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Why putting an “excellent” teacher in a classroom won’t do it all…

August 6, 2011

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Now, I’m all for improving the skills of teachers, as well as for improving teaching conditions, the attitudes of teachers and students, and everything else that is involved in the cycle of teaching and learning (including the quality of the cafeteria food). But there’s been a lot of talk about “excellent” teachers and how they are going to save us from the lazy and stupid teachers that supposedly inhabit most of the classrooms of Amurrrica.

That’s a myth on several levels.

First, read this article from the LA Times. (Hat tip to Jennifer Fleck, Chicago Public Schools teacher and department chair and former student of mine, for bringing it to my attention. She’s awesome!)

The author makes some really good points. We’re reaching the place where every student is “special” in some way, regardless of what school you teach in, poor public school or high-achieving private school. No single human being can be everything for everyone. I think it’s killing off some of best teachers trying to.

When I started teaching 34 years ago there was just plain less you were responsible to teach. I think that was true in just about every content area. Not because of the explosion of knowledge in the last few decades, either: just because every special-interest group and federal and state agency in the Known Universe didn’t dictate curriculum. There were fewer inservice days and shortened days for collaboration because, frankly, there was less to have to collaborate about. Math teachers could teach math and didn’t have to “integrate” with other subjects.

Now this will upset some folks, but special education alone has placed a huge burden on the regular classroom teacher in the last few decades. More and more kids who used to be in self-contained classrooms, or were taught for a limited number of years and maybe didn’t even complete high school because of severe learning disabilities are now placed in the general class population, often with no supports. Even a wealthy school district like the one where I used to teach couldn’t provide all the teacher’s aides needed for all the special ed students placed in regular classes.

I understand all the reasons why it’s good to place these students in with the general school population. But when you are a regular classroom teacher and now you have to create four versions of each test, because the government mandates that students with certain disabilities and IEPs deserve that kind of special consideration, it’s going to increase your workload – and nobody gets more planning time for that. And we were a school with more supports than most. I don’t know how it gets done in a 500-student high school in downstate Illinois.

You can be an excellent teacher but you may just burn out faster. Or you may be smart enough to say, “That’s it. I’ve had enough. I can find another job outside of education where I don’t have to have the achievement bar raised constantly by board members with a hidden agenda, and be criticized daily by fourteen-year-olds and their parents.” And they leave. I think more excellent teachers are leaving all the time. The ones who stay are the ones who are super-dedicated or who have no other prospects. I stayed because it was the best way for me to be involved in music every day of my life. I found that sharing that excitement with kids was extremely rewarding (at least most of the time). It didn’t keep me from considering another field from time to time. And when the opportunity for retirement came, I was ready. I don’t regret my years spent teaching my students. But if I was going to be starting out as a teacher today…it would be a much more difficult decision.

What’s the answer? Is it only class size? No. As a music teacher I had big classes a lot, but of course I didn’t have the number of assignments to grade that, say, a math teacher has. I had different ways I had to spend a lot of time outside of the school day, though. I think it’s a combination of things. And one thing more than any other –

STOP DEMONIZING ANYBODY!

What does that mean? Well, it’s easy to blame the teachers’ unions. That’s Rush Limbaugh. Unfortunately – and I agree with Rush on a lot of other things – he has no frakking idea what teachers’ unions are like. The locals are only loosely connected to the NEA. (The AFT may be different; I never taught under them.) It’s not like the Teamsters’. Each local has a lot of individual latitude in how it relates to the local school board and community. Rush tends to treat them monolithically to make a point, but it’s a flawed argument most of the time. It’s not like there is “a” teachers’ union that affects every teacher equally all across the US. I felt very little effect from the NEA when I taught. It really is more of a lobbying group than anything else.

All school boards are not created equal. If you don’t like them, run for a slot or vote for someone else; unfortunately, often school board candidates are people with a personal axe to grind. Some are very pro-teacher, some are very, very-anti-teacher. Teachers like to blame the board; sometimes it’s not malice, but ignorance. They only know what they are told or they see, and sometimes the superintendent controls than information to his or her own benefit. Of course, sometimes, it is malice.

Some school administrators are very pro-student and/or pro-teacher; some are tools of the board and/or mere papershufflers. Nowadays, most superintendents don’t stay in a district very long. That shows they aren’t looking out for the long-term educational health of the community. I think that’s very sad. They can’t be blamed unilaterally either.

There are great young teachers, great old teachers, poor young teachers, poor old teachers, and a lot of pretty decent, very hard-working teachers. Just like in any field, you hear about the top and the bottom. Don’t tar everybody with the same brush, or say, “See? They’re all like that!” Get to know them. You’ll find out that they are like everybody else, with morgages (hopefully), kids (usually), and the same kinds of hopes and dreams as you and your family. (You know, they even go to the grocery store, just like people do!)

How about this: the next time you want special treatment for your kid, think to yourself, “How many times has this teacher heard something like this this week? Can she really handle all of these requests without looking like she has no standards at all to her class? Will that undermine her respect and authority? Will the principal even let her do it? And is it really fair to ask her for special treatment, or does my kid need to learn a lesson here?”

Just some thoughts from an old parent, a relatively new grandparent who has a granddaughter going to first grade this month (!), who also taught thousands upon thousands of kids in two states over 34 years…

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