Teaching Success: Bouncing back from ‘ineffective’ (Big Rapids Pioneer)

Ex-teacher shares circumstances that prompted her to leave the classroom

Katie Tomczyk gave her all in her first year of teaching, loving the chance to make a difference in students’ lives.

Five years later, that passion was gone. So she quit.

“I saw the effort and commitment in other teachers,” said Tomczyk, 29, a Big Rapids native who now lives in Traverse City. “I said ‘I’m not there, and (the students) deserve the best. If I can’t give them the best, I shouldn’t be teaching.’”

After leaving her Big Rapids Middle School classroom behind at the end of the 2011-12 school year, Tomczyk has spent the past year teaching fitness classes in Traverse City. Her love for students has led her to a support staff position assisting a girl with Down syndrome at The Children’s House, a Montessori school in Traverse City, for the 2013-14 school year.

“I took a break, but I’m coming back,” Tomczyk said, noting the various phases of her career path, from a charter school to an ISD-run program to traditional public school and now a Montessori school. “I value making a difference in the students’ lives and trying to get to know kids individually.”

Teaching SuccessCircumstances in Tomczyk’s personal life diminished her passion for teaching and led her away from the profession before she was dismissed for being “ineffective.” In 2011, Michigan reformed its teacher tenure law to make it easier to remove low-performing teachers from the classroom.

Teachers with the least seniority are no longer the first laid off; instead, the teachers with lower evaluations are the first let go. The length of time it takes teachers to qualify for tenure was increased from four years to five years, although a teacher who is rated “highly effective” for three years can achieve tenure status more quickly.

Once teachers have earned tenure, they still must be evaluated as “effective” in order to keep that status. Three consecutive years of “ineffective” ratings are grounds for termination, and the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness has recommended that timeline be shortened to two consecutive “ineffective” ratings.

Tim Webster, superintendent of Reed City Area Public Schools, said the higher standards for tenure and higher-stakes evaluations have teachers more focused on improvement.

“When you sit them down to talk about some things (they’re) having trouble with, I think the teachers are listening much more closely than they’ve ever listened before,” said Webster, who served as Reed City Middle School principal for 17 years before accepting a new role as superintendent for the 2013-14 school year. “They know the new process is out there, and as a result, they’re very willing to work. We definitely have the attention of the teachers, who, I suppose, in the past could have said ‘I’m at least average or better, so it’s really going to be hard for them to get rid of me.’”

Teaching through adversity

Tomczyk’s evaluations reflected a slip in her performance, and she voluntarily made the decision to quit teaching rather than coast along in the profession.

She graduated from Big Rapids High School in 2002 and went on to earn a degree in learning disabilities from Hope College in 2006. In her summers during college, Tomczyk worked at SpringHill Camp in Evart as a counselor for children with and without disabilities. Her experiences there solidified her decision to go into teaching.

“I liked the blend of working with children with and without disabilities,” she said, noting the benefits of working outdoors and engaging children in hands-on activities. “I think it promoted that we all have different strengths and weaknesses and can support each other. By the end of the week at camp, I could see the campers growing in character and understanding.”

CLASS TIME: Riverview Elementary School students work on a coloring activity. Teachers who cannot form a personal connection with their students will struggle to be rated “effective.” (Pioneer photo/Lauren Fitch)
CLASS TIME: Riverview Elementary School students work on a coloring activity. Teachers who cannot form a personal connection with their students will struggle to be rated “effective.” (Pioneer photo/Lauren Fitch)

After earning her degree, Tomczyk was hired at Crossroads Charter Academy in 2006, where she taught for one school year. She then spent three years teaching at the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District Education Center, working with a class of fewer than 12 students with severe cognitive impairments. Big Rapids Public Schools hired Tomczyk to teach at the middle school in 2010, where she stayed for two years as a sixth-grade resource room teacher.

“Being a teacher is a lifestyle. … You should go in every morning like ‘Wow, I get to work with kids. I have an impact on their lives.’ If you don’t get nervous about that, then I don’t think you should be a teacher,” she said. “When I got my first teaching job at the charter school, I made that my life. I spent every Saturday morning planning my lessons. I loved it. That was my favorite year of teaching.”

While Tomczyk would have been happy to continue teaching at Crossroads after that first year, events in her life beyond the classroom prompted her to move on.

Her boyfriend of five years, Brian, had brain cancer. The MOISD offered better health benefits than the charter school, so Tomczyk sought a job there. She and Brian were married in June 2008, and he passed away that November.

Tomczyk struggled to teach through her grief.

“I believe Brian’s care added to my fervor and energy to pour out to students,” Tomczyk said. “A couple years after Brian died, a job opened at BRMS. I thought it would be a good opportunity to do what I went to college for. … I loved the community, I loved the kids. I wanted to be a good teacher, and I was getting paid good money. I felt some hesitation about teaching, but I figured it was my first year in that setting, so I should try a second year.”

But as her second year at BRMS wore on, Tomczyk realized teaching didn’t make her happy anymore. Seeing other teachers who were dedicated to their jobs made her feel guilty, and she began to withdraw from her co-workers and put minimal effort into lesson planning.

At Crossroads, Tomczyk received high ratings, and her “effective” performance continued at the MOISD Education Center. At BRMS, Tomczyk started to struggle, and principal Lenore Weaver gave her an “ineffective” review after her first observation during Tomczyk’s second year teaching there.

Tomczyk respected Weaver’s honesty and compassion during tough conversations about her sub-par lessons.

“She was very compassionate with me, saying ‘I see your heart, I see that you care. But something else is going on.’ She always was able to tell me the good and the bad together,” Tomczyk said. “It was embarrassing for me, and it was hard. But I also respect her because I thought it was good that she was holding me to that higher standard. I could have put more time and effort into planning.”

Individualized Development Plans

All six districts in the MOISD rated more than 95 percent of their teachers “highly effective” or “effective” in the 2011-12 school year, the most recent data available.

For the small percentage of teachers who fall into the “minimally effective” or “ineffective” range, there are several steps administrators must take to give the teachers time to improve. By 2015-16, Michigan schools will begin to classify teachers as “professional,” “provisional” or “ineffective” instead of the current four-tier system.

Low-ranking teachers are put on an Individualized Development Plan (IDP), which offers specific steps to improve areas of weakness and sets a timeline for when results should be evident. The plan includes expectations for the teacher as well as the administrator.

“To be rated ‘minimally effective’ or ‘ineffective,’ there’s some significant deficiencies that are affecting children’s learning,” Webster said. “A lot of times administrators want to be nice, and they don’t want to tell anybody, ‘You’re not doing a good job.’ But then you’ve got 100 kids who see that teacher, who aren’t getting the education they should get.”

Principals identify areas of weakness in a teacher’s instruction through observations required as part of teacher evaluations. It is important for principals to have concrete evidence of deficiencies when discussing them with teachers, Webster said. He also involves union representatives in constructing an IDP for a teacher. Part of the 2011 reform to Michigan’s teacher tenure laws was that unions no longer can bargain around the requirements for teacher evaluations.

“The union people are there to support their teachers,” Webster said. “In my opinion, the union is there to make sure teachers get a fair shake. So when I do an IDP, I invite them in to help me.”

Grading the teachers
Michigan teachers are given a rating based on their annual evaluations, which include classroom observations completed by the principal and student growth data. The ratings teachers can receive are: “highly effective,” “effective,” “minimally effective” and “ineffective.”
Each local school district decides the factors that will be included in teacher evaluations and the criteria attached to each rating. Michigan is moving toward a statewide evaluation system that will provide common evaluation criteria, based on a recommendation from the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness.
The MCEE suggested teachers be rated as “professional,” “provisional” or “ineffective.” The council believes the three-tier system will improve accuracy in rating teachers and encourages all teachers to continue to improve, rather than becoming complacent as “highly effective.”

One school year is the typical time frame for a teacher to fix problems raised in the IDP. Depending on which area a teacher is struggling with, there may be more urgency to show improvement.

“The most significant thing is classroom management,” Webster said. “If a teacher can’t manage a classroom, it doesn’t matter if they can do all the rest of that stuff. Even if you know your curriculum, even if you design great lessons, you’re on time to work every day, you dress nicely – but if you can’t manage your classroom and get the kids cooperating with you, then you can’t teach them anything.”

Education is a complex process to evaluate because so much of it hinges on the relationship between a teacher and the students, Webster said, advocating that some people have a natural ability to teach. Those without that ability can improve to a certain point, he said, but they are unlikely to reach “highly effective” status.

“There are people who are born to teach,” he said. “It’s the building relationships with kids, connecting with kids and making them feel important. If you don’t have the ability to do that, you won’t be a good teacher. And you can’t teach that. When you get to ‘minimally effective’ and ‘ineffective,’ those are the ones who don’t get the student connection part. Then there’s a lot of people in the middle.”

To reflect the importance of classroom management and student-teacher relationships, RCAPS recently reformatted its teacher evaluation system. Classroom management now carries the most weight in the evaluation, 32 percent, followed by student growth accounting for 25 percent, planning and preparation with 16 percent, instruction with 16 percent and professionalism at 11 percent.

RCAPS teachers receive an overall score with their evaluation, and all the teachers who score in a certain range will be rated “professional,” “provisional” or “ineffective.” Layoffs will be based on seniority starting at the lowest classification, which will give teachers more security than the district’s previous system did, Webster said.

“Now, if an administrator says a teacher is bad, that’s not even something to argue about,” Webster said, noting it was much more difficult for an administrator to prove a teacher was not performing well before the teacher tenure reform. “If the teacher disagrees with the evaluation … and they want to fight it, the teacher now has to prove the administrator is being arbitrary or capricious.”

“It used to be harder to get rid of bad teachers. Now it’s easier, and hopefully administrators don’t abuse that,” he added.

This is the second installment in a five-part series discussing the different aspects of successful teaching and how to identify and reward great teachers. This series took third place for best news enterprise reporting in the 2014 Michigan Press Association awards. 

Other parts of the series included: how to recognize A+ teachers and measure their success; whether merit pay is an effective way to motivate teachers; a panel of educators discussing issues related to reform of teacher tenure system and teacher evaluations; and a look at what teacher prep programs and principals say is the best way to prepare new teachers.

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