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Mr. Obama, Let's Work On Teacher Working Conditions


José Vilson
Dear Mr. President,

During the presidential debates between you and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, you mentioned that you'd hire thousands more math and science teachers to boost this country's status as an economic power. Jennifer Martinez reported on your statement in The Hill newspaper:

"If we've got math teachers who are able to provide the kind of support that they need for our kids, that's what's going to determine whether or not new businesses are created here," Obama said during the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. "Companies are going to locate here depending on whether we've got the most highly skilled workforce."

As a math teacher, I understand the sentiment. Some of us have felt for far too long that we as a country haven't prioritized competency in math. Far too many people in our country have devalued math, asserting that children only need to know the basics. If they know how to read a graph or calculate a tip, they've mastered all the math they need in life, and any advanced math above that should be left for specialists and enthusiasts.

Yet, Robert Moses, a civil rights leader and the founder of the Algebra Project, saw the connection between 21st-century citizenship and mathematics a long time ago. I understand the economic imperative of assuring that our students, especially our most disadvantaged students, have the opportunity not only to survive but prosper, with a wealth of career options in engineering, computer science, economics, and statistics, amongst other professions.

With that said, even if we reach the lofty goal of getting 100,000 more math and science teachers into classrooms, the problem will most likely not be recruitment but retention. Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, recently cited new research re-confirming what so many of us have known all along: Math and science teachers leave the profession at or around the same clip as every other teacher does. Some of this is due to retirement, but they also tend to leave for higher salaries and, yes, working conditions.

This especially affects schools like mine: high-poverty schools where the system leans far too much on them without proper compensation.

We still have too many schools where teachers spend thousands on their own supplies, where principals have to choose between firing a teacher in the classroom or a set of school aides to help with the flow of the building, where students feel less like they're learning how to be an active participant in democracy and more like automatons filling out paperwork. Much like the rest of us do.

I'm inclined to say it's not all bad, either. Teachers generally love their students and want them to excel, and do so despite the challenges and turmoil present in schools. But the barriers are high and growing. From on high, we can act like the realities of the classroom matter very little, but these little pieces add up to an issue that pervades classrooms all over the country.

If you want to increase the amount of problem solvers and doers, you need to assure that you promote the conditions for your nation-builders to come there and stay.

Best,
José Vilson

José Vilson is a math teacher, coach, and data analyst for a middle school in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York.


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