What does it really mean to put kids first?


In my thirty years of teaching in public schools and colleges I have known very few teachers who want their students to fail. Most of us know that it is the success of our students that determines whether we have succeeded at our jobs.           

I also know that there are ineffective and incompetent teachers who must be quickly counseled out of the profession. As a classroom teacher I wanted this action. The students from a failing teacher’s room often spill over into other teachers environments and make teaching that much more difficult.

I believe in the idea of putting kids first. I am also a firm believer in unions and their important history in this country. I know that closing the opportunity gap for students is essential to their very lives. However, where I differ from those who are pushing to change the teacher negotiations processes is that I do not share the view that the entire weight of school failure rests on a single group of people in the system. While teachers are crucial part to students’ success, preschool education, well stocked food shelves for students and their families living in poverty, integrated and adequate housing, an end to homelessness, training in cultural competency, arts programs, access to technology and a knowledgeable group of principals  who will play their part in evaluating and observing teachers are equally important.

I am not trying to get teachers off the hook. I have experienced the slow way the union system works when a teacher is failing, and that has to change. However in schools where teachers with little experience are in the majority, chaos and disorganization often result. We need to reward those teachers who continue to teach well, who have always put their students first. Tenure does not exist to protect bad teachers, but to make those teachers who want to creatively approach students, and who succeed at it, receive protection from arbitrary administrators who are causing the demise of their schools. Over many years I have worked for principals who created miracles but also with others who caused such havoc and discord that gifted teachers left these buildings for places where they were valued.

If we make teachers the scapegoats for all that is wrong in education, we will lose the men and women who work above and beyond. If we denigrate and disrespect this group of people who are in our classrooms, we are not going to be able to attract new teachers. Teachers contact me regularly. They say they want to stay in the profession, but after five years, they would like to have a family and they know that to do their job well they will not be able to parent well. I wonder if those who talk about putting kids first truly believe that the best way to do that is to create a job that drives young teachers out of the profession just when they are grasping how to do it well.

I hope we can find common ground with each other. I hope we can go into this debate with respect for each side, for the long and honorable history of labor, with empathy and an understanding of what teaching requires. If we do this, we will have to talk with each other about what seems to be lost in newspaper columns, or on radio and TV: individual and institutional racism and the part it plays in all of this. We will have to look at inequities of resources within our own district. We will have to talk about how well we do or do not connect to communities. We will have to talk about white privilege, who is represented in our curriculum and which students are taking IB and AP classes in our schools. If we put all this on the table in a spirit of hope and constructive change, we can make it work. If we tackle all the components that interfere with putting kids first, and decide to do this together, without pitting one group against another, then kids will come out of this the winners, and our city and country will be the better for it.