Remember the People That Taught You How to Read

Our teachers.

Remember when we actually appreciated the work of our teachers? I don’t even know how to begin to respond to this whole collective bargaining issue here in Wisconsin and around the country, the massive teacher lay-offs that happen every year, the constant budget cuts for already cash-strapped school districts, and the “well teachers get summers off” argument. Why do we hold our teachers personally responsible for the ills of society?

We blame teachers for low test scores and work to put them on merit-based pay tied solely to the test results of their students. Forget the fact that these tests tend to be culturally biased, promote a negative teaching-to-the-test environment in a classroom, and don’t always assess important knowledge. Tests should be one small factor in determining what  student should know and what they have learned.

We blame teachers for poorly behaved children. If only those teachers had more interesting curriculum, our children would be better behaved and our school wouldn’t have so many behavioral problems. Forget about parental accountability, teachers are to blame. Forget about the overall school culture as established by the principal and other administrators.

We blame teachers for our budget problems. What’s happening right now in Wisconsin is a perfect example. As people often say around here, “Walker is trying to balance the budget on the backs of teachers.” Teachers have already agreed to make budgetary concessions, but that’s apparently not enough. Now, Wisconsin teachers are losing their ability to collectively bargain. Most school districts around the state of Wisconsin face cuts from already tight budgets. If education and the work of teachers were truly valued in the state of Wisconsin, we wouldn’t be seeing such massive cuts.

Why all this teacher-hate? Those in favor of budget cuts similar to Scott Walkers, have you ever worked as a teacher? I have. Do you know the time commitment, the life commitment, the physical commitment of a teacher? A teacher’s job does not end with the school day ends. A teacher’s job does not end when the school year ends. If you’re a parent, you know what it’s like to be responsible for a child. Multiple that by 100. That’s the number of kids you would be held personally responsible for if you taught, say 7th grade English.

The teaching profession is not like many other jobs of its nature. I can’t stand the comparison between teaching and other jobs. As a teacher, you have to be “on” every single day. A teacher can’t just take a day off and work from the home office. A teacher can’t coast in whenever she feels like it, sit down at her desk with a cup of coffee and catch up on emails. A teacher can’t step out for an hour and meet for a brainstorming session with other professionals about best practices over lunch. A teacher is on his or her feet eight hours a day, every day, engaging students.

As for complaining that teachers get the summers off? I don’t know a single teacher that doesn’t do something school related in summers. A lot of teachers I know have to work in summers to make ends meet whether it’s in teaching summer school, doing curriculum work for the district, working at summer day camps, or preparing for next school year; teachers work in the summer.

It’s about time we show a little more respect for the people who taught us how to read. We owe them at least that much.

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Parental Accountability, Anyone?

“I ripped the Obama sticker off of my truck.  We worked hard for this man, we talked to our neighbors and our fellow teachers about why we should support him, and we’re having to dig the knife out of our back.” — Zeph Capo, Houston Federation of Teachers

Hearing about President Obama’s support of a Rhode Island schools district’s decision to fire all of its teachers and the Boston Public Schools’ plan to follow suit  infuriates me to no end. I’m not one to get angry, but the more I read about this debacle, the more I want to throw things across the room and kick over my neighbor’s trash cans.  As a teacher who has taught in two different urban middle schools in metro Boston, I am no stranger to the ins and outs of the increased pressure to meet standards and to perform well on standardized tests.  I once had to administer a standardized test to a boy who had literally just arrived from El Salvador the day before.  Since he was on the school’s roster, he had to take the test.  Otherwise, the school would have been penalized.  Not only did he not speak any English, he had no idea why I was watching him fill in bubbles with a number 2 pencil.  From my experiences and from what I’ve been hearing about in the news, the fact is everyone loves to hold the teachers accountable for the failings of public education .  While I do not deny there are poor quality teachers who should step away from the profession, I am wondering: WHAT ABOUT THE PARENTS?!  Why does the success of the student fall solely on the teacher? Why should teachers be held responsible for the shortcomings of students’ parents?

A teacher can promote high standards until she is blue in the face, but it means nothing if it is not reinforced at home. In my experiences, the highest achieving students were the ones whose parents were the most supportive and most involved in their lives.  These were the parents who showed up to parent/teacher conferences, who made phone calls, or sent e-mails when in doubt, and who volunteered to chaperone on field trips.

On the other hand,  many parents are unable to show up to conferences, meetings, make phone calls, and it’s not their fault. The playing field is not equal. Some parents work during conference times, are unable to volunteer at the school because of work, or are single parents who do not have the luxury of balancing their kid’s schedules with another adult. Other parents work three jobs to make ends meet so that their children can have better opportunities than they did, leaving little free time to spend with their children.  There are also parents who don’t always feel comfortable approaching the school or participating at school for cultural reasons.  The language barrier alone can be intimidating.

Still, I believe that the quality of parenting is directly correlated to a school’s achievement rate.  When kids are coming to school angry from something they witnessed at home, with poor hygiene, exhausted from lack of sleep, and hungry, learning is the last thing on their mind.  Stop blaming the teachers. Focus on where parents and families are struggling and figure out what can be done to help them grow stronger.  The school and outlying community need to come together as a whole and support struggling parents and families.  Low performing schools cannot be improved by simply firing all its teachers, they can be fixed if communities start to address the real issues behind low achievement.