NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

October 9, 2012

How are teachers the problem?

Viewpoint Stuart Deane
Newburyport Daily News

---- — I’m still irked by the keynote address of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the Republican National Convention. To listen to him, teachers unions are the ruin of Western Civilization and need to be crushed.

To the best of my knowledge, teachers haven’t added a dollar to the national debt. Wasn’t it the large bankers and Wall Street brokers who caused the meltdown that led to the current global economic crisis? Why isn’t Christie calling for the crushing of bankers and brokers?

Sure, teacher compensation impacts the local budget, but teachers too are citizens and taxpayers who contribute to both national and local tax revenues.

The word “union” is not a dirty word. It’s from the same root as “E pluribus unum,” “United we stand, divided we fall” and, yes, even the United States.

Unions historically rose in response to poor working conditions (textile mills, meat packing plants, one-room schools with unmarried women as teachers … ). In education, current contracts are bargained to improve both compensation and working conditions that are student learning conditions. With teachers unions under attack, with teachers expected to take the cuts to balance the budget, who will be the teachers of the future?

Several attacks on teachers unions need be addressed.

First, the issue of tenure: Tenure was designed to protect teachers from arbitrary retribution for the freedom to think and speak and teach in an open, exploratory atmosphere. Tenure is reached only after three years of satisfactory performance. If a fourth-year contract is granted to an unsatisfactory teacher, who is not doing his or her job?

In my own case as a journalism teacher who advocated for students expressing their views in the local weekly newspaper and as a special education teacher who advocated for some often controversial services, wouldn’t I have been at risk without tenure?

Even after tenure, teachers may be terminated for incompetence, insubordination or morals infractions. It’s not always easy, nor should it be, just as in the American legal system. But tenure is not intended to harbor bad teachers. Why would teachers want bad colleagues in their midst? Every child deserves a good teacher.

Again, in my own career as a multi-term teachers association president, I monitored the termination of teachers. The process was carried out. Sometimes it is better to part ways.

Second, the rule of last in, first out: In times of cutbacks, new teachers, including some dynamic ones, are lost. But looking at it from the other perspective, wouldn’t a school financial officer be tempted to lay off an experienced, top-of-the-salary-scale teacher and hire two beginners at the same total cost? That would be economical, but experienced teachers are more often than not the more effective teachers.

Finally, accountability: Yes, teachers must be accountable. The Massachusetts Teachers Association has agreed that standardized testing of students can be a part of a teacher’s evaluation, but there’s more to teaching than that — the inspiration and nurturing of a child’s intellect and self-image. The state MCAS is given in parts from the third to 10th grades. How to evaluate teachers in the non-MCAS years? Or teachers in foreign language, history, physical education, art, music … for which there are no MCAS tests? Classroom observation of teachers by a team of the principal, the department head and a peer makes more sense, with the opportunity for constructive criticism and follow-up.

As for testing itself, as an example of a multi-faceted assessment, I like the model used by the National Ski Patrol: an observation of skiing ability, a test of toboggan handling through an obstacle course, a series of accident simulations and a paper-and-pencil test of First Aid knowledge. Each measures a crucial aspect of the job. All four together measure the job. The paper-and-pencil test is not a test comprehensive enough to declare mastery nor to predict success in patrolling, learning or teaching.

We’ve all had favorite teachers in our pasts. What was it about them that made them memorable? Probably how they made us feel, how they demonstrated a mastery of and a love for their material and how they drew us into the understanding and appreciation of that material. Probably not how they raised our test scores.

“Education is not the filling of a pail,” wrote William Butler Yeats, “but the lighting of a fire.”

Teachers, at least the good ones, have a calling. The calling is in igniting the quest for learning in their students, not in the amassing of their own benefits, though they, too, must make a living.

Society must decide how much a good teacher is worth, how many it can thus afford and how it will attract future teachers into the field.

It’s a calling, but it’s not easy. Try it sometime. Sign up to be a substitute teacher. Manage a class full of energetic young people and teach them something at the same time. There’s a test for the critics.

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Stuart Deane lives in Newburyport.