Why are the papers and the policy-makers all over those protesting teachers in Detroit--while the white-collar crime in charter world goes virtually unnoticed?


Teachers are not always good at deciding who gets the spotlight and who is benched (or forced to stay home) when trying to present their best face to the public. Often, students rise to a special occasion. Can what's best for a difficult child also be good for his classmates, as they learn about getting along, performing and making music--a community activity? Could this be a teachable moment?


Who wants to read scholarly journal articles confirming teachers' conviction that they have lost control over what should be their work: instruction, curriculum, assessments, teacher evaluation and which qualifications should permit entry into profession? Not a lot of inspiration there.


What is a field trip's ultimate purpose? How will the students apply what they have learned? What are their takeaways? And--because these are the questions we hear most often in national policy discussion--was this content standards-based? Could it be delivered (and measured) more efficiently and effectively? Say, in a video or interactive computer game? I'm going to go ahead and answer that question: No.


I have seen any number of education organizations, with thoughtful and important goal statements on their websites, position teacher leadership as something they can somehow teach or imbue (kind of like grit, come to think of it). Yes, there is Stuff You Have to Know to become a teacher leader (teachers don't wade around in policy-making, traditionally). Yes, it helps to collaborate with others who have good ideas. But is there a formalized pathway to leadership? In a sense, it's an insult to excellent teachers everywhere, who have held their grade level cohort or department or buildings together through determination ...


Blaming public education for things over which it has zero control is now thoroughly woven into the national discourse on a myriad of issues. Stupid voters? Blame the schools. Lazy workers and economic downslope? Public education's fault. Anti-intellectualism? They must have learned it at school. Just another opportunity to take a cheap, unsubstantiated shot at public schools. Who does that? And believes they're justified in doing so?


In a sense, a teacher is a public person, with an audience of a few hundred students, parents and colleagues, rather than millions of viewers. Like a sportscaster, a teacher's professional reputation is built on her public face, the respect built around her visible work and expertise. She has a right to draw a line between her private life, and her public persona. It's not easy to be a teacher and maintain a private life, entirely separate from your career.


If districts, states, and the country don't make sweeping changes to public schools and the cities housing them, recruiting more teachers is going to be a waste of time and money and trying to retain those teachers will be a fool's errand. Great teachers should be rewarded for being great teachers, and they can be identified as such without an over-reliance on test scores. While financial incentives may work for some, increased autonomy and the ability to pursue customized professional development are equally important to others, and retaining great teachers will require both.


A young man I spoke with in Detroit said: We used to talk, all the time, about sustainability. But that's a 20th century concept. Now we talk about flexibility, the opportunity for constant growth, change and innovation. No one solution. Why say nice things about Detroit? Detroit matters to the health of the whole state of Michigan. In fact, Detroit matters to the entire nation. If we can't solve problems with flagship businesses like the auto industry, or the problem of educating kids in deep poverty, we're in trouble.


So there's the micro-question: What does it take to keep something successful and amazing going--providing the same critical services, contributing to the value of the Detroit community and students' lives? Do you do whatever it takes, and deal with the consequences as they come? Then there are the macro-questions: When resources from a public system build something wonderfully useful, addressing a social need with persistence and imagination, what do you lose when you turn over control and management to a private company? What strings are attached when you supplement public monies with private funding?


The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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