FREE SPEECH ZONE | Bashing teachers and trashing tenure not the way to reform

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This past Easter Sunday, as I took a break from gardening to watch the Masters, I was overcome with hope, not manifested by the risen Christ, and certainly not by Tiger Woods’s prospects for a comeback. No, my renewed hope for the future was delivered unto me in a barrage of ads from Exxon Mobile. They were clean, unfettered endorsements of America’s teachers; there must have been two dozen aired over the course of the final round. The message was clear: Bashing teachers isn’t working; we need to try supporting them instead. Now, I’m no fan of big oil. I believe in global warming, I am committed to riding my bike as much as possible, and I would not hasten to think that there isn’t anything more for Exxon Mobile to gain through this ad campaign than better-educated workers, but there are hopeful signs rising up from other corners of the education reform debate as well. (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is committed to developing innovative paths to teacher improvement.) Perhaps the day will soon come when all stakeholders in this troubled institution called public education heed Exxon Mobile’s imperative: “Let’s get this done.”

As a retired classroom teacher, my sympathies naturally align with our teacher corps, but I also recognize the long-overdue need for substantive change in the way we educate our children; these two sentiments, by the way, are not mutually exclusive—teachers are not against reform, but too few of us seem to know or care much about what teachers think. Maybe the unions have come late to this party, but that is no reason to deem teachers obstructionist or protectionist; indeed, if the media gave them equal time to express their views and ideas, the public would be enlightened and, in the long run, better served.

We all know that too many of our students are failing to measure up academically. The learning gap, whether defined by racial, ethnic, or socio-economic differences, is having a corrosive effect on our entire culture. Unfortunately, in our rush to plug holes in our students’ “left brain” regions that facilitate math and reading, we have abandoned time-tested teaching and learning methods in favor of mushy curricula, and devalued the liberal arts, allowing a generation’s “right brains” to atrophy. After all the angst, finger pointing, and experimentation over the last few decades, the gap yawns wider, and everyone from top to bottom learns less. So, what to do?

Start by seriously considering what I think we should not do: give too few people too much power to decide what an “ineffective” teacher looks like. If we don’t do the hard work of understanding the nuances of teaching and learning, we will run the risk of further demoralizing teachers. Public education is a unique animal. It’s complicated. There are no easy solutions, and by refusing to face this fact we will never find the right one. Some things to think about:

  • Teachers do not receive a salary commensurate with their responsibilities or the lip service they receive from an oh-so-grateful public. Saint Paul currently pays $40,500 to start. My retirement pension nets me $725 per month after taxes. I recently turned down a long-term substitute-teaching offer because I learned that I would be paid a paltry $10 per day over and above the regular substitute wage (presumably to cover the three to four hours per day spent planning, grading, meeting, etc.). I would also have had to temporarily abandon my tutoring clients, who pay me $50 per hour. Does this make any sense to anyone out there? 
  • Teachers are stressed out. They are blamed for pretty much everything, and as myriad district and building initiatives come down the pike promising better teaching and enhanced student learning, staff often sit through wimpy workshops and mind-numbing meetings knowing their time could be better spent thinking, planning, collaborating, and grading. It seems that everyone but the teachers knows why our kids are failing. Maybe it’s time to solicit the opinions of those in the trenches. At present, thirty to fifty percent of our new teachers abandon their careers before completing five years on the job; perhaps we should ask them why. Who knows? It might be instructive.
  • The elimination of teacher tenure is an arrow that misses its target and strikes at the heart of legitimate concerns. All of us know that we can be better, that some of us are struggling in that effort, and that some of us need to go, but we must have a process that truly supports those who need to improve and swiftly but fairly culls the failures. It needs to include peers as well as administrators. Principals, for example, do not always possess the mentoring skills necessary to help a teacher get back on track. Indeed, some don’t have (or make) time to observe teachers on a regular basis; a few even resort to bully-ish behavior in an attempt to pound sense into their heads or make their lives so miserable that they retire or transfer out.

There is a plan under way that holds real promise—a statewide teacher evaluation system approved by the legislature and supported by Education Commissioner Cassellius. On April 6, the StarTribune editorial board argued (Politics threatens a needed reform) that, since the new teacher tenure law would not take effect until 2016, the effort (cited above) will have had plenty of time to be put in place. Huh? (I guess the board’s message is “Don’t worry about the piano hanging over your head; you have plenty of time before it falls.”) I say, how about getting behind a good faith effort to improve teacher quality instead of betting on its failure? It’s naïve to think that abolishing tenure will somehow address the sudden “crisis” of teacher quality, as well as other ills discussed here. This absurd notion is demoralizing our teachers. They should not be blamed for the shortcomings of the state, school districts, and training institutions. (By the way, you young Turks out there who regard veteran teachers as the enemy should be careful what you wish for; after years of experience you too will be really good at what you do, and deserving of a fair shake.)

  • When I ask teachers how, in hindsight, they view their training experience, they respond in the negative almost without exception; they simply weren’t ready for what they faced: the expectation of deep knowledge in the content areas, as well as classroom management competency. Our self-contained teachers are responsible for teaching several subjects every day, and for the most part they do a marvelous job; unfortunately, they have to spend too much time learning as they go. Who is holding the training institutions accountable? Has the highly touted, 40-million-dollar Bush Foundation grant awarded to several of our colleges and universities to “build a better teacher” made a difference?
  • What about district administrators? Let’s not forget that they are the leaders of those who are taking most of the heat.  Are they and their minions ever called out for weak oversight or mentorship skills or for threatening teachers who dare to question policy? Are staff development training sessions and district or building initiatives that eat up thousands of hours every year subjected to cost-benefit analyses? Are the curricula emanating from their offices the best available? Could failings on the part of these educators be part of the reason our kids are failing? 

The system is very old. Its components are entrenched, both the good and bad. There are soft spots, laziness, incompetence, unprofessional behavior, and abuses of contract rules at every level. If we maintain our focus of reform on just our teachers, we are going to shred their safety net and do our students a disservice. Yes, Exxon Mobile, let us, not just teachers, get this done. Halleluiah!

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