Let my People Teach!

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Last time, we discussed how the alleged experts trying to reshape public education really don’t know what’s best for our children (see https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/2015/03/04/whos-really-in-charge/); those in the classroom every day are much better equipped to determine what would make things better.  We then went over the ways that teachers respond to that unwanted outside interference:  Pretending to go along until the latest trend fades away or spending time and energy better used for teaching to fight for the freedom to do what they know to be best.  Neither of those is an efficient way for educated professionals to function.

Teaching is far too difficult and important for single approaches or one-size-fits-all solutions which tend to be what outsiders try to impose on schools.  We do need those experts and their specialized skills for some things, but they must recognize how much they need teachers’ cooperation and enthusiasm before any of their ideas will make any difference.  Right now, everyone seems to be staking out absolute positions and criticizing anyone who disagrees; most of the time we are talking at one another, trying to “win.”  Instead, everyone has to recognize the need for collaboration and compromise.

And that goes for those opposed to organized labor.  In some districts (Hinsdale High School District 86 where I used to work comes to mind), school boards have essentially declared war on the unions to which teachers belong.  The turmoil and stress which goes along with this have done nothing to improve the education at either of the high schools in District 86, instead leading to a state of perpetual unrest.  You should know that I was a union activist at Hinsdale South for many years while I taught English there, so I’m hardly unbiased about this issue.  But even if the goal is to save taxpayers money by weakening the union, those so inclined need to realize that such blunt attacks only serve to bond teachers even more firmly to the one source they know is on their side—their union.  Since all teachers’ unions are made up of teachers (yes, my nickname is Captain Obvious), when you attack unions, you are attacking teachers, no matter how many times you claim differently.  “I, School Board Member S—excuse me, Dr. S—completely respect our hardworking teachers, but I want to eviscerate the union which has negotiated their salaries, is made up of those same hardworking teachers, and offers them protection from unmerited harassment by me.  But I totally value and respect our teachers.”

That message will only hurt the very schools these people are supposedly trying to improve by institutionalizing an unsettled, paranoid atmosphere.  If your goal is to make unions less important, treating teachers well so that unions become less relevant is the strategy I would use.  Direct assaults will only make the unions stronger.  It doesn’t take advanced degrees in psychology to recognize that, but you would never think so based on how the relations between teachers and the school board have deteriorated in District 86.  I’m sure one of my regular readers will claim that it’s relations between the board and the union which have been shredded, not teachers; clearly Captain Obvious’s lesson on those who make up teachers’ unions is still too advanced for some.

But the most important reason to encourage individuality and creativity in a teaching staff is that it’s by far the best way to improve students’ education.  It is frustrating to have to keep repeating things everyone should understand by now, but it doesn’t seem to be sinking in for many of those who believe they are the leaders of school reform movements:  You aren’t and you will never be!  You don’t teach any kids, so you will always be secondary to the person in front of the desks every day.  Sure, you’ve got lots of brilliant insights, cash, degrees, press releases, books, and foundations; but unless you can inspire teachers to want to do what you advocate, you really don’t matter very much except as an obstacle to be overcome and/or ignored by the people doing the real work.

You can see how the ineffectuality of those education reform “leaders” is starting to come to a head as they work to diminish the profession of teaching by eliminating tenure, changing classrooms so that technology (dumb and obedient) plays a larger role, and demanding that teachers spend more and more of their class time teaching to the tests their friends in the testing companies have created through the ruse of “accountability.”  Sadly, all they will accomplish will be to continue to drive the best people away from or out of education (not to mention burning through lots of money) so our classrooms are manned by neutered clones whose educational objective (as dictated to them by their corporate overlords) is to shave off all the students’ rough edges (things like creativity, initiative, and compassion) so they will fit snugly into the cubby-holes those overlords believe will serve the billionaire class best.

Most teachers I have known would never let that happen; hence the state of push-pull in which we currently find ourselves.

But things could get better as long as we recognize that the only people who have a truly significant impact on students in the classrooms are teachers.  Obviously, parents are much more important in the students’ overall lives, but when it comes to public education, we need to abandon the concept that big business is the center of the universe around which everything else must orbit.  Instead, a more Copernican approach which recognizes teachers at the hub of schools must be the dominant philosophy.

Who else can enact any changes?  How will top-down edicts garner any enthusiasm or dedication?  What possible test can ensure that learning and judgment get instilled in our future leaders?  How will we attract quality people into education if we treat teachers as little more than baby-sitters who have nothing to offer their students besides what others have prescribed for them?  What kind of engagement and thirst for knowledge can we expect from students in standardized, dull rooms staffed by those who have no authority to stray from a static curriculum?  Those are the directions in which we are headed.

Rather, we need to create an environment which celebrates the unique skills every teacher possesses and encourages them to teach from those strengths.  We need driven educators who passionately debate the standards necessary for our students to thrive in an ever-changing world, and then hold their students to those standards.  We need empowered leaders for our children, people they can look up to, role models who can inspire them.

What it really comes down to is our view of a teacher’s purpose in the lives of our children.  Often, especially as they progress through junior high and high school, our kids spend more time at school than they do at home, especially if you leave out the time they sleep (both in and out of the classroom).  People that important in my daughters’ lives deserve respect and support, not sniping and ever-increasing demands for higher test scores.

There’s no single way to create the partnerships and collegial atmosphere which will lead to the promised land of tough standards, inspirational schools, and supportive relationships between all the adults who work with our kids every day.  Yes, there are teachers who don’t belong in classrooms, and we should use the rules already in place to ferret them out and dismiss them.  My experience, however, is that bad teachers are few and far between, and that even those few weak links are rarely challenged to get better through the evaluation processes in place at most schools.  So for those of you who want to focus on the alleged mediocrity in the teaching ranks, the pressure should be placed on those who have the power to discipline bad teaching but don’t, rather than simply trying to eliminate any job protections teachers have which prevent arbitrary and capricious dismissals.  Tenure allowed me to advocate vigorously for what I thought to be in the best interests of public education, fighting for both teachers and students.  Tenure made me a better teacher, and its elimination will make teachers worse, thus hurting schools.

But tenure did not, does not, and will not ever shield bad teachers from being evaluated as such, forced to try to improve, and dismissed should they fail to address their inadequacies.  I’m sorry that this process takes some administrative time and effort to enact, but always remember that here in Illinois, any newly hired teachers can be fired without any of tenure’s procedural protections during the first four years of their employment in any school district.  If we can’t tell if a teacher is going to be any good after four years on the job, then we really need to work on how we train and evaluate our administrators.  Getting rid of tenure only weakens the framework for teachers’ becoming master educators who can actively participate in the difficult and subjective work of school improvement.  You might want all your school reform eggs in Bill Gates’s basket, but I certainly don’t.  I want those doing the work in the classrooms to be my daughters’ chief advocates because they are the ones who know and care about their education.

I’ll get off my soap box for now—I’ll have more on some procedures schools could be putting in place to allow teachers to reform each individual school in ways suitable for that unique situation another time.  It’s just that I’ve been reading a great many news stories in recent months as I look for material for this blog (I’ve been featuring a news story or two every weekend for the past couple of months, if you hadn’t noticed), and much of what I read describes school reform initiatives.  Hardly any of them, however, seem to recognize that teachers need to be at the center of any and all discussions about positive changes.  Until we make that fundamental shift in how we go about school reform, public education will continue its futile search for that one test, guru, or method that will make the difference.  People, the difference makers are already in place in front of your kids every day—all we have to do is to give them the freedom they need to do their work.

For much more on freeing teachers to be great, see my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html.

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