability to manage a combination of state standards along with exposure to higher level thinking, activities to engage and mature the children’s minds, and empower the kids to see and share and hope. And then, BAM! Just like that, I changed. In true “hindsight is 20/20” form, I can look back now and see that my students’ test results did not waiver in the before and after of value-added. I see that in black and white. What did change was how I saw children. Instead of these beautiful beings who entered my room with emotional and educational deficits combined with personal fears and joy and a longing to be accepted, I saw them strictly as test-takers who needed to receive the information in order to regurgitate the facts come test day so that I - I - could be green value added.
Value-added can, as an isolated measurement, be a good thing. But It can also be used as the perfect tool for Satan to whisper lies into our - my - well-meaning heads. I am so ashamed to say that I spent two full years focused fully on being value-added. I neglected needs. I missed opportunities to love kids. Sure, I bought a needy kid a backpack, and I hugged kids when they seemed to need an extra dose of love. I was still kind and encouraging, but my eye was on the prize. And not in the Philippians 3:14 way.3 The devil made me do it.
For you, it may not be value-added. It could be reading levels, AP scores, common core standards, sweepstakes qualifications, or win/loss records. But if at any moment our hearts and minds are on numbers and not on kids, we are losing.
So let’s revisit the words of Oswald Chambers - the ones that jolted me into a new awareness.
“Satan does not tempt us to do wrong things; he tempts us in order to make us lose what God has put into us by regeneration, [namely] the possibility of being valuable to God.”
What has God put into us by regeneration? A heart for loving His babies, first and foremost. Compassion. Patience. And humility. So if we are falling prey to Satan's games of tempting us with our own ambition, it is quite possible that we are losing our God assignment.
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
1 My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers 2 Glossary of Education Reform 3 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)