I have been trying to keep abreast of all the education reform debates since last fall when I had the chance to attend a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show related to the film Waiting for Superman. What piqued Oprah’s people's interest was my comment that went something like this: I'm tired of teachers who do nothing except sit on their tenured butts and collect a paycheck. And I stand by that statement today. What self-respecting, truly good educator wouldn't? But I do sometimes feel like a pariah for saying that. Some would see that statement as unsupportive of my colleagues, that I don't stand in solidarity with my fellow teachers. All I can say is that I do indeed support whole-heartedly all the teachers out there who work as hard as I do, but I will not feign support for the lazy teachers out there, the ones who clearly can't stand their job or the kids they work with every day; the ones who complain all the time; the ones who teach the same things the same way year after year; the ones who have kids do everything open book because there are so many fewer bad grades that way, resulting in fewer parent complaints; the ones who never volunteer to do anything extra, whether it earns a stipend or not; the ones who put on a dog-and-pony show the day they are observed by the principal. Those teachers do harm, in my opinion, and I will not defend them simply because they work in a classroom every day. And I am finding that makes me pretty unpopular. Well, that and my other views on education. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'm misguided. There is a lot of great stuff going on in education in this country, but there's plenty of lousy stuff, too. I have my own ideas about what needs to be done to make education in this country meaningful but I fear it will never happen because it requires too much cooperation and collaboration from too many people who don't look like they will ever see eye to eye. Regardless, here's what I have to say if you care to read it.
Who is involved in meaningful education reform? I believe it is teachers, teachers' unions, school administrators, students, and parents. Each group has a mission, if they choose to accept it.
Teachers need to work. Really work. That is inherent in the job of teaching if it is done correctly. This means logging more hours than there are in the contracted day -- grading papers, developing lessons and assessments, communicating with parents, documenting the learning that takes place in our classrooms, and millions of other little tasks that are associated with teaching. My husband once said that good teaching is like porn -- you know it when you see it. While that statement might be a bit crass, there is an element of truth to it. Face it, fellow teachers; we all know who the good teachers are in our school and who the bad teachers are, too. We can explain why the good teachers are good and why the bad teachers are bad, and most of the time, the good teachers are the ones doing all the tasks that take up that extra time and the bad ones aren't. Good teachers aren't lazy. They will do what is right for kids even if they don't get paid for it. I know I will open a can of worms with that comment, and please don't think I am saying that teachers don't deserve to be paid well -- we do (the good ones). But the good ones have never been in this business for the money, so they end up going the extra mile because ultimately, it furthers our mission -- education!
Teachers' unions need to recognize that not all teachers are created equal. They need to make it reasonable for a school district to get rid of a bad teacher. How a bad teacher is defined is a whole other blog post, but if it can be shown that a teacher isn't doing his or her job, isn't improving on his or her own or through mentoring or mediation, then the teacher needs to go. Yes, this does happen sometimes, but sadly, there are a lot of collective bargaining agreements out there that are ridiculously cumbersome. It should be a reasonable process to dismiss an ineffective educator, not one that has plenty of loopholes in it. I have heard some people say, "Well, administrators shouldn't agree to those contracts -- it takes two sides to negotiate a contract." True. But I would say that the unions shouldn't try to push through a contract that has enough cracks in it that lousy teachers are protected. Contracts that are written to cover the rear ends of the bad teachers are demoralizing to the good teachers and diminish the professionalization of this career. I am always heartened to read about unions who are working to revamp contracts that are going to be of benefit to the good teachers, help the poor teachers who want the help, and remove the poor teachers who just don't care. The teachers' unions need to keep moving in this direction.
School administrators need to be brave. Bravery is what it takes to tell a tenured teacher he or she isn't doing the job right. I think too many principals are unwilling to fight that fight because it will surely stir up a hornets' nest in more ways than one. It might bring down the wrath of the union. It might bring down the wrath of teachers in the building or district. Regardless, it's gonna get ugly! I say, do it anyway! Lousy teachers and the unions like fearful school administrators. They like principals and superintendents who would rather look the other way or only see what they want to see. Praised be the administrator who isn't afraid to call a spade a spade. They know it will be an uphill battle and they will probably be pretty unpopular (think Michelle Rhee) but they ultimately are willing to do what is best for the kids in that classroom. Having ineffective, unmotivated, lazy teachers in a classroom isn’t good for kids. One thing I say often is that nothing will make a kid hate school more than a teacher who hates school. Please, principals and superintendents, help kids love schools by being brave and calling out the teachers who are causing harm!
Students need to realize the value of education. Too many kids in this country take their education for granted. They often whine about being in school. Some of that whining probably comes from being stuck in a classroom with a boring, unmotivated teacher, but a lot of it comes from not appreciating education. I seem to recall Oprah Winfrey getting flak about opening her girls’ school in Africa as opposed to this country and her response being something akin to what I just said – those girls in Africa will be grateful for their education; most kids in America will not. Part of my philosophy of teaching is to make learning meaningful for my students right now, not just in the future. I teach junior high kids, and they are so entrenched in the present that careers, college, and even high school seem so far away that telling them, “You’ll need to know this for when you get a job. You’ll have to do this when you’re in college. This is going to help you when you get to high school,” is beyond their scope. I believe that by helping them see how what they are learning now is useful now will help them appreciate their education. Once they see an immediate use for it, they will be open to wanting the same for the future as well. Students also need to take responsibility for their own learning. On the first day of school, I tell my students that they have a legal right to an education and that if I am not providing it, they should demand it from me. Kids should not be content to have busy work, extra study halls, and lots of free time in class. They should demand what is rightfully theirs. Conversely, they should reciprocate for the teachers who DO provide them with a good education by paying attention in class, doing their work, being respectful, and looking for the worth in everything they are learning.
Parents need to value education as well. Not just pay lip service to education – truly value it. So many parents talk about how important their child’s education is but in the same breath gripe about the teachers and the school. Too many times parents are upset when their children bring home anything less than an A or complain when schoolwork infringes upon the baseball game scheduled for that evening. I would like to see parents who want their children engaged in learning during the day, parents who want their children challenged. Too often parents are content with their children receiving busywork because the report card grade ends up being good. Being challenged, being pushed intellectually doesn’t always result in an immediate A. Sometimes it’s a B or a C. Or lower. But what is important is that the child continues to push and be challenged because learning is going to happen and then those grades will come up. Too much importance is put on grades by parents. Look instead at the curriculum and the lessons that are being taught. Would you prefer your 8th grader to get an A on 6th grade work or a B on 9th grade work? Another thing, parents need to realize that school comes before extra-curriculars. Yes, outside activities are important – they are what help our children become well-rounded citizens and learn things like teamwork, sportsmanship, and taking criticism gracefully. But academics must take precedence. Realize that if your child has work to do for school while at home, it is not some conspiracy on the school’s part to make your child miserable or infringe upon your family time. It is going to help advance your child’s learning, so make it a priority in the home.
All these individuals need to make changes if we want meaningful education reform to happen. It needs to happen swiftly and as simultaneously as possible. Squabbling over who is right and who is wrong isn’t doing a single thing to help the kids in our schools right now. All these people stepping up isn’t going to solve every problem, either. There is still lots of work to be done. But if teachers do their jobs well AND if teachers’ unions set standards of excellence for their membership AND administrators are willing to fight to keep the good as well as remove the bad AND students take their education seriously AND parents get involved and support their kids and the schools, changes WILL occur and they will be positive.