Internet Roundup: Education, part 5

Here’s another set of links to recent articles and blogs on education. The theme this time seems to be the way we treat teachers, and the ideas of accountability and respect.

The New York Times recently had an opinion feature on “What Makes a Good Teacher,” which was really a way to discuss teacher quality and how to improve it. Most of the debate gets bogged down in the question that I told Lamar Alexander was exactly the wrong one to ask: how do we get rid of bad teachers? The one voice in this conversation worth listening to was Mercedes Schneider, the only classroom teacher participating in the debate, who said teachers need respect, autonomy, small classes, planning time, and freedom from punitive evaluation systems based on student test scores. Schnieder has a great blog as well, which I’ve added to the blogroll.

This blog contrasts the idea of accountability with a teacher’s daily interactions with students. It should already be clear to everyone that teachers can’t be responsible for a majority of the factors that influence student learning, but this vivid illustration makes that clear.

Recently, there has been a little bit of talk about holding states and school districts accountable for inputs, in addition to, or hopefully instead of, holding teachers accountable for outcomes. This means that governments and local education authorities are responsible for providing teachers with adequate resources and making sure that children have health care, nutrition, and safe homes, as these are prerequisites to learning. If we’re going to focus on “accountability,” it’s only fair to apply it across the board, rather than to focus only on teachers, who have little influence compared to home environments. I hope that this idea gains momentum and that people start to see how unreasonable and unfair the current use of “accountability” rhetoric is to teachers.

Thomas Weber of Dad Gone Wild has a great essay that uses a common sense metaphor comparing teachers to parents. He does a great job pointing out the reformers’ fallacy that teachers’ and students’ interests are opposed. In reality, just as parents fight for their children’s best interests, teachers always have students’ best interests at heart, even when they advocate for policies that appear to primarily benefit themselves. Just as a mom who’s not getting any sleep can’t do her best for her kids, a teacher who’s paid so poorly she needs a second job can’t teach to the best of her ability. Children benefit when the adults in charge of them feel secure and supported. And when teachers aren’t constantly afraid of losing their jobs and have the resources they need to do their best work, they improve continuously and stay in the profession longer, so that students benefit from their growing expertise. It’s easy to imagine a virtuous cycle of healthy classroom relationships, where now we have a vicious cycle of tense, exhausting relationships destabilized by outside influences (high stakes testing and poverty). I’m glad Thomas is continuing to write and speak out about these things. His perspective as a parent makes him extra credible when he speaks in support of teachers, and I thank him for that.

3 thoughts on “Internet Roundup: Education, part 5

  1. You know, one thing that always goes unsaid is the fact that the people who are most hateful of teachers probably all had bad experiences with teachers as children and/or as young adults themselves. Whether through laziness, negligence, overwhelm, or cruelty, the displayed behavior of those teachers had a powerful affect on shaping the attitudes of these contemporary belligerents.

    I know that I had a very poor opinion of teachers as a whole until I became one myself — I brought the passion my college professors had for learning into the public school classroom. I didn’t mimic my high school teachers, who were often angry and bored by their jobs, extremely petty, and mostly handed out worksheets to ‘shut us up’ while they sat at their desks. I had a lot of teachers who played favorites, and teachers who refused to write letters of recommendation for me as a high school senior, even though I was a straight-A student who had never been disruptive in class — the reason given for not writing the letters was ‘you are too poor to go to college.’

    This was in 1998. So I can always understand why people attack teachers to the extent they do. I would have grown up to be one of those attackers, had I not gone to a wonderful private college, experienced learning on a level I had never known before (such joy! such enthusiasm! such wonder! and no need for worksheets! no feeling that I was someone to ‘shut up’ until the bell rang). And then I ended up in a situation where becoming a teacher was the best path open to me in a tiny tourist town, and once I was a teacher, I met colleagues with incredible passion and joy, people who gave their students a very, very different learning environment than the one I grew up in.

    I think there is a lot of unaddressed pain in the most belligerent people attacking teachers today, and there is truth in that pain. Some of the anger is scapegoating. But some is rooted in agonizing experiences of being in classrooms with people who do not enjoy their jobs. Or people who actively hate their jobs, and tell their students that, as some of my high school teachers did.

    After five and a half years of teaching, when my dignity could no longer excuse my low wages, I left the profession. It would have crushed my soul otherwise. Other people don’t get that choice. They remain in a profession that pays them pennies, and a lifetime of low pay can definitely damage a person’s integrity.

    Thanks for letting me share. 🙂

    • I’m so sorry you had those horrible experiences in school! I can’t imagine how demoralizing it must have been to meet with such indifference from your teachers. That you didn’t stop learning after that discouragement and came out of that experience as compassionate as you are is a testimony to your character.

      I’m not sure how teachers can respond to the genuine pain you’re describing. Should we apologize on behalf of unknown colleagues who didn’t do their jobs well? If you’re right that this pain is one thing driving education politics, that does explain the viciousness of some people’s criticisms of teachers, but I don’t think it changes the facts or shifts the balance of who’s right and wrong (at least not in my mind). It’s not fair for good teachers to be punished for the actions of bad teachers. Judging teachers by student test scores–the way that reformers want to separate the good and bad teachers for rewards and punishment–has been shown to be statistically invalid. Would it help if teachers acknowledged that some of us are not good at our jobs? It might alleviate lingering pain and/or provide closure for people like you, but I think that’s all it could do. I don’t think anyone is arguing that all teachers are perfect. The problem is that if teachers join their opponents in focusing extra attention on the worst examples of our profession, it would considerably weaken their arguments for respect and autonomy. What kind of response to this pain would you like to see?

      For me, one huge aspect of teachers’ activism is the fact that it’s a part of a larger struggle for the rights of workers in general. There isn’t much that I want for teachers that I wouldn’t also want for other workers in all industries: a fair wage, health care, paid sick days, vacation time, a reasonable workload, the resources necessary to perform at a high level, protection from unfair evaluations and from retaliation from vicious supervisors. If you see it this way, maybe it seems more fair, and less selfish, for teachers to speak up for themselves.

  2. Pingback: MeReader: Year Four in Review | MeReader

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