Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

03/22/2011
The principal's office of Union City High Scho...

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I really like my principal. When his office door is open it is almost always okay to just walk in and talk to him. He’s smart, generally fair, willing to listen to ideas and different opinions. He gives useful, timely feedback on formal observations and more frequent informal ones. He talks to you in private. Most of all, he is consistent. Our school has very little teacher turnover. Our school rating has been rising steadily.

I’m not trying to butter him up; I just want to show how very different he is from the first principal I worked for.

It was impossible to just walk into that first principal’s office because it was behind a thick Plexiglas barrier and she had to buzz you in even to approach her. She was not open to ideas and had no interest in what parents or people on her staff thought or had to say. She regularly yelled at teachers in front of their students. She’d love you one day or year but hate you the next.

Barrier - PCA 93

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Feedback was rarely constructive and hardly timely; I’m still waiting for the results of her 2006 observation of my lesson.

On more than one occasion she changed the rating of a lesson observed by one of the assistant principals from satisfactory to unsatisfactory even though she was not present at the observation.

She once said in public, “I like my new white teachers better than my old white teachers.” I was a second year white teacher and turnover was so high it wasn’t clear whether I was new or old.

The first year that teachers could transfer without prior principal approval more than 70% of that school’s teachers moved on to other schools, including all of the fifteen or so first and second year teachers. The same thing happened the following year. That school’s rating declined consistently and now it is being closed.

I bring this all up because right now a 50-person state of New York task force is in a big hurry to develop a new teacher rating program. They want it written before the end of June so the regents can approve it and regulations can be developed to implement it in September.

You’d think that they’d want to test the never-before-tried plan before they broadly apply it, but no. Apparently teacher livelihoods are not so important that you’d want to make sure the system was fair, workable and accurate before using it to make decisions affecting the continuation of their careers.

Under the plan, teacher ratings as highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective would be based 20% on student performance on state tests, 20% on school-district tests (that don’t now exist) or unspecified other measures, and 60% on classroom observations and other reviews. It is not at all clear what the basis for rating teachers in non-testing subjects — social studies, art, music, phys ed among others — or librarians would be.

Teachers rated as ineffective two years in a row will be subject to a hearing regarding the termination of their employment.

Governor Cuomo says, “We need a legitimate evaluation system to rely on.”

Absolutely, but this isn’t it.

The Journal News reports at least one educator on the panel creating the system, South Orangetown school superintendent Kenneth Mitchell, thinks the state is moving forward recklessly, “There’s a real potential for implosion…you need years to make these changes.”

One of the regents says he fears that forcing a new system on districts in such a short period of time could lead to unforeseen costs and worse.

“It’s gotten so far out of hand, but there’s nothing we can do at this point. If mistakes are made and the data is flawed, it would be terrible to make it public. People will say ‘I don’t want my kid in that person’s class.’”

Did you notice that not even the people worried about this program never mentioned the possible effect it could have on teacher livelihoods?

This is why teachers like me support unions.

United Federation of Teachers

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Without my union standing up for people like me principals like my first one could ruin careers on a whim.

Without my union standing up for me I would be leery of disagreeing with my principal no matter how much I thought he might be on the wrong track.

Without my union standing up for me I would not be able to say my chancellor, a very capable woman in the publishing field, is completely inexperienced, unqualified and unsuited to run a school system of any size, not to mention the biggest one in the country, and that by appointing her our mayor insulted the students, their parents, and everyone who works in the NYCDOE, no matter how true it is.

Without my union no teacher would be entitled to a fair hearing on disciplinary matters.

Without my union no parent would have any voice in the operation of their children’s schools.

Without my union the billionaires like Bill Gates.would not have anyone standing up to them as they privatized public education. Would anyone listen to him about anything to do with eduction if he didn’t have all that money?

Without my union the special education students would get lost in the shuffle and not get their mandated services.

Without my union standing up for people like me I would not have received the quality education I got from the NYC public schools.

Without my union standing up for me I’d be afraid to write this blog post.

That’s why teachers like me support unions.


It Isn’t In the Air

03/18/2011
Chalk Dust

Image by scholz via Flickr

It’s not in the water.

It’s not in our food.

It’s neither in the music we hear nor the news we watch.

It is certainly not in the chalk dust we breathe.

None of those things hold the magic to make a good teacher better and a better teacher great.

How does it happen?

It happens through the structured processes of teachers learning from better teachers.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

I hope I’m not bursting anyone’s bubble when I tell you it isn’t quite that simple.

Not even the best teachers among us are good at teaching everything. No one teacher will ever tell you that they know all there is to know about teaching. If your kid’s teacher ever says that to you RUN to the principal’s office and have your child’s class changed.

Teaching is incredibly complex and very hard to do very well, just like being a nuclear physicist. Fortunately, the people most likely to be bad teachers never try teaching at all. Most of the rest of the people who turn out to be bad teachers quit within the first three years.

So much for the new teachers being the best ones. Enthusiasm is great but it only carries one so far. You don’t get to become one of the best unless you hang around for a while, at least until the magic happens and you get to rub shoulders, work hard and learn from better teachers than yourself.

As much as I champion incidental learning, there is a lot to be said for structure in the process of learning complex things, things like nuclear physics and teaching.

All the politicians say they want better teachers, but they act like developing them is just a matter of drinking the right water, breathing sweeter (or maybe smoggier) air, or perhaps they think we need to breath the dust of colored chalk instead of bland white.

I know they think this way not because they say so. Oh no, they say just the opposite, but I learned a long time ago to pay no attention to what politicians say; you have to watch what they do.

What they’re doing is planning to take all the funds away from the National Writers Project, the Teaching American History program, and all the other programs that provide the instructional and experiential structures that turn good teachers better and better teachers more so.

This is a map of the NWP's local Writing Proje...

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Times are tough. Teachers are being laid off. Class sizes are getting bigger and bigger. Those teachers who will be in the classrooms come September will have to do much more with much less.

Don’t we want them, don’t we want us, to be able to do the best possible job, to teach our sons and daughters to be capable, confident writers, to help them understand that history is made daily and that actions today determine our future as much as any event or person in the past?

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Write, call or, better yet, camp out in the office or front lawn of your Congressperson or Senator. Make them understand that great teaching is not as simple as breathing and that it doesn’t come out of a sparkling spring. Tell them the ugly truth and make them face it.

Great teachers are made the hard way. Through working at it in superlative programs like the National Writers Project and Teaching American History.
Tell your Congressman that they can’t have it both ways. They can’t complain about bad teaching while pulling the funding from the programs that improve teachers.

Insist that the National Writers Project and Teaching American History be funded now, tomorrow, next year and for as long as there are teachers willing to work hard to make themselves better at their craft.

Otherwise they should just shut up.

This is being cross-posted at the Cooperative Catalyst, a collective blog by people who care deeply about the state of learning in this country and are trying to figure out how to fix it and this post is part of the #blog4nwp effort to save a very worthwhile program.

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Are You Paying Attention? Is Anyone?

03/08/2011
July calendar

Image by Vanessa Pike-Russell via Flickr

Sometimes I wonder if logic has totally departed from this world.

Example 1: The NY State Board of Regents

This well-educated group of fifteen or so individuals who set education policy in the state seems to have lost touch with logic. At a time when almost everyone, including teachers, is saying that the school system as we know it needs more-or-less radical change, the NY Regents are proposing four more weeks of school per year.

Yes, you read that right.

They want to do more of what isn’t working.

I often tell my students that if the approach they’re taking to solve a problem isn’t working they should try something else; that doing more of what isn’t working in the first place and expecting a different result is a form of insanity.

I think the air conditioning in their offices is making the Regents stupid because they now think that having school until the end of July is going to produce smarter kids. I guess it is possible.

The problem is that the Regents won’t recognize the real smart kids. They’ll be the ones who refuse to spend the summer sitting in sweltering classrooms doing the same stuff that hasn’t helped them learn during the previous ten months.

Example 2: People who still want to be teachers.

Teaching requires more education for less pay than almost any other job. Plus it has the added benefit of getting blamed for all of society’s current problems and, likely, all the ones in the next 50 to 100 years should society last that long.

The paperwork is overwhelming, and you’ll have to pull money out of your pocket to pay for supplies, some of them very basic, that the taxpayers either can’t or won’t pick up the tab for.

Teachers put in long days during which bathroom trips need to be scheduled in advance, then take work home in the evenings and on weekends, all the time listening to people who have never done the job and probably couldn’t tell you how easy it is.

It is said that teachers tend to come from the bottom of their graduating class. I can prove it. Despite all the attacks and everything else, people still want to become teachers.

There’s got to be something wrong with them.

I once proposed that people who want to be President of the United States should be disqualified from the job because their egos are too big.

I now think that people who want to be teachers should be disqualified from the job because their egos are too small.

Example 3: You

You’re still reading this, after all.

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