From teacher Unions to Teach for America and tenure, questions of what it means to be a “good” teacher have driven much of my “Education in the U.S.” independent study with Maria Kelly. Teachers are responsible for molding the American citizens of the future. They teach them to read and interact, build their self-esteem, and provide experiences in the classroom that will become important pieces of their future life scripts and aspirations. Educating is arguably the most important profession in the nation. It is a the ultimate responsibility. And yet, the career is greatly under-appreciated. It is one of the easiest fields to enter. We are horrified by the idea of a 22-year-old boasting a degree requiring no biology or medicine stepping foot into the pressured world of nursing, saddled with the responsibilities of life and death, but we expect and commend the movement of inexperienced 20-somethings without teaching degrees into the education profession. We recruit those with the least knowledge and experience to teach the children with the highest needs—placing often naively optimistic college grads into hostile inner city schools. The old adage “those who can’t do, teach” is a testament to the dysfunction of our system. Throughout the semester, I was introduced to the tangled web of teaching—a complicated realm of hiring, firing, curriculum, evaluation, pressure, leadership, and (most importantly) investment. Drawing again from John Merrow’s reflective book The Influence of Teachers, (because it ties together all of this semester’s studies so seamlessly) a passage centered on the criteria for a “good” teacher stands out. Quoting Steven Farr, Teach for America’s chief knowledge officer, Merrow writes: “Superstar teachers…avidly recruit students and their families into the process; maintain focus, ensure that everything they [do] contribute[s] to student learning; they plan exhaustively and purposefully…by working backward from the desired outcome; and they work relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls” (35). In my work in these past months I have developed a theory similar to Farr’s.
Watching video biographies of Teach for America alumni who succeeded and failed, reading about the horrifying conditions of underfunded schools with low expectations for minority students living in poverty, and viewing the dynamic footage in the documentary Waiting for Superman that contrasted the enthusiastic teaching style of charter schools against the depressing atmosphere of inner city public schools where teachers count minutes until the bell, I sensed a common theme. In all of the text, media, and observations of my Spring spent discussing and chewing over the education system, the most effective schools and teachers were those that were fully invested in the lives and futures of their students. They were the teachers who put in countless overtime hours, made the effort to learn the unique story of each student, creatively planned curriculum, and flexibly adjusted to meet the needs of a class. They recognized that when students weren’t getting it, the teacher needed to change. They explained material in multiple ways, bridged the real world with the academic, and made it known to every student that they cared—all while likely putting up with low pay. These are the types of educators we need to bring into our system. We need to take our American obsession with competition and move it away from standardized tests and toward job applications for teachers. New teachers should meet the 4 criteria Merrow lists (recruiting students and their families into the process; extreme focus, exhaustive and purposeful planning, and a refusal to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls)
before even being considered. Before we invest in fancy technology, playground “coaches” (a new phenomenon outlined in a recent article by the Star Tribune), or security guards, we need to make an effort to raise the standards when it comes to recruiting teachers who will make investment a priority.
The teachers of my Utopian school bring more than lesson plans to the table. Just as their students are given the opportunity to do their absolute best, teachers help one another to find complete success. From day one, they are respected and supported. The faculty has the feeling of a large family. Constantly in contact with their students from breakfasts spent chatting in the cafeteria to interactive lessons in the classroom and games played on the playground, they follow the progress of each child. Lesson plans are adapted to fit the learning styles of each student—utilizing the multiple intelligences of learning. Every teacher demonstrates the capacities of a connecting mind—always making an effort to teach through an interdisciplinary perspective. From geometry on the basketball court, to poetry in biology class, students reap the benefits of astute and creative teachers as they develop their own abilities to connect across all areas of content. Given the possibility of creating their own tailored curriculum, teachers have the responsibility of preparing students for a world that stretches beyond tests and text.
When it comes to the complex conundrum of teacher evaluation, the effectiveness of the teachers in my ideal school is not measured in stressful planned events. Instead of the common practice that involves a principal taking notes from the back of a classroom, the teachers I imagine are checked up on regularly by their principals and their teaching peers. Through unannounced visits where specific advice is the goal (avoiding a high stakes “score”) teachers are helped rather than judged. An emphasis is placed on how to improve rather than a forced feeling of “get better or get out.” In The Life and Death of Great American School System, Diane Ravitch reminds us of our American tendency to rate, grade, and evaluate without offering structured advice about how to change. This sentiment was echoed too in the stories of Sarah Sentilles and many Teach for America alumni. By creating teacher evaluations that are low pressure and focused on helpful advice, my ideal school seeks to develop collaborative and confident teachers. The mantra is not to be the “best,” but that all teachers should constantly be improving. In a country where parents often fight tooth and nail to make sure their child gets the one “good” teacher, we need to make sure that every teacher in is one to whom parents and students are proud to be connected. We need to take the teachers with the best reputations and spread their expertise to those who struggle.
Furthermore, the Utopian school I picture requires teachers to attend regular professional development meetings. These gatherings will further promote faculty collaboration and a continued devotion to improvement. Taking place every two to three weeks, several of these meetings will be reserved for conversations acknowledging the embedded subconscious societal assumptions about race, class, and the status quo. Always working toward the goal of equality, the faculty will make the most of these conversations—using diverse perspectives to inform decisions about how to further close the “four gaps” of education. This idea is one inspired by my interaction with the Courageous Conversations Program currently being used by teachers and parents in my former high school. Recognizing the importance and valor of this progress in my admittedly “white-washed” hometown, I imagine my ideal school taking the Courageous Conversation to the next level. Before being hired, teachers will be required to go through sensitivity training. They will create their own “race biographies”—uncovering any subconscious stereotypes they may hold, and working to eliminate them. They will participate in workshops designed to teach teachers about the hidden curriculum—the idea that the structure and atmosphere of the classroom impacts the experience of the student just as much as the lessons and tests taken on evenly spaced desktops. However, these training sessions and workshops will not be limited to new teachers alone. Gathering again as a group once every month, all teachers will be expected to continue their “equality awareness”—sharing stories, struggles, and advice.
However, even with a strong infrastructure of cooperation, equality efforts, and investment emphasis, some teachers will ultimately need to be let go. This begs questions like: What rights do teachers have? How might teacher pay be adjusted based on “success?” and How will tenure be carried out? In my imagined Utopia, the answers come in a collaborative collage.
Addressing the question of educator rights, I believe that unionization is a valid solution. However, this unionization must not allow “bad” or unjust teachers to continue teaching as a result of strict rules and lengthy lines of red tape. The union in my Utopian school is different. It is a union specific to the school—built by the family-like faculty and consistently used to negotiate with the school’s principal and district head. Demands are made based on a list of standards made and revised by the teachers. These standards reflect the shared values of the teaching staff, and work to ensure that the school environment will remain ethical. The teachers are trusted and fully acknowledged. Consequently, their demands are reasonable, reflective of the entire faculty body, and well thought out.
When it comes to pay, teachers in my imagined system will also have a say. Because they are always evaluating one another and collaborating to create the best possible learning environment, my teachers will vote to determine who deserves raises in merit pay. In this Utopia, peers have the capability to influence salary, and the “one-up” American attitude disintegrates. To add another layer to the evaluation that goes into this pay system, parents and students will be asked about the positive and negative qualities of teachers. These responses will be taken into consideration when a panel composed of faculty and the principal vote on merit pay for each teacher. Instead of using concrete tests to measure teacher success, the feedback of observing peers, students, and protective parents will provide a more holistic picture of educator effectiveness.
Peer influence carries through to the next controversial question of tenure. In theory, tenure is an opportunity for teachers to push the envelope in their teaching style after they have proved their prowess and devotion. Protected by tenure, teachers and professors might approach controversial and necessary conversations with confidence. A discussion about race, homosexuality, abortion, or dichotomous politics can take place without a teacher worrying about the consequences of sharing personal opinions. Though I agree with this theory, and I feel that it is carried out effectively in most colleges and universities, I believe that it is severely abused at the elementary and high school levels. In many cases, teachers at these more primary levels of education receive tenure automatically after only one or two years of teaching. This job security can lead to apathy and “babysitting” in the classroom—resulting in bored and unmotivated students. To prevent treading this path, the school I have created in my mind has a tenure system that mirrors the panel pay system. Constructed and carried out by a panel of several peer teachers, selected community members or school volunteers who have been in contact with the teacher in question, and the school principal, each opportunity for teacher tenure will involve a thorough review. Interviews, responses from students, and panel discussion with a conclusive vote will determine tenure. The opportunity for tenure will not occur until a teacher has committed several years to the school and students.
Though my idyllic portrait of teachers in a Utopian school still leaves a lot of ground uncovered, I hope that it gets to the heart of the issues I have become so passionate about in the past string of weeks. Equipped with connecting minds, motivated by collaboration and collective efforts toward equality, creative when it comes to curriculum, and fully invested in students and the greater community outside of the school, great teachers have the ability to mold a better world.