To whom are we accountable?

Guest post by Tyler Rice


As a husband, I am accountable to my wife, not to the county in which our marriage license was issued.

As a father, I am accountable to my children, not to the State.

As a teacher, to whom am I accountable?  Am I accountable to the State?  Or am I accountable to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction?  Maybe I’m accountable to the board of directors for my school district – aka, my employer?  Perhaps I’m accountable my superintendent or my principal?  Could it be that I’m accountable to my colleagues?

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “NO!”

I am accountable to the past, present, and future of each and every child who enters my classroom.

I am accountable to my students as learners and as human beings.  I am accountable to my students’ families.  Children are not vessels to fill with standards and 21st Century skills, but rather living, breathing people with immense potential.  My job is to nuture and enhance that potential.  Every interaction with a student is a opportunity to do this.

Every decision I make in the classroom must be guided by one ideal; the ideal that my students deserve the very best education that I can possibly facilitate for them, each and every day.

This means I must be willing to allow my students to hold me accountable.  I must take a step back, absorb their input, honor it, chew on it, and use it to inform my instruction.  Too often, we teachers hide behind The “State”, “The District”, “The Standards”, or “The Test.”  We blame poor instruction on these amorphous entitities.  We do this to deflect student and parent criticism.  We are human and it is hard to absorb criticism.  It is even harder to admit that the critics are right, especially when those critics are a room full of intermittently mature adolescents.


My students were venting to me about their classes  – and school in general – yesterday.  I regularly ask my students for feedback on what we are doing in class, so that we can adjust our course.  This is an important part of our classroom community.  Opening up the feedback can, though, sometimes leads to a discussion of larger issues.  Kids don’t often receive honest invitations from adults for feedback.  When they do get them, they tend to do one of two things, either (1) they don’t believe you truly value their feedback and clam up/ give superficial feedback, or (2) they  spew a litany of pent up complaints about anything and everything even tangentially related.

So I told them this: “education should be something done WITH you, not something done TO you.”  They stared at me with blank faces for a silent eternity (okay, it was more like 5 seconds) before lightbulbs started to flicker on around the room.  Of course, several of them thought I was lecturing them to work harder and push themselves.  A few of them got it, though.

Hopefully, my democratic ideals haven’t ingited their anarchist tendencies…


I have all of the accountability I need; thank you very much.

Doing the absolute best I can for my students and their families every single day is all of the motivation I need.

My classes are held accountable by producing work for an authentic audience.  The transparency of our classroom, via student and class blogs, and via sharing our work publicly, keeps us plenty accountable.

Accountability comes from generating rigorous projects for a real-world audience. I am accountable to my students and their families. They are accountable to their audience, not to me.

Students are not motivated by “it’s on the test” or “the state says you have to learn this.” Students are motivated by engaging, rigorous content, real choice in how they interact with that content and what they create from it, and the opportunity to collaborate with peers. (Credit to Alfie Kohn, “Punished by Rewards).

By the way, this kind of accountability motivates students much, much more that either the carrot or the stick ever could.  Students who are driven by grades, will work extremely hard when they know they have an audience.  Other students, who have no interest in striving for ‘A’s and no fear of ‘F’s,  work much harder for an audience than they ever would for a grade.  That is accountability.

I am accountable to my students and their families.  I am accountable to myself.  I need no other accountability.

Tyler Rice is a High School Science teacher in central Washington.  You can read more of his work on his blog, Wisdom Begins with Wonder.  You can also follow him on Twitter: @MrTRice_Science.

photo cc licensed from the flickr stream of R Kurtz

22 Responses to “To whom are we accountable?”

  1. Bravo! I spent four years with my neck on the chopping block of a principal who could not understand that everything I was doing was for my students and not for her.
    With all the bashing of teachers and teacher’s unions, let us not forget that unions protect the teachers who have not forgotten that we are accountable to our students first and foremost.
    Thank you for a wonderful piece!

  2. Here, here!

  3. Excellent post, and a reminder I sorely needed. It’s encouraging to know I’m not alone.

  4. See, but here’s the thing: At the end of the year when our standardized test scores come back, mine are the lowest on the hallway and I get called into the principal’s office to “explain myself.”

    I used to not care. I know that the kinds of skills I’m teaching—the ability to collaborate. The ability to think creatively about problems. The ability to challenge and to revise and to refine thinking.—aren’t measured by the multiple choice tests we give each spring.

    But I’m at the point now where the “pressure to perform” is real. I ignore it at my own jeopardy. Our district is far more serious about forcing teachers to “follow the script.” The list of “non-negotiables” grows longer every year.

    So while I agree in theory that I’m accountable to my students and not to the tests or the state or to the district, in practice things look quite different.

    And I work in a wealthy suburban school that has the highest performing students in our district.

    I can only imagine that the gap between theory and practice is far more pronounced in high needs buildings that are under the federal gun.

    Any of this make sense?

  5. See my follow up to this post: Am I pro-union? ( ) at my blog, Wisdom Begins with Wonder ( ).

  6. @Bill Ferriter,
    I know just what you mean…and my kindergarten students aren’t even tested. I just survived four years with a principal who called me out for not teaching as she understood it, she was in a classroom for 3 years! (none in kindergarten) I survived by constantly reminding myself that I am in a classroom for the students, and thankfully because of union protection.
    I hope that you are able to reconcile the demands of your students with the demands of testing. You are not alone.

  7. Amen! I’ve been working for an administration that seems to think that threats are an effective motivator. Every staff member I talk to has mentioned being tempted to do as little as possible, or the opposite demanded just to spite them, but instead does his/her best for the kids. Same that the administration can’t figure that out. Guess that they were never motivated that way themselves (or have forgotten it)

    • The carrot and the stick don’t work for kids (at least not long-term) and they don’t work for teachers, either. I’ve seen that very clearly in my district and heard similar stories from teachers all over the country!

      The funny thing is that those administrators are probably complaining right now about how their supervisors treat them!

  8. Great post. However, not every teacher that gets into the classroom is so hard working and caring as you describe. If there is no accountability to some objective standards then how do we judge if the teacher is doing a good job? Administrators are also accountable to the children and they are obligated to put the best possible person in the classroom to teach.

    • Arnold,

      I wish every teacher ascribed to the ideals I presented in this post. I agree that this isn’t always the case.

      The problem is, I’ve never seen anyone present a really fair, objective, accurate way to assess teacher quality. One that isn’t prohibitively expensive, subject to personal bias, or a tremendous extra burden on the teacher.

      I am National Board Certified. Does that make me a good teacher?

      I know teachers that I, personally, would not want to teach my kids. And yet, some of them have high test scores (read: affluent students). Are they good teachers?

      I teach in a small, rural school. 90+% of my students qualify for free and reduced lunches. 90% are ethnic minorities. My test scores are abysmal. Does that make me a bad teacher?

  9. I’ve found all these posts extremely interesting.

    In my experience, most administrators and teachers are creative and work hard (though more need to find the time to prepare for the future, but I digress).

    But standards are problems for teachers as well as students, IMO. Everything seems well-intended, but not very effective.

    Schools hire teachers who have met the government’s standards. The standards may not ensure someone is good at their job, or that they will be after some time. If an employee is not effective, businesses let them go. My impression is that schools don’t, though. Is it because of teachers’ unions, legal issues?

    The standards, salaries, and other systems also keep effective people out of teaching. Good business managers reward effective employees (not only with raises but with a mentor, a voice in the process, travel, etc.), but schools don’t seem able to. IMO, longevity does not equate with improvement.

    I am currently not employed by a school district. If people don’t reply to this, I’ll start thinking it’s because they fear the reaction of their employers. I can’t blame them for that!

    • I agree with all that is being said. But bottom line every institution, whether a business, school, hospital etc. has to have a way to determine that is keeping up to the standards and more importantly to continually improve. You can not rely on the fact that the teacher will feel accountable to the students therefore we will all live happily ever after. How do we make sure that standards of excellence are being met in education? How do you make sure that the children are getting the best possible education if you don’t have any standards and criteria in place?

      • Arnold –

        Another great question!

        Yes, we need standards of teacher quality. Yes, we need excellent teachers. Yes, teacher quality does matter!

        The problem comes in when we begin to ask the tough questions, the ones that the Arne Duncans and Michelle Rhees of the world don’t want to answer.

        What standards? Whose standards? How to measure quality?

        There is no easy solution.

        Thanks for taking the time to make some thought provoking comments!

    • Valerie –

      See my follow up to this post: Am I pro-union? ( ) at my blog, Wisdom Begins with Wonder ( ).

  10. Arnold-

    By the way, the best answer I’ve seen so far is peer evaluation. No other model seems justifiable to me.

    • I was going to mention a few ideas, one of the top being peer evaluations. Low test scores does not mean the teacher is bad just like high test scores does not mean the teacher is effective. Observations of the teacher with a specific rubric can be an excellent manner of assessment. Is the teacher motivating the students, is he teaching to the objective, does he or she checking for understanding. Also test scores can be off because the curriculum or text book is wrong for this class.

  11. Hi,
    A heart touching intro have manifested that there are several responsible people out there who understands the depth of teaching and its importance from the grass root level.

Leave a Reply