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?


How did Detroit go from being a vibrant, workingman's city full of large brick homes, ethnic neighborhoods, a place where the efforts of a growing and thriving middle class were visible everywhere--to a third world city in a first world nation? What impact has that had on public education in Detroit? And what can be done to educate students left in Detroit to believe in their own intellectual strengths and boundless creativity?


Is the goal of teacher leadership to "improve teaching and learning practices?" Well--it's one possible goal. But isn't there a panoply of goals involved in teacher leadership? What about the assertion that we're wrestling with leadership for one reason---to increase student learning and achievement? Pushing teacher leadership into the "practice" box and narrowing its scope to jazzed-up instructional strategies and "measuring" learning is precisely where "reformers" would like to lead us. Notice who's being "influenced" in the definition-- not policy-makers, the media or the general public. Stay in that classroom, teacher. We'll make the big decisions that shape your work.


The National Teacher of the Year has often been someone selected for their powerful, unique story. Mary Beth was simply a great teacher, from a medium-sized town in Minnesota. She was powerful in a completely different way. Time and time again, I heard her say: Any teacher can become a leader. You don't have to have a dazzling presence or a compelling background. Normal people can lead. Look at me, she would say. I'm so normal it hurts.


Kindergartner, dreaming of a better world: "I would have everyone go to the same school." Now there's a dream--what if everyone went to the same school, where there were plenty of art supplies and a teacher who nurtured drawing skills as well as conversations about the people who changed the country where these children live?


Affluence makes even mediocre teaching look good and poverty can make masterful teaching appear mediocre. It takes many clock hours within classroom walls to decipher the difference. Few education change-makers and upper crust teachers dedicate that kind of time to our neglected classrooms. The essential resource that is missing is our presence. Detroit's inhumane classroom conditions didn't occur overnight; they existed for at least a generation. Where were we?


The two mega-issues that emerge whenever teachers talk about missing assignments and justifying their actions toward late work are grades--always grades--and the idea that we owe kids "real" experiences to prepare them for the big, bad world where they will be presumably be working in a few years. But there's a lot more to think about.


It's wrong to characterize this string of protests in Detroit as selfish actions taken by a minority of teachers--or a union-driven overreaction to a belt-tightening. There's a lot at stake here, beginning with the survival of a major public school system. Think this could never happen in your state or district? There doesn't seem to be much to prevent collapse of public education in Detroit, except for the professional courage of its teachers.


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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