March Issue
March 01, 2015

First Person: Am I a teacher or a technician?

Author: Matt Rozell
Source: NYSUT United
Matt Rozell

The following is an excerpt. To read the entire essay, visit

I opened the newspaper when I got home from work and the governor of New York's State of the State address was dissected on the front page — "Teachers, taxes, wages targeted: Governor calls teacher evaluations 'baloney.'"

Now I understand the headline is an editorial decision, but it doesn't make you feel too good to come home from a day of nurturing, guiding and mentoring young people to feel like your back is in the cross-hairs of the most powerful man in the state. But, unfortunately, I'm getting used to it.

The photo that accompanied the article is a "classic." Our governor strikes a pose not unlike a Roman orator of old. There is a certain irony in that, I think to myself.

Then I realize I know the photographer — he has, in fact, come to my upstate school and into my own classroom to photograph a lesson that would go on to change the world. He came to see me.

Me. A lowly public school teacher, one of 600,000 in this state.

"While Washington fights and gridlocks, we find compromise and move forward … their politics divide, and our politics unite." — Gov. Andrew Cuomo, State of the State, Jan. 21

When it comes to the state overseeing the education of our youth, that is just not the case. Respectfully, it's more like divide and conquer. Accept and funnel the dollars from Washington, siphon off the sustenance of the upstate youth to parts elsewhere, and sub out contracts to multi-national corporations. Hold the money high in the air. Pit one district, one region, against the other.

"Last year we said if a school didn't complete a teacher evaluation system, they wouldn't get state funding — the excess funding. Lo and behold, 100 percent of the teachers now have a teacher evaluation system; 100 percent of the schools adopted a teacher evaluation system. That's the good news — we have teacher evaluation systems for every school in the system. The bad news is they are baloney."

Excess funding? Upstate schools have been stripped by Albany for more years than I can count. I teach in a high-needs community, the same community that raised me. I've been here, in this school, on one side of the desk or the other for 46 years of my life. In that time I have seen many changes, but few for the better, in the economic and social sense, in the decades we have been held hostage to Albany politics. Just listen to any local superintendent. Please.

"To reduce the overtesting of students, we will eliminate local exams and base 50 percent of the evaluation on state exams."

The governor is upset because too many teachers are rated 'effective' or even 'highly effective' under a system that has been in place for only a year, a system that tries to be one-solution-fits-all, and is, frankly, fairly irrelevant. It doesn't work, but tossing in a rating that includes a 50 percent mandate for high-stakes exams is literally tossing the baby out with the bathwater.

Under the "baloney" system our governor originally called for, I'm rated on the kids who may not find it important to come to school, who, despite the best of our efforts, just don't buy into the value of the test "for their own good" -— in other words, many, many kids.

I'm rated on the performance of the kids who spent all last night gaming or texting, or who come to school not having eaten since the last time they were here. I am rated on the performance of kids who have stolen my personal possessions, or worse. So I guess I'm not surprised — we get used to directives and unfunded mandates — but I'm having a problem with the whole 50 percent thing.

So I can imagine the response: Well, there's the door, Mr. Rozell.


Back to the photograph taken of the governor and why it matters to me. You see, Associated Press photographer Mike Groll came to my classroom on Sept. 14, 2007, to take photographs for an article about me and my students and the impact we were making not only on our community but on the world. AP writer Chris Carola wrote an article that hit the wires and went across our great state, to every state in the union and all over the planet.

This history class made history. Later, we would go on to be named ABC World News Persons of the Week. For achievements in the classroom, I would be awarded many top state and national awards for teaching, and be recognized by my own SUNY Geneseo alma mater as 2013 Educator of the Year.

So how did the Educator of the Year rate in his own 2013-14 Cuomo administration teacher evaluation? 89/100. Not even honor roll.

None of the above achievements with students were counted or "measured," and maybe rightfully so. But "Mr. History Teacher of the Year Multiple Times Over" IS NOT highly effective in New York state.

Sour grapes? No thanks. I know where I make a difference every day.

"We would pay any teacher who gets highly effective, a $20,000 bonus on top of the salary that that teacher is getting paid because we want to incentivize high performance … they have achieved the highest scores on tests."

Sure, at the end of every other week there is a check in our box. But we don't need the extra $20,000 to want to make a difference every day, to take the time to listen, to smile and guide when it matters most. Maybe that is a value that can never be quantified or measured, nor ever compensated. But in the governor's proposal, that is not the point.

If teachers are to become testing technicians for our children, then we must accept the consequences. No amount of testing is going to make up for the real ills that plague us as a society, the lack of pride and civility, of responsibility and respect, that at one time was a given.

I got into this game years ago to teach, to nurture fellow human beings. I still feel this way, and sorry, no door is going to hit me on the way out.

Matthew Rozell, member of the Hudson Falls TA, teaches history at his alma mater.