North Muskegon has been a classic symbol to me of all that is wrong with our ways of measuring school achievement. Serving a mostly wealthy and upper-middle class white population, the tiny district has long claimed the top standardized test scores in the area, while, in the words of a friend and former school board member, "preparing students for good jobs in their daddy's companies." But that's not entirely fair. The mommies often own companies too.
Anyway, I saw it as a place offering a mediocre education to kids who, mostly, would have done fine if they never stepped into a school, and a lousy education - and brutal social environment - to those who didn't fit in to the sports-first, wealth-rules environment. Even today, under much better leadership, the district lists its sports coaches right after its board in its web directory, from kindergarten forward, you didn't want to not play football or be a cheerleader in this school if you wanted to be treated well by faculty and community.
But this new teacher was different. I was coaching boys' soccer at this school back then, and she was one of only two staff members who came to more than one game, watching different students play a sport. She supported a lot of the students who lived "in the shadows," those from the small percentage of poor families, kids with miserable home lives, kids who had withdrawn because of tragedies, and frustrated middle-schoolers who wanted "something more" than the worksheet driven curriculum. Age, status, previous academic performance made no difference in who she gave responsibility to, or who she helped.
When the principal doubted that "these kids" could handle performing Shakespeare or Aeschylus in theater, she ignored him, and directed magnificent performances with casts and crews that crossed every divide, which engaged all kinds of learners, which made great successes of kids who had never heard anything positive about themselves. From the kid with CP running the backstage operation to the "juvenile delinquent" on the follow-spot, to the football star playing one role, to the geeky kid with few friends playing the lead, well, it all worked.
Everything she did worked, and worked for all kinds of students in all kinds of situations. In a school of "good enough" she was brilliant.
And after three years, instead of receiving tenure, she was fired. The problem? She "didn't fit in with the rest of the staff."
Now, when people talk tenure and teacher hiring and firing, they think of New York City's "Rubber Room," but I think of Kathy Jo Tully, one of America's great educators. And I think of Gerry Crane who taught about 50 miles south of North Muskegon until they found out he wasn't "heterosexual enough" to be in the Byron Center schools. And I think of Susan Barker of Riverside, California.
Tenure, in my mind, and the teachers' unions which help police and enforce hiring and firing, do indeed sometimes protect bad teachers. But far more often they do exactly what they were intended to do, protect great, innovative teaching, protect difference, by ensuring that teachers, and humans, are allowed to take risks. That they are allowed to alter practices, to support students, to do more than be the robotic test prep machines so desired by Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates.
I have not been a great fan of most teaching in America. I think we need much better - very different - teacher training. I think we need to give all teachers far more ongoing training and support than we do now. I think we need to attract more creative, more different, people to teaching and hold on to them. I think we need to pay teachers a lot more and expect a lot from them.
But I know that teachers cannot be great if they fear being fired "at will" every time a school board election happens or a new mayor is elected.
Do you really want Mike Bloomberg deciding who gets hired and fired the way he decides who'll get other city jobs? Do you really want Michelle Rhee, who thinks poor kids have no right to arts, music, or creativity, making those decisions? How about the politicians of Utah, now all up in arms because the Alpine School District wanted to teach kids about "democracy." Oh I know - you're hoping the Texas State School Board decides who's in the classroom with your kid!
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No, I wasn't raised to be neutral about this. My Ma got her first teaching job back when unions had little clout and teachers earned minimum wage with no planning time or breaks. She was one of the early people in on developing an AFT local in her district, which fought for rights, for decent pay, for educational innovation. And I'm too much the historian of education in America to not understand how power works in American schools, and how it would work without effective unions.
But even without that background, I know I'd come down on the side of tenure. I tend to trust people, and I tend to trust the people who see kids everyday - at least over politicians who run against kids and schools, and surely over those who've never spent 30 seconds trying to work with a complex group of students - you know, our experts, Bloomberg, Duncan, and Gates.
There's a simple fact at work here - when the teachers' unions operate "negatively" it is usually because they are acting like an industrial union. And they are acting like an industrial union because the work environment is, unfortunately, industrial in too many ways - and becoming more so by the minute at the hands of the very people who dislike the unions (under Duncan's regime teachers will be punished for any "defective" products which reach the end of the assembly line. See Rhode Island).
Change the environment, empower teachers, allow them to be the professionals they are, help them to get better, give them the tools they need, pay them like other professionals, and the unions will change too, as they respond to a changed work environment.
"The latest statistics put the average teacher's salary at about $46,000; some teachers earn a little more, some a little less (the average teacher's salary—not the starting salary—is $38,000 in Kansas, $36,000 in New Mexico, and $32,000 in South Dakota). Overall, that's about the same that we pay pile-driver operators ($45,980) and about $8,000 less than the average elevator repairman pulls down. Meanwhile, a San Francisco dockworker makes about $115,000, while the clerk who logs shipping records into the longshoreman's computer makes $136,000." (2004)
But don't mess with tenure. It protects our best... far more often than it protects our worst.
- Ira Socol