Last night my wife and I were having one of those rare after dinner conversations. We have a four year old and a five year old, so when I say rare, I do mean rare. The topic of the conversation was our daughter’s kindergarten teacher and how impressed we are with her. I made the comment, “We got lucky.” My wife’s response was, “No. I don’t think we got lucky at all.” Puzzled, I asked, “What do you mean?” She replied, “I think that she’s a great teacher but there are a lot of great teachers out there. In fact, our daughter’s school is filled with great teachers doing great work in an unrecognized urban school. There are great teachers doing great work all over.” It hit me then just how deep this anti-teacher rhetoric has imbedded itself in our collective thinking.
Think about it, if someone married to a teacher and as active in education issues as I am can take the default position that we “got lucky” to get a good teacher, what about the general public and what their perception must be. The illusion has been created that having a great teacher is an outlier and not the norm. There is a quote from Metro Nashville School Board member Mary Pierce in a recent Salon article that says,“If the school is doing the job it’s supposed to be doing, then the test scores will follow.” This is indicative of the culture we’ve created. The test scores aren’t generated to assess the needs of the child and give guidance on a direction for instruction; they are seen as a method for a teacher to demonstrate their competence. In essence, we’ve morphed into a culture of guilty until proven innocent.
This runs counter to the way almost every other profession is rated. For example, I’m a big fan of the NFL. I watch games almost every week during the season. It’s not uncommon for me to curse at the television over a player that I think is incompetent. However, my focus remains on that player, not the entire league. I don’t think there is a single sports bar you could go watch games at and make the indictment that the majority of the players are terrible players who don’t perform at a high level. People would roll their eyes and you’d be dismissed from the conversation. Try going to a convention for the American Medical Association and make an accusation that the bad doctor you had was indicative of the whole profession. Good luck with that.
Recently we’ve seen attempts to paint the actions of a few bad police officers as representative of the whole profession, and I’m not getting into whether that is justified or not; my point is, that it led to people speaking out and defending police officers. Even those that were roundly criticizing the actions of the police, were still clear in their defense of the police as a profession. Where are the people organizing to defend teachers? Where are the ones pointing out that the actions of a few do not represent the whole profession? Instead of defending them, we allow our legislators to authorize more assessments in order for them to prove their competency. We allow the narrative of teachers being incompetent and fearful of accountability to grow, placing them in a position to prove their competency over and over again. You know, guilty until proven innocent.
This weekend I attended a meeting of the Tennessee BATS. For some reason they allow my semi-humble self to be an honorary member and I’m extremely grateful. The meeting was on a beautiful 50 degree afternoon in the middle of January. Heading to the meeting, I was thinking to myself about all the other things I could be doing and how I was only going to stay for about an hour because who could spend four hours on a Saturday focused on this stuff? I’ll tell you who, about 40 teachers from across the state. As I sat in that room, I was struck by their dedication and the breadth of their experience. My guess is the the average length of service was about 12 years. The other thing that I was struck by, was the depth of their knowledge. I thought to myself, these are the very people that programs like Teach For America and other alternative licensing programs are looking to replace. These are the people that we are allowing to be phased out, when in reality they are the people we should be turning to for answers. If TFA was serious, they would be looking to create a buddy program that paired up a new teacher with a veteran teacher. We need to create processes to preserve our institutional knowledge, instead of trying to eradicate it.
I recently heard a quote from a teacher union representative. Now before you get all defensive, keep in mind two things. First,he role of the union is not to protect the institution; it is to protect the worker so that they can work under conditions that allow them to improve the institution, it’s not the role of the players union to make Major League Baseball a better product. It is to make sure that the players labor in conditions that allow them to focus on improving the product. Secondly, that all-powerful union that reformers evoke to scare you into believing their rhetoric just doesn’t exist. I’m hoping that doesn’t offend my union friends, but the truth of the matter is that public perception and legislation has, in keeping with my sports metaphor, hamstrung teacher’s unions. There are signs that they are attempting to mount a comeback, but they’ve got a long way to go to become the boogeymen worthy of the status that corporate education reformers assign to them.
I probably ought to point out as well who makes up that awful scary union. Its teachers. Teachers like the person who guides your child through their daily learning. Teachers like the ones who sacrifice their lives when violence erupts in schools. Teachers like the ones who deliver food to the homes of poverty stricken children who otherwise might not eat during extended school breaks. These people are not the scary union thugs that they are made out to be. They are regular people who work hard and pay their dues in order to have due process if needed as well as a voice at the national level when it comes to education policies in our country.
The quote referenced above was, and I am paraphrasing here, that he won’t say there are bad teachers until we have fully equipped all of our teachers to succeed. It took a bit of time for me to digest this, but I think there is a very valid point here. Until we pay teachers a competitive wage, assign them manageable-sized classrooms, ensure adequate planning time, provide meaningful personal development, and offer assistance for the out of class needs of their students, how can we label someone a bad teacher? Until we develop a true measurement of a teacher’s body of work, how can you label a teacher a bad teacher? Under the current construct, TVAAS, if a teacher teaches a subject which is not associated with a standardized test, approx. 30 percent of their rating is based on the schools rating. What????
That’s like me going into Jim in the shipping department and saying “Jim, you do good work, but part of your job performance ranking is going to be based on what Joe in marketing does. I know Joe works at the other end of the building, you hardly know each other, and only see each other at company staff meetings, but you both work for the same company so it shouldn’t be an issue.” I suspect Jim would’t accept this arrangement for one minute. Yet, we expect our teachers to and when they balk, the narrative is that it’s because they don’t want accountability. The truth is it’s not accountability that teachers fear, it’s the unfair method of labeling them “bad teachers”. Nobody likes being judged by a system that sets them up for failure from the onset.
Let’s revisit the NFL analogy again. A team drafts a high quality recruit to their team. He shows all the attributes of being a player that can make a difference for years. However, the team has an inadequate training facility and so the player is never able to train properly. The team refuses to pay competitive salaries and so our recruit is surrounded by inadequate talent. The team plays in a facility that has been in need of repairs for years, but the team refuses to make these repairs leaving a field that is uneven and pockmarked with divots. These factors combine to lead the recruit to be seen as ineffective, as well as often injured. The injuries become both physical and mental and soon he is pushed out of the NFL. Would it be fair to label that player a bad football player? Yet that’s what we do to our teachers on a regular basis. In talking about whether a player is a bad player or not, an evaluation of the franchise often comes in to play. In education, if someone brings up any of the factors out of a teachers control that may cause a teacher to have a low evaluation, we call that “making excuses”.
I ran night clubs for a number of years before getting married and starting a family. We used to have a running joke that bars are the only business that just because people hung out in one, they felt qualified to own one. I need to amend that to include schools. Just because we were all once students doesn’t mean that we are experts at education. This may be an unpopular thought, but being a parent doesn’t give us a doctorate in education automatically either. I try to make it a practice in my life to consult with experts, in whatever job I’m tackling, before proceeding. Why should my child’s education be any different? Especially when the experts are so readily available.
I don’t know what I can do to change the national perception, but as with anything else, I believe it starts with me. I am going to be hyper sensitive that a teacher has to prove to me that they are a “bad” teacher, not that they are a “good” teacher. I’m going to try to always come from a place that assumes there are way more good teachers than bad teachers. It means that as this legislative session in Tennessee begins, I’m going to lobby for things that get my children’s teachers the tools they need, like adequate funding for schools, smaller class sizes, less testing, more instructional time, and competitive wages. I urge everyone else to do the same. We can not let the forces for privatization color our views so that they can further their agenda while continuing to disrespect and discount what teachers do. We can not afford to keep allowing good teachers to continue to be driven from the profession because of these misguided practices.
In closing, I want to say a heartful thank you. Thank you to my daughter’s teacher and the tremendous amount she has contributed to preparing my daughter for life. I hope my son will be in her class next year. Thank you to my wife and her colleagues who continue to strive to make the world better by ensuring that all students have the tools they need to contribute to making life better for the next generation. Thank you to all the teachers willing to take four hours on a beautiful day thinking of ways to fight for our children. And a big thank you to all of the teachers who suit up and show up every single day. You make a difference.