Teacher Independence: Go Slow When You’re New

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In a couple of past entries (see this one  and this other one), we went over the issue of teacher independence in the age of “Everybody Knows What Teachers Should Do Better than Teachers Do.”  By now, I’m hoping you are at least considering my premise that the only way for any public school to improve is through the efforts of teachers who have made curricular, assessment, discipline, and procedural decisions for themselves based on their unique circumstances (school districts, schools, classrooms, students, materials, expertise, skill sets, etc.).  Please understand that I’ve never suggested those teachers shouldn’t get lots of input on the standards to which they should hold their students (although teachers need to be in on, if not leading, those discussions), nor am I against their being exposed to any and all interesting ideas that come from outsiders (experts, politicians, and even billionaires occasionally have worthwhile things to offer).

The problem of the last couple of decades in American education has been that these outsiders have tried to push their agendas to become standard operating procedure for all teachers, regardless of how ill-suited some things are to specific schools and circumstances.  From No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top to Common Core (and probably the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act), not to mention all the state initiatives these federal programs have spawned, big mandates have done little to improve our children’s education while wasting many dollars which could have been used in much more effective ways, if only we’d allowed teachers to make decisions based on their particular situations.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear likely that the nonsense foisted on our schools by politicians and wealthy hobbyists is going to end any time soon, so I believe teachers need to take issues into their own hands to seize control one classroom at a time.

What this means is that teachers should accept responsibility for what happens in schools and refuse to let anyone else get to their students’ brains without their approval.  The ultimate authority on what works or is worth trying in any class is the teacher of that class, and she needs to believe that herself.  Once that fundamental tenet is absorbed, the next phase is to assert that power.  Power, though, is something that requires some experience to understand and to wield effectively.  Given the hierarchical nature of school systems as well, asserting teacher independence isn’t something new teachers should be too quick to do.

Inexperienced teachers are…well, lacking the experience to understand how all the variables that go into their classrooms interact to a significant enough degree so they can be sure the choices they make are the best ones.  For me, it took at least three years, and probably more like five, to have learned enough to assume the independence to decide for myself what would be best for my students.  No, I hadn’t achieved anywhere near a 100% grasp on the mysteries of public education, but I had gained enough insight to surpass anyone else’s ability to evaluate what would function most effectively for the classes/students I had been assigned; my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher; and the environment/resources available from my school, district, parents, and community.  It’s impossible to measure objectively or precisely at what level that understanding was—and again this will vary for everyone—but I’d probably put it at about a 35% grasp after three years, 50% after five, and at my peak, maybe I had a handle on 75% or so of my teaching world (about average for the teaching profession, from my vantage point). It takes a few years to learn enough to understand what works.

Yet, even that puny 35% figure is miles and miles better than anybody else could have done in my classroom.  Teachers are the only ones who have the slightest idea what should happen in their classes with their kids.  That truism is the key to the kingdom of better schools, if only the ones with power over (control of the purse strings for) schools could accept it.  Actually, you could also say that the only way for schools to improve (and the reason our best ones do reasonably well) is when teachers are the ones in charge.  That we’re moving in the opposite direction, however, with teachers’ control declining, is the whole reason for this series of articles.

As to the second reason new teachers need to be cautious about asserting their independence (after lack of knowledge of both their personal teaching skills and their schools’ cultures): They can be easily fired.  For the first few years in states with collective bargaining laws that grant tenure and have unions (some states don’t have collective bargaining laws at all), newly hired teachers can be let go without any reason being given, either written or orally. (Before you start quoting all the propaganda you’ve heard regarding the evils of tenure, I’ve already gone over, a couple of times, why I believe tenure is beneficial to the educational process.  The most in-depth explanation can be found in my e-book, Snowflake Schools, and if you’d like to check it out, you can read some sample chapters at this site.)  Right now regardless of what tenure haters think—and for a long time to come, I would hope—tenure is granted in Illinois, and our probationary period is four years. Because of the arbitrary nature of firings during that probationary time, this is the most delicate period of teachers’ careers, the phase when they are fearful that the slightest mistake they make or disagreement they have with one of their many bosses could cost them their jobs.

And like all exaggerated concerns, there is an element of truth to those fears.  When you don’t have to be given a reason for being let go, you can’t be sure why it happened.  Maybe it was the time you disagreed with your department chair, your principal saw you leaving early, or a parent complained to your superintendent about the grade her darling earned in your class.  So the first key to reaching the point where independence can be asserted is to follow the rules and be cooperative when you’re new, period.  There’s just too much insecurity, especially in school districts with many applicants for every job.  To give you a personal example, I took a tennis coaching position I really didn’t want at the beginning of my second year teaching high school (my tenth year overall).  I knew it would be hell given my teaching assignment coupled with the many extra hours coaching would consume every school day, not to mention some Saturdays, but since I was up for tenure at the end of that year (it only took two years to reach tenure back then), I had absolutely no desire to wonder, should I get fired, if this one assignment refusal had cost me my job.  And it turned out that two of the other four non-tenured English teachers in my department were released at the end of that year.  Did coaching tennis save my job?  I’ll never know for sure, but I’m very glad that I agreed to do it.  It just makes sense to be as compliant as possible when you’re vulnerable with few rights.

Also understand that almost all teacher firings in Chicago’s suburban areas will be publicized as resignations.  Often, administrators will “sell” teachers who are to be fired what is supposed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement:  If the teacher resigns, rather than being terminated (“contract non-renewal”), then (they are told) the administration is free to give the ex-teacher a positive recommendation to future employers.  It will appear, ironically enough for this series of articles especially, that the teachers in question made their own choices and independently determined that they no longer wanted to work at their schools; however, the reality is that most of them were forced to resign.  I’m not sure why so many school districts insist on “resignations” as opposed to “dismissals,” but it does prevent the resigning teacher from claiming unemployment benefits.  I would speculate as well that it makes administrators more secure when teachers they recommended in the first place resign “voluntarily” rather than terminations appearing on administrators’ records as evidence of poor hiring judgement.  Anyway, for clarity’s sake, keep in mind that when a first or second-year teacher leaves a good school, it’s generally these forced resignations or because of declining enrollment which meant positions had to be cut. Of course, there are some new teachers who leave of their own accord, but for most of those, it’s because they don’t like teaching and want out.  And some of those “resigning” teachers go on to become excellent instructors somewhere else—the learning curve in teaching is steep, and it just takes some longer to get the hang of it or for their immediate supervisors to recognize how good they are.

Need a scarier example?  Okay, there was a first-year teacher I knew who had elective surgery done while school was in session, missing several days just one week before winter break.  Yes, this person had every right to plan an absence when it worked best for that individual and no, it didn’t have to be over the holidays when no substitute or sick days would have been used; but needless to say the bosses were not happy with this decision.  Was it a coincidence that this otherwise competent teacher was axed at the end of that first year?  Nobody ever suggested taking time off right before break was the reason or even a contributing factor, but the non-tenured are held to different standards than the tenured since it is much easier to get rid of them—and they would be wise to keep that in mind.  No, how someone reacted at a golf outing when an errant ball cracked a car windshield or how someone else might have been significantly inebriated at a school (staff only) social gathering should not have been a factor in either dismissal, but you know how persistent some of these stories become when two events merely by the oddest coincidence, coincide. (I have more inside knowledge on these topics than most teachers because of my different roles as a union officer; especially as grievance chair, I was privy to most of the job difficulties teachers in my bargaining unit were having.)

New teachers, therefore, need to be obedient and precise when it comes to all the objective factors of the job:  Regular attendance, parental issues, promptness, agreeing to administrative requests, paperwork, submission of grades, student discipline, and getting along with your fellow teachers are just a few of the many public education rapids new teachers have to learn to negotiate.  Take too many “psychological” sick days, have lots of parents calling your boss to complain, show up late often, refuse to be on committees your principal is forming, ignore or turn in late any of the endless forms others will demand you fill out, be extreme (high or low) with your grade distributions, send kids to the dean’s office too regularly for disciplinary reasons, or irritate those with whom you work every day; and you will increase the likelihood that you will get bounced from your school quickly.  During my time, I witnessed otherwise decent young teachers fall prey to all of these examples.  I’m sure this isn’t different for new people in any work situation; “fitting in” with the job culture of your specific workplace is an important task, especially when you’re the least senior employee.

My guess is that many of those emotional “I’m leaving the teaching job I love because the system is so messed up” articles we see every year come from younger teachers who just couldn’t play the low-person-on-the-totem-pole game that everybody has to endure.  However, “I loved being a sales rep for an office supply company, but no one respected my creativity or new ideas so I quit” articles never get published since most readers would rightly consider the author of such a piece an idiotic prima donna who got exactly what he deserved.  Maybe it shouldn’t be this way, but accepting the challenges of being new on the job and being smart about how you present yourself to those who make firing decisions are how things work everywhere, and public education is no different.

Thus, lesson one in becoming an independent teacher is to learn to be a good employee.  (Granted, one of my favorite movie quotes of all time comes from Night after Night, when a hatcheck girl comments to Mae West, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” to which Mae responds, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” You can watch the scene here if you’ve never seen it.)  As shown in that potential problems list above, where actual pedagogical ability never came up, it’s not really about teaching skills when you’re new; showing up, being on time, not leaving early, not making waves, and acting interested and smiling whenever one of your bosses deigns to speak to you will not turn your struggling students into Advanced Placement scholars.  These are hardly educationally crucial or brilliant insights, but you’d be surprised how often people simply ignore common sense and adopt a pre-Copernican view of the cosmos (that the universe revolves around them) when it comes to their jobs.  Especially before they have established themselves as reliable or achieved tenure in places where it is still granted, younger teachers need to be perceived as steady and compliant.  And that “steady” necessity is true for all teachers who want to be less compliant as their careers go on.

Once teachers have learned how the system works (not to mention earning tenure in places where that is applicable), it is then time for them to take more charge of their worlds.  In upcoming articles, we’ll begin detailing how teachers can be masters of their domains, regardless of the silly, wasteful, expensive, and/or destructive procedural, political,  and/or technological hail storms they will inevitably have to endure.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Teacher Independence: Know the Law |

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