Yesterday, iced in, cut off and without electricity, sitting close enough to the cozy fire in the fireplace to make the newest Hunger Games movie title actually mean something literal (look it up), I did the thing Americans of this generation do when bored…yep, I took out the ole cell phone and wasted the daylight hours on social media. Now that word “wasted” is arguable because, well, there’s some great stuff floating around out there. Pics of high school acquaintances in their swimwear lying in the snow, more pics of ice covered roses and branches, tributes to Nelson Mandela, the video of that two-year-old kid who can shoot a basketball like a pro, and that commercial of Adam Levine in his underpants are all very entertaining, but the true grit is the stuff that inspires you to do something when your world thaws out.
And so, I read this article from the Huffington Post called A Warning to Young People: Don’t Become a Teacher by Randy Turner. I should probably add here that I’m a teacher and have been for about a decade now. I taught at the college level for a few years before moving into middle school public education for that demographic known as low-income, high needs, predominantly Hispanic. Last year I turned to the dark side and went to charter education, and this year I’m back in middle school, public ed, nearly the same as previous demographic with an added bonus…I’m in the wasteland with the “forgotten ones”–wait to hear me out on this. I’m at a failing school with a predominantly black student population. What I’m trying to say, is that I’ve had a bit of experience with education and I’ve seen the children who are (insert sarcastic inflection here) “not left behind”. As I read the article above, I found myself agreeing aloud, occasionally hollering out a rousing AMEN! This led to a somewhat energetic conversation with my significant other and his cynical attitude about why this article fails. Turns out he’s sorta right (damn I hate when that happens)! The article does what many teachers do…gripe and moan about what’s wrong with education without offering any real solutions. Teachers like to say what doesn’t work but seldom give an alternative. I agree with Mr. Turner on every point, but it’s time to think about how we could fix the system; how we could cauterize education and get rid of the infectious parts. These are my solutions:
1) Teachers need to grow a pair, or an extra pair as the case may be. I love my fellow teachers and know their hearts are in the right place when it comes to their students, but we’ve become afraid of retribution. Education has become so political yet so neutral, so fearful of leftist policy and, dare-I-say, collective action, that we have become disenfranchised. When faced with a fight to clean-up the muck in a very polluted river or keep ourselves and our family clean, we save ourselves…all others be damned. And if a small group of teachers did “rise up” in opposition to the political tide, they would quickly be decimated. There’s no place for rabble rousers anymore.
2) Teachers need to be paid more. Either you agree wholeheartedly or think we’re whining and unworthy, just sitting on our haunches…glorified babysitters. I can promise you we are not. Think of it as an investment. We are training tomorrow’s decision makers. What they do, or do not, learn will play a direct role in the future of healthcare, global competitiveness and the economy, agriculture, scientific research, art and literature, technology and innovation, immigration, population and any other “-ion” you can think of. Great teachers often leave their jobs because they trade off of a menial salary worn away further buying supplies for their classroom with a few extended vacations that are usually spent grading, planning, and participating in professional development. In fact, great teachers seldom stop thinking about their teaching, often to the detriment of their own family life. Add to this that there is often a war of wills happening in the classroom with students having been socially conditioned that they are a part of the educational “team”, and you have teachers that must work their field like an NFL quarterback, taking the heat but letting the team get the glory. How about paying teachers that salary?
3) Reinstate tenure/reward teaching experience when combined with innovation. Believe in teachers as experts in their fields. As mentioned in Mr. Turner’s article, teaching jobs are now being filled by candidates from Teach for America and “the ABCTE (American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence), a program that allows people to switch careers and become teachers without having to go through required teaching courses.” There are most assuredly some wonderful teachers that emerge from this pack, but would you allow a teacher to become a pilot with a few months intense training and a mentor visiting once in a while with generalized advice? Of course you wouldn’t. This is an absurd suggestion because people’s lives are at stake…..um, yeah, exactly.
4) Merit pay by it’s on right isn’t a horrible idea but let’s evaluate teacher performance by tiered committees and continuing education. Like Mr. Turner, I also allow my students to critique my classroom and find this quite valuable. I don’t even mind the idea of a student critique being a part of my final evaluation. However, these are children and they must be taught how to critique and therein lies the problem. Objectivity is not always the strong suit of children and how do you avoid trainer cross-contamination? For that matter, how can you avoid the same in adults and administrators? One method would be to have separate sets of committees of students, parents, peers, and administrators who are elected by teachers and then responsible for teacher evaluation. These committee members would each do their own evaluation of the teachers assigned to them and meet together to combine their results. These results could then be coupled with the amount of continuing education and professional development in which the teacher participated. Notice there isn’t a mention of standardized test scores.
5) Leave “No Child Left Behind” in the past. It doesn’t work. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. We aren’t reaching every child. There are “forgotten ones”, as I mentioned above. The kids at my school-poor, black, living in prime real estate. When these kids fail, teachers are given extra paperwork to do to ensure the teacher is doing everything possible to help that child pass. This “everything possible” can include spending hours upon hours in tutoring, redesigning tests that may be too difficult for certain children to pass, allowing remediation for failed work all they way up to the day grades must be input, and this remediation can include work that was never done in the first place, so not even a “re” mediation, just indefinite deadlines, and then there are kids who are labeled special education or some other classification. The message sent to teachers is “don’t fail them because it’s more work on you,” but the bigger message is sent to the child that since they have a label they just don’t matter at all. Kids are smart, but they need to be properly educated, not sent subliminal messages that become all to clear. The key word in education for so many years now has been “differentiation”. Teachers in every classroom are supposed to see the value in every child and teach to their strengths while lessening their weaknesses. We do that. So why does the law lump them into one group known as “child” and expect them to succeed? Let’s face it, some kids like to work on cars, and some kids like to play music, and some kids draw, other kids like math, want to be doctors and lawyers, be President, play sports, work in factories, and some will work fast food and be happy with that. There isn’t a “right” career or a “right career path” but there are some wrong ones. Let’s teach kids that there are career paths that can bring them joy, further our economy, and keep them from being dependent for their entire lives. Let’s teach kids that they matter.
5) Standardize test if you must, but stop tying the test to money. Occlusion and manipulation come from tests tied to money and sends a very clear message to students that education doesn’t matter, results matter. There are 8th graders who can’t read or write but they can sure think, and when these “failure students” put the pieces together they know that they will continue to be pushed through a broken system anyway. Once this message becomes clear, many just stop trying. And hello, what’s the key word in standardized testing? Answer: standardized. Kids aren’t standard. They’re different each and every one. Why do we expect their results to be the same?
6) Stop funding charter schools with public money. Okay, I put it out there. Charter schools aren’t playing by the same rules. I could write a book on this topic and maybe I’ll just do that, but in short, charter schools take money from public education and also get private funding, a double dip, but they don’t have the same challenges as public schools. It’s like comparing the stock market to a flea market. “But we use randomized lotteries to pick our students,” they argue. “We get the same troubled students as public schools but have 98-100% college acceptance,” they argue. This data is so misleading. Charter schools have the option of removing troubled, low-performing students before they really fudge up the data. By the 11th grade, these “bad eggs” are no longer attending charter, they’ve been pushed back into public schools which now have less money for special programs (because it’s going to charters) and more grief from politicians about how public school can’t measure up. Should I even mention that charter administrators are promoted from within, often without masters degrees and under 1 year experience in a classroom. Basically, if you say the right things as written in the Dummies Guide to Getting Promoted in Charter Schools you can become the boss of a teacher who has multiple years in a classroom and a higher degree. And what about the fact that these same administrators during parent conferences then attribute poor-performing students’ failures to their poor prior public school education? Waiting for Superman? We already have Superman working in a public school classroom and Superwoman too. We just need to value them as such.
7) Reinstate corporal punishment. Ugh! I might get some grief for this, but let me explain. Firstly, corporal punishment has a wide definition which includes assigning push-ups as a student punishment in gym, or having a student who stuck a baseball-sized wad of gum to their desk stay after school to clean gum from the under desks that cost the taxpayer almost $200.00 a pop. Corporal punishment isn’t just smacking someone on the hand with a ruler or blistering the butt of an unruly 4th grader. Not that I’m against that either. I’m not arguing that a classroom teacher should be paddling a 14-year-old, but if corporal punishment still existed in elementary then by middle school there might not be quite the classroom management problems we have now. It should be a collaboration between teacher and parent, with parents being apprised of the situation and having a part in the punishment. Behavior is learned and it does take a village. If you’re the parent who is flabbergasted by this proposition and believes that only you should dole out punishment to your child, then perhaps you might be part of the problem. Your child will be punished for poor behavior as an adult who can’t follow the rules of his society or employer. And I can say from experience, that many of you don’t even pick up that cell phone in your pocket when a teacher calls to get your input and you don’t call back either. Telling your child that you’re tired a teacher keeps calling about their behavior is not a consequence for bad behavior. And what about those kids who don’t have parents at home, or whose parents are too busy acting like children themselves? Someone has to teach these children what it means to have dreams but also what it means to have consequences for their actions. Again, it takes a village and the teacher is with the child often more hours in a day than the parents.
8) Vote for policymakers who have classroom experience. Now there’s a novel idea. Reading about something, even visiting a class for a day or two, is not the same as spending 184 days with these children, seeing their aspirations and their obstacles, getting to know them and their parents or lack thereof. Participating occasionally isn’t the same as your whole life being invested in the outcome.
Maybe you don’t agree with me. I’m okay with that. I care deeply about my students. All of them. I want them to succeed and have never been more saddened than to see such an amazing group of strong, and in my case predominantly black and Hispanic young people who have been so failed by education. Many of them are in the 7th and 8th grade and cannot read or write. They have lost good teachers who have gone elsewhere because a career in public education is too difficult to maintain without losing your head and your heart. The heart you give away despite the difficulties, but constantly having your head on the chopping block is no way to live. So, if you don’t agree with me do something about it. We need real political change. We need taxpayers to put their money where their mouths are and invest in poor neighborhoods without plans to move people out but instead move them up. We need to be instruments of social change. Keeping our mouths and our money quiet is not the answer.