We Need to Get Better at Doing Our Own Public Relations
Why do people who are not trained educators believe they know how schools should be run, classrooms should be designed, curriculum should be chosen, standards should be set, and when and which assessments should be given? The usual answer is, "Everyone went to school so everyone thinks they know about how they should be run." But we wonder if that is the answer. It is one thing to say that in one's opinion, things don't seem right. To some, educators get paid too much, have too much job protection, the Common Core is a policy nightmare, or standardized testing is a money making proposition for the corporations that hurts children. They are all fair issues to raise. But they are troubling beliefs if the holder thinks they have identified a problem, know the answer and are not open to dialogue with those who are educated, informed, and experienced. They are also troubling if we choose not to engage in these discussions. Their voices are fueled by their deeply held belief that something is wrong. The media outlets, including social media, give them voice. While we are keeping our noses to the grindstone, thoughts are permitted to be spread without the important process of engaging in dialogue with those who have a different view. At times we do voice disagreement, but are neither organized well enough nor seem to be good enough at engaging in that dialogue either. Herein lies a conundrum. Let's talk about job security, unions, and pay as an example.
Do teachers' unions provide educators with job protection for "bad teachers"? And do teachers get paid too much? Do we, as a country, value teachers who spend their money to go to college and then dedicate their careers to working with children? There are many places in the US that do not have unions to advocate for adequate income for educators. In some of those places, attracting and keeping teachers is a challenge. Charlotte, North Carolina, is one example where TFA teachers arrive and leave within a few years, leaving their schools with a turnover challenge that affects students. Other factors are contributing to their turnover problem, among them, teacher salaries. Charlotte strives to improve the teaching and learning in their schools but see low salaries as a disadvantage. They must find and keep qualified talented teachers. The question is how?
What is driving the question of pay and talent? Could people believe that working with children is easy; that anyone can teach? Some states have chosen unions and tenure and others have chosen other routes to offer protection to educators. In Alexandria, Virginia, 50% of elementary teachers are paid less than $58,930. which is their median salary. In the state of Virginia, they have something called "continuing contracts".
...for experienced public school teachers. This protects such a teacher from arbitrary termination between school years, or without notice or opportunity to contest a recommendation to dismiss the teacher for good cause. However, continuing contract is not lifetime tenure. Teaching positions can be eliminated and continuing contracts terminated if student enrollment declines, subjects or classes are eliminated, or school funding is cut.
What is a teacher worth? Teachers who do the same job and have the same experience most often receive the same pay. This is because they are expected to do the same work. Even in states with tenure, the leadership has the responsibility to review and evaluate the teachers' work and decide, over a probationary period of about three years whether or not the teacher is worthy of continuing. If the leadership fails to do a good job of that, in states where there is tenure, teachers are afforded a level of job security that does offend some. But no one can fake three years of quality work with children. Anyone who has worked with children knows that. Is teacher pay and protection a union issue? Should the discussions be about unions? Or is the issue a leadership one in which we should ask ourselves, "Are we doing a good enough job at evaluating the performance of our teachers?" And, "Why is there a belief "out there" among some, that we are protecting "bad teachers"? Are we?
What is a bad teacher? And what is our role in changing that? We prefer to think of them as teachers in need of coaching. When something isn't being done correctly, or well, we counsel. And if counsel is not enough, support is necessary. Schools are steadied by its teachers, who usually remain in a district longer than the leadership. It is essential that each leader focus first, foremost, and always on the development of their teachers.
So let's return to the question of why there are those in the public who question our value and step over the line into our work? What are or aren't we doing that permits that to happen? So much is percolating in our work, it may be difficult to consider, but it is best we see clearly and listen well. Maybe our voices are being heard in opposition but not in conversation. We too are better at sharing our objections. Educators who object to new assessment systems, evaluation systems, and standards have had their voices heard. They even fueled the public's objections. But how can we get better at giving voice to what is happening, how complex our work is, how talented our teachers are and the challenges we meet as we work with the children? How can we educate the public about what it is like as we meet the challenges presented by the increasing numbers of children living in poverty, the increasing number of children for whom English is a second language, diminishing resources and increased responsibilities, learning new methods of teaching and new standards, and diminishing resources? While we need the voices of opposition, we also need opportunities to be engaged in conversations that educate and begin to help those who stand in opposition to our work to understand the value that does exist. We also need opportunites to be engaged in conversations that inform us of what it is we do that contributes to a negative view of our work.
Word spreads easily when we are against something. Negativity loves company. But public relations is a profession and it is not in our training. It is not a matter of defending our profession. Rather, it is a matter of being better at sharing what it is we do and inviting conversations with those who do not understand. We have yet to hear of a school or district that is trying to fail. We are all in the process of planning the retooling necessary to bring our schools forward. That is hard work. Some are further ahead than others. But to maintain our successes, and gain the support of the general public, including those who throw stones, new work is required. Getting our message out there and engaging in new conversations has to be higher on our list and we need to get better at it.