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When teachers don't make the grade

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 23, 2010 - What's the best relationship between teachers and students? Love? Admiration? Respect?

What would you do if your class were deeply involved in a creative project, like a movie or a newspaper or a play, and the principal came along and said you had to get back to basics because standardized test time was coming up?

Those were the kinds of questions that teachers in Riverview Gardens faced over the summer when they wanted to get rehired for their jobs, after the district was taken over by a state-appointed board. For years, teachers around the country have been tested in the same way by the Haberman Star Teacher program, which tries to determine who is most likely to succeed in a school environment that seems to get tougher every year.

"Districts can use it as a screener to get some idea of what undergirding ideology a teacher has," says Delia Stafford, president of the Haberman Educational Foundation based in Houston, Texas.

"There's no content on there. We can teach those things. What you can't do is find out how they will connect with kids. Do they understand at-risk education and the causes of it? What is the school's role? If you can't connect with the kids, if you don't see it as a responsibility to make sure every child has the opportunity to learn, it doesn't matter how much science and math you have."

Stafford says the decades of research done by Martin Haberman, boiled down to 50 questions on a screening test that are also the basis of a follow-up interview, have proved to be a reliable indicator of who will succeed in the classroom, dealing with students, administrators and the other pressures teachers face.

But Riverview Gardens teachers who lost their jobs when their contracts were not renewed aren't so easily convinced that the Haberman method, with its series of multiple-choice questions, is a good way to make sure students get the best school staff.

Between the questions that were asked, and the way the district handled the hiring process -- jammed into a summer where every contract, personnel and otherwise, had to be reviewed -- they feel a lot of people who had dedicated their professional lives to a difficult district were unfairly cast aside.

"I think you have to actually see a person teach to see how they teach, not take a test online or interview them," said Marianne Catalino, who taught first grade for 10 years in Riverview Gardens and was a teacher for 17 years before that.

"With some of the questions, I thought all of the answers made sense. But when you ask why you won't be hired, they won't give you any answers. In my 27 years of teaching, I've never been treated this way."

Burnout, bureaucracy and best practices

The screening test from Haberman consists of 50 multiple-choice questions, where prospective teachers are asked to choose the best of three possible answers. Because the test is proprietary, Stafford asked that the exact questions and answers not be used here, but it's easy enough to give the flavor of what is involved.

The test is designed to gauge how successful someone would be in a classroom based on 10 separate areas: persistence, organization and planning, value of student learning, theory to practice, teaching at-risk students, approach to students, survival in a bureaucracy, explaining teacher success, explaining student success and fallibility.

More specifically, it tries to measure how someone who wants to teach would relate to students. For example, several questions try to determine how the test taker feels about this question: Is the most important factor in classroom success love, respect or admiration between teacher and student?

Because the screening process is often used for districts where students are described as "at-risk," several questions deal with discipline problems and why they occur. Can they be attributed to community violence? Racism in society as a whole? Teachers who take a bad situation and make it worse?

Why do so many teachers, even those who do well, leave the classroom after just a few years? The questions try to get at the issue of burnout and how someone would deal with the inevitable bureaucratic tangles that ensnare all institutions but schools seem to have more than others.

And the main reason for schools in the first place -- academic achievement by students -- isn't ignored. Though the test doesn't try to measure how well a prospective teacher knows the subject matter at hand, whether it's Shakespeare, the sine curve or the Soviet Union, it does ask about what may be the best use of grades and the best way to get through to students.

The screening test can be taken online, at home or wherever a computer is available. Once it's scored, the applicant can move on to a personal interview, where questions are designed to elicit much of the same information in a one-on-one setting.

How well does it work? On its website, Haberman says that the system "boasts a 95 percent accuracy rate in predicting which teachers will stay and succeed and which ones will fail or quit. High success rates result from the ability of the scenario-based interview to give a clear picture of the candidate's beliefs about teaching at risk youth, and to predict how a candidate will behave on the job."


Basic ideology


Trying to figure out whether someone is cut out to be a teacher has become an important field in education, says Sam Hausfather, dean of the school of education at Maryville University. While he hasn't taken or given the Haberman test, he is familiar with its focus on urban schools and said it has been shown to be effective particularly for people who want to leave their first career to teach in urban situations.

"What we see is that people want to go into teaching for a wide variety of reasons," Hausfather said, "and it's important to make sure that people who end up in front of our children are going to treat them respectfully. Such an important part of teaching is that relationship."

Stafford says that relationship is the key to success in the classroom, and finding out whether a teacher feels the same way before going into the profession can save everyone involved a lot of heartache.

"You have to respect the children," she said. "They all come from different backgrounds. They deserve respect. I'm thinking of a student misbehaving and disrupting the class. You can't start screaming at the kid and embarrassing them in front of the class.

"We want teachers who have maturity, in that they think before they act. They're careful about what they say in front of the children. This test will tell you a lot about a person. You're going to have discipline problems. We want to know: What are you going to do about it?"

When it comes to dealing with the other side of the classroom universe, the school's administration, the Haberman test can be equally revealing, Stafford said.

"We're looking for people who realize there is a bureaucracy," she said. "That's how you can get stressed out and why you have such turnover. But if you know that it exists and what can happen, you realize you have to do more than just what is in the classroom. We want them to know what is there, so when it comes along they can know what to do. That's part of working in an adult world."


In terms of respect versus love versus admiration, Hausfather said that the terms may seem to bleed into each other, but teachers have to be careful to distinguish among them, particularly these days.

"Love is a strong term to be using for a student-teacher relationship," he said. "Being a male, and I was an elementary school teacher for almost 20 years, you have to be careful with the term love. Nowadays, it's a big deal when someone loves students inappropriately. It's almost too nebulous a term, I would think, to use in determining someone's feeling about students they are working with.

"We talk about respect. We talk about tough love. That's certainly been a term used in education a lot. We talk about understanding and appreciating students' circumstances in their lives outside of school."

Stafford used the example of someone going into a prison to teach inmates.

"Do you think they're going to love the teacher?" she asked. "Do you think you're going to love the inmates? Your job is to teach. In a school, you're there to teach the children. Love is not a prerequisite for teaching, and it's not a prerequisite for learning."

She noted that Riverview Gardens is one of more than 360 places nationwide that the Haberman method has been used, and she said the district had good reason for trying to make sure that its reconstituted staff was the best possible.

"Trust me," she said, "of all the kids that didn't learn, that didn't graduate, that did drop out, there's a reason for it. Are we blaming the kids for not making good grades? Or are we saying maybe we could have made our lessons more engaging, could have found out more about the kids, find out more about their backgrounds, find out what they are thinking.

"That might give us more ideas about how to work with them and make sure they learn. You have to say to yourself, there's more going on than what is showing up."

Hausfather said screening tests can help find the right kinds of teachers for those situations, but no one should think that 50 questions and an interview can come up with the answer every time.

"No screening device is perfect," he said. "When you're talking about dispositions, there's no test you can give that will give you an absolute answer. It's kind of like hiring for any job. People look great in an interview, but how will they do on the job?

"It's an art and a science. I know that a lot of suburban districts in St. Louis use various instruments to help in the screening process, trying to narrow that pool when they are deciding who to interview. A more wide-ranging face-to-face interview is an essential aspect of making that decision on a teacher as well."


'It's very disheartening'


But even interviews won't necessarily yield perfect results, based on the experiences of Riverview Gardens teachers who went through the Haberman process this summer and wound up with no job at all.

Because all contracts with the district were voided when the state takeover became effective July 1, Riverview Gardens had to put its hiring process into overdrive to make sure it had a staff available for the first day of school on Aug. 18.

Teachers who took the screening test, then had an interview, then found out they would not be hired, said they often were left in the dark about why the decision was made, and they felt their experience in the district had counted for little.

"I was an at-risk student myself," said John Atwell, who taught health and physical education at the district's middle school and high school for 14 years, including three years as head football coach. "That is why I went into teaching. The only reason I went to college was to play football, and within a year, I realized the importance of education and how much it was hurting that I didn't prepare myself very well.

"I struggled through undergraduate school and graduate school so I could relate to the students. This didn't come easy for me, so I thought I was the perfect fit for at-risk students. My success comes from knowing the kids and where they come from."

He said the hiring process was poorly handled from the start to the finish. He finally got the official notification that he was out of a job nearly a week after teachers reported for a convocation at the start of the year.

"For 14 years I committed to a district where a lot of people would not commit, or if they did, it was for a year, then they were out," Atwell said. "It's very disheartening. I think the interview process was just a technical way to get rid of people. It was kind of insulting. I guess I didn't communicate myself to this person well enough, but the problem was it was a very subjective part of the whole process."


Lisa Purdy, who taught fourth grade in Riverview Gardens for eight years, and in city schools for five years before that, said that she got no feedback at all during the interview process.

"There was absolutely no communication to anybody on anything," she said. "To this day, we still don't know why we weren't hired."

Purdy said she felt the test questions did not really reflect what teachers need to know and do to succeed.

"The answers were very ambiguous," she said. "You could have answered them a couple of different ways, depending on how the person was looking at the question. If you admire somebody, that usually means you love and respect them. If you respect someone, that usually means you admire them and you could love them.

"I thought I answered them all the best way they could be answered, but nobody knows how they did on it."

John Fagerlin, who taught computer applications at Westview Middle School for three years, felt a lot of the things he was asked were "no-win questions," such as what he would do if the principal told him to stop using creative lessons and concentrate on the standardized tests that were coming up.

"You're going to lose if you don't do what the principal says," Fagerlin said. "That's the way I answered on the test.

"I said if my boss comes and tells me what to do, basically I have to do it. If you're not going to do what the boss tells you, you're going to get fired. My suggestion to the kids would be, we have to get through this, and if we have time, we'll come back to what we were working on."

Staci Price, one of the people who was trained in the Haberman process to do the interviewing, said she felt the process was fair primarily because everyone involved was treated the same way, subject to the same questions and procedures. She had been trained in Haberman previously and had a one-day workshop in Kansas City before beginning the process this summer.

Price, who is now director of alternative education and of the senior academy for Riverview Gardens, said she understood how someone who was not hired back could question the method. She said those people should consult with the district's human resources department.

"I would want to sit down with human resources and ask where did I fall short," Price said, "especially if I was someone who was working with the district for a while and had pretty good evaluations."

For someone without a job, that route may come a little too late. Many of the former teachers have considered filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about how the hiring process was handled.

But with the school year already begun, and many teachers finding out so late that their contracts would not be renewed, what is normally a busy time has turned out to be idle, a time for them to ask questions that, in some ways are similar to those they were asked in the hiring process.

"We want to know why we were let go," Purdy said. "We're looking for answers. We're looking for some reason. We just don't think it was done in a respectful way. We were not treated as professionals. We always treated our students with respect, but we were not shown that in return."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.