So first I want to say that I have the best best friend. She doesn’t only support my work and journey through the field of education, but she engages with my work, challenges my thinking, and helps me grow as an educational activist. Oh and did I mention that she’s a total badass advocate herself? She’s totally going places.
Great points, Hannah! Very well-researched and well-written. I wish Michelle Rhee could read this because I would absolutely love to hear her comeback (if she had any, that is…).
Some food for thought below, regarding some questions I’ve mulled over. I would be very interested to read how you address them!
1) As far as teacher unions go, I do agree that teachers themselves are not the problem. Most teachers willingly choose this noble career path to make a difference in the lives of their students. However, as a student myself, I can easily tell you that I had my share of horrible teachers along with the incredible ones. Any student will likely tell you the same. Unfortunately, for some teaching has become the ‘stepping stone’ to a better career later on or a last choice option that they reluctantly had to accept. For these few (emphasis on the FEW, they are the absolute minority) unmotivated teachers, I’m not sure if ‘helping’ them out will honestly benefit students. Why? Because these teachers may become comfortable knowing that they cannot be fired and thus, they may not heed the constructive criticism a passionate teacher would otherwise take into account. However, that being said, teacher unions largely protect the experienced and capable teachers who would do anything to fight for their students. How do we ensure that teacher unions remain intact such that the aforementioned experienced and caring teachers are properly compensated, while those who are clearly unmotivated and careless are removed from teaching altogether?
There are few (again, emphasis on the FEW) teachers out there in classrooms who are unequipped with the skillset and the nurturing mindset to teach… and these individuals do not deserve to be teaching in a classroom in the first place. (Michelle Rhee, based on her TFA stint, is exactly the type of teacher that should NOT be put into a classroom by any means. I don’t want to help ‘teachers’ like Rhee; they should be fired on the spot.)
I hope she read this… but something tells me she didn’t and even if she did, I doubt she’d reply. No one’s got time to reply to a little college student if they’re too busy raising money to destroy public education, right?
Anyway, I really appreciate your comment and I hope my response covers all your questions. If I’m missing anything or if you have any more questions, of course feel free to let me know!
Let’s start at the top with your first question about teacher unions protecting unmotivated, careless teachers.
I completely understand where you’re coming from (having been to the same high school with you). There are a few teachers out there who enter the field reluctantly (or with ulterior motives… cough cough Teach for America recruits) and don’t actually want to be teachers, teachers who abuse and commit unmentionable offenses against students, and teachers who engage in illegal activity with students. These teachers are a disgrace to the teaching profession and I don’t think the other dedicated and passionate teachers in a teachers’ union want to associate themselves with such “teachers”.
Now, there is a difference between teachers who enter the profession unmotivated, and teachers who become unmotivated and feel defeated by the destruction of their profession through high-stakes testing and budget cuts (and now privatization and personal attacks from billionaires who’ve never stepped into a classroom). But it’s hard to distinguish them.
But before I go into my proposal of what we should do about this predicament, I want to go back to something you said in your comment about properly compensating teachers who do their job. Currently, we have something in place that tries to do this.
Merit pay is a product of education reform and it basically gives higher salaries to effective teachers, essentially using incentive to motivate teachers.
This sounds like a great idea right? Incentive is a great motivator, and who wouldn’t want to be rewarded for doing a good job?
Let’s start by defining an “effective teacher”. Here is a great definition from one of my favorite articles on merit pay:
Effective teachers challenge students to pursue activities they never thought they could do—or would be interested in. Effective teachers stimulate their students’ natural curiosity about the world. Effective teachers develop free-thinking, inquisitive minds, eager and able to learn for themselves. Effective teachers inspire kids to succeed in life—to believe that they can succeed in life, and to be prepared to succeed in life.
So does merit pay actually reward effective teachers? The answer is no.
If you go to the article and find the paragraph I quoted above, you’ll see that the last sentence, is the simplest yet perhaps the most powerful of all:
Effective teachers don’t just cram kids’ brains full of information.
The problem with merit pay (as is the problem with most education “reforms”) is that although it has good intentions, it is poorly implemented and has unexpected counterproductive consequences. Merit pay narrowly assumes causation between teacher performance and test scores, and it ignores the many other factors that require attention in order to holistically assess a teacher. Sometimes teachers are evaluated based on the test scores of students that aren’t even theirs! This is an entirely unfair process that consequently quantifies and de-professionalizes the teaching profession and forces teachers to teach to the test. It sends a terrible message that teachers are only as good as the test scores they can produce. Teachers then feel even more disrespected and unmotivated. They also can’t do much about it because they’re trapped in a lose-lose situation.
And so I ask… how can we compensate teachers who do their job, if we don’t let them do it?
Before any judgments can be made on teachers, we need to bring respect and autonomy back into the teaching profession. We can do this through a variety of ways, starting with eliminating high-stakes testing and merit pay. We can then begin to develop an equitable evaluation system that encourages growth and involves student voice, student work, and teacher collaboration. This cannot be dictated by a few people in power (merit pay was the ingenious idea of a select few including Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates). Collaboration is key to create a truly democratic education. It’s time for politicians and bankers and billionaires and corporate reformers to step aside and for the voices they’ve silenced to speak up once again.
I also want to add as a side note that I don’t think we can buy a teacher’s respect. Yes, pay is important, and teachers should be paid more in general, but if we want to ever get to that point we need to tackle systemic attitudes and frameworks that attack and look down on teachers. We should value teachers the way we value doctors and lawyers and let them do their job.
Now, going back to your point about the “teachers” in our education system. I first want to point out that you yourself are a student, and that your voice is valuable and should be heard. Can your test score really indicate that your teacher is doing a poor job? No, you can tell a lot more about your teacher than your test score can, right?
Currently, student input is not valued when it comes to evaluating teachers and I want that to change. If more administrators listened to students about “teachers” working in their schools and worked with teachers union to investigate further and come to a fair and sensible conclusion, we wouldn’t have “teachers” that stay in schools and threaten the well-being and safety of students. So first we need to work on implementing FAIR methods of teacher evaluation that are fully collaborated on, that will justly distinguish teachers from a few “teachers”.
I think unions right now are more adamant about protecting their teachers because their profession is being completely disrespected by corporate reformers and their jobs are being threatened by very unfair and incomplete methods (if you can even call it a method) of evaluation. Once we revolutionize the system in which these teachers teach, and we actually let them teach and then evaluate them holistically (once again incorporating student voice and teacher collaboration/peer evaluation… I really cannot stress this enough), then unions can work on refusing job protection to teachers who simply are not teachers and are not willing to improve themselves. Together we can foster a force of revitalized, passionate, and committed educators.