Let’s Re-Open a Can of Worms, Shall We?

 And by “can of worms” I am referring to the can o’ crazy that many people must be drinking when they whole-heartedly support the mass firing of teachers.

A bit ago, I saw two blog posts presented in juxtaposition – one which was super pro-teacher and the other which stated that firing teachers isn’t always a bad idea.  Natch, I had to check out the situation.  Because as you know, while I believe that blindly firing entire groups of teachers for poor test scores (or even for having less years of experience) is HEINOUS, I also believe that there are some teachers out there who are not pulling their weight and do not deserve this job.

Right now I can’t decide if we’ve oversimplified the issue or over-complicated it with all sorts of politics but either way, our current state of Blame-y von Blames A Lot blows.

Clearly, I read the pro-teacher piece first.  And I have to say, you get more flies with sugar.  (Strange words uttered from someone who can also be the Queen of Mean and Negative, I know, but I did listen to what you were saying when I was little, Big Mama Mimi.) 

The blogger of that piece starts with this: “I am becoming more and more distressed by the conversations I am seeing in the national media that blame “bad” teachers for all the ills in society. Not only do these messages misappropriate blame and over-simplify the very complex problems we face in schools, they unintentionally kill good teaching.”

After I stopped applauding (alone in my office…no joke), I kept reading.  In this blogger’s opinion, schools currently don’t work for many reasons, but firing teachers while keeping the same outdated systems which discourage good teaching in place simply does not solve anything.  And you have to admit, sister-friend has a point.  I mean, just getting rid of a bunch of people, deserving or undeserving, without changing anything else doesn’t make any sense.  Who do we think is going to fly in on a beam of rainbows and save they day?   

If the community stays poor, the tests stay all consuming and the curriculum stays suffocating, what do we really think is going to change besides the cars in the parking lot?

The blogger continues by quoting Seth Godin in his latest book Linchpin (which I haven’t read, so major disclaimer but I loved the quote so I threw caution to the wind), “Great teachers are wonderful. They change lves. We need them. The problem is that most schools don’t like great teachers. They’re organized to stamp them out, bore them, bureaucratize them, and make them average.”

She suggests several things teachers (and those that choose to support them if they ever wake up, smell the freaking coffee and do the right thing) CAN do to change the outcomes of schools, including:

* Stop teaching scared. No more worrying what the principal is going to say if s/he “catches you” doing something that isn’t in the normal script.  What is it with us being so afraid of the administration anyway?  It’s this strange, unnamed (and quite creepy) power thing in which, somehow, teachers end up acting more like children afraid of being disciplined rather than the professionals that we are.  We’ve all seen it – it’s bizarre and sad.
* Ignore the noise outside, close your door and teach rockstar style.  Preach on!  I was all about what went on behind closed doors, because at the end of the day, I have to be able to live with myself when I send these kids on to their next teacher.
* Stop conforming and doing what is “safe.”  I think this one is easier said than done, because the Powers That Be so desperately want us all to conform to this image they have in their collectively screwed up heads…one which is shoved down our throats and becoming increasingly mandated.
* Be really good at helping children actually learn, not just at our jobs. I heart this one.  Heart it.  Teaching isn’t just a job. It isn’t. The paperwork, all the bullshit, that’s the job stuff, but teaching.  Actually teaching, isn’t something that can be defined by a job description…it’s so much more than that.
* Continuously try to get better.  Which sometimes means embracing change, being open to the ideas of others and loving learning.  Amen to the nerdfest!

Now, in the other corner, weighing in at a lot of pounds that have never taught in the classroom is a blogger and ed policy guy (Frederick Hess…he’s kind of a big deal) who thinks that firing teachers isn’t always a bad idea.

And you know what?  His piece didn’t start off all bad. He talks about agreeing with the idea that schools need to better support teachers in their growth rather than blame them for all the ills of public schools.  I mean, we have to give him points for that, right?  He also says that sometimes firing teachers isn’t a bad idea.  Like I said before, sometimes I agree with that too.  Just as in any other profession, we have people who suck and should go.

 He continues by stating that states and local districts over-extended themselves financially early in the 2000s by hiring too many teachers in an effort to reduce class size and now, with the whole recession business, we can’t afford to pay them.  Not having a bunch of numbers to refer to myself, this doesn’t sound totally illogical.  Although when the banks ran out of money, taxpayers bailed them out.  Why is the idea of keeping a promise to these hired teachers (meaning paying them) so ridiculous?  It feels like the news is filled with stories about increasing taxes for all sorts of reasons but THIS is where we draw the line?

Also, he keeps saying that the NYC public schools currently have a teacher student ratio of 12.5 to 1, which just totally throws me off.  I mean, on paper, if you divide the number of children currently enrolled by the number of people employed as “teachers”,  that could totally be true.  But then why did I always have 20 kids?  And people from other schools looked at me enviously with their rosters of 25 and 30?  I’m thinking that boyfriend really hasn’t visited too many actual classrooms and is relying on some simple math which conveniently proves his point without reflecting the truth.

Methinks the numbers may work out they way that they do because they are counting the dead weight who don’t actually work with children in meaningful ways but instead float around the building according to their mysterious and ever-changing schedule that no one has ever seen a copy of.  No, I’m not talking about the out of the classroom teachers who are KILLING IT and showing up in a billion rooms everyday to support children in meaningful ways, I’m talking about the OTHER PEOPLE.  Those that are not pulling their weight.  Those people who make me think that this Hess guy isn’t totally out of his gourd when he says firing teachers isn’t always a bad idea.

In the end, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth.  Hess says that so many other organizations have accepted cut backs and laid off people due to our current economic distress.  And he’s right, a lot of people have lost their jobs…people in my family and probably in yours too.  BUT (and there’s always a but with me, isn’t there), those people weren’t blamed for the downfall of their business, portrayed as lazy by the media and villainized by the general public.  They were just quietly let go.  Why is this guy acting like what is happening to teachers is the same thing?

At the end of the day, schools just aren’t another business which have to suck it up in a bad economic climate.  They are investments in our future and, in my little opinion, excellent teachers are one of the best investments we can possibly make right now.  So let’s just stop all the political grandstanding and actually make meaningful change.

* drops microphone to the ground and walks away*

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  • As far as the 'fear of the administration' goes: I know that I've spent the majority of my life in one type of school situation or another. It didn't hit me until this blog but I still approach visits with the principal the same way I did when I was in fourth grade: heart palpitations. 🙂

    May 19, 2010 at 2:00 pm
  • Great post! I really like those 4 or 5 ideas, especially about teaching without worrying what "they" will think. And, I must say, it is frustrating to see teacher/colleagues who aren't helping the situation and are just holding a place.

    Unfortunately/fortunately, education seems to always be in the limelight and everyone has an opinion (they all went to school, right?!). Firing teachers certainly doesn't fix the problem! How about making sure our students have enough to eat, somewhere to study, books to read at home, safe environments, etc?!

    May 19, 2010 at 2:00 pm
  • Thanks! I think scapegoating the teachers seems to be the easy way out or to look like you're doing something about the problem. We never seem to really address deep, systemic issues either within the schools or the communities. 'Cuz that's hard.

    Sadie- glad to hear it's not just me! I consider myself a pretty decent teacher and I always got nervous going in and expressing myself, asking for something, etc…

    May 19, 2010 at 2:02 pm
  • Mimi:
    I've been reading your blog (and book) for awhile now! Both are awesome, and I'm constantly looking for updates.

    Anyways, down here in Louisiana, we had something similar happen last year. A school in Lafayette was deemed unacceptable because it had been on the decline according to the SPS score (why it took the LA BOE that long to realize that losing 2-3 pts per year was bad is beyond me…but then again, it's Louisiana where the corrupt rule). So what did they do? Go into the school and take out all of the teachers. But wait! They didn't just take out the teachers, they fired the entire administration!! Principal, vice-principal, everyone! The teachers were all told that they would all be allowed to interview for their job back, and I'm pretty sure 50% of them were hired back.
    They hired a new administration (the new principal had turned a few schools around in New Orleans…which is a miracle in and of itself), who used new techniques (character building exercises), and the turn around this year has been amazing!
    I interviewed there last December, and when I visited, the kids were all very respectful and happy. Unfortunately, I did not get the job, but the experience of being there for a few minutes inspired me to research further into character building in the classroom.

    Okay, that was a little longer than it was intended to be. As for the recession problems (I'm feeling that one, as I'm sitting here behind a desk at a real estate office instead of a classroom), I believe that if they cut the cost of testing, they would be able to hire more teachers and pay us what we deserve!

    May 19, 2010 at 3:08 pm
  • To continue with the Louisiana theme of these comments, I actually saw Rick Hess speak at Xavier University in New Orleans a couple moths ago.

    With what he said there mixed with your review and what else I have read of his, I think his main issue is that he just doesn't respect the teaching profession as much as he should. When I saw him speak he talked about how teaching (like regular jobs) should just be something that people come in and out of instead of making it a long-time career. He said that the 5 weeks of TFA training was completely enough for teachers. (At that point people actually started to walk out of the room…)

    He just really REALLY needs to learn how hard teaching is and the best teachers are the ones who know that this is what they are supposed to do with their lives. He just doesn't understand teachers like he should…

    May 19, 2010 at 4:36 pm
  • Your last bullet point is the one that I emphasize over and over again. Kids aren't the same now as they were "back when" and teachers have to learn to adapt.

    I'm constantly amazed at the small number of teachers who do not keep up with what's new in their field, new research, new ideas or new techniques by exploring, reading, writing, experimenting. Earning a teaching licenses is not the end of one's education. Most of us remember that first year…learn anything new then?

    There are good teachers out there who, if they backed off and let themselves grow professionally could become great. There are poor teachers who could become better. We don't need everyone to be a "super-colleague" (though I admit that would be nice), we just need to have an entire staff of competent, open minded, caring people in every school in the nation.

    The world is not black and white…there aren't just two alternatives to these issues. There is no magic bullet. Improving public education will take hard work, not soundbites by politicians fishing for votes. We'll need hard working teachers, willing to learn and grow to fill our schools, and those hard working teachers will need support, encouragement and resources from the public to help our kids grow.

    May 19, 2010 at 4:36 pm
  • I know that some school districts in our area use that "fun math" to determine our ratio too. I look at my classroom of 25+ and shake my head when I hear about a teacher in another school who has 15. They take the total number of enrolled students and divide it by the total teachers (including reading coaches and such) and that's how they get their magic ratio numbers…even though its so far off from reality.

    May 19, 2010 at 6:42 pm
  • In my state (FL), when calculating class size per our class size reduction constitutional amendment (yay Florida voters, but please resist the legislature's attempts to water down this amendment!), "teachers" includes all the guidance counselors, the reading coach, and the media center specialist, all of whom don't actually have an assigned class. All the squishy math is supposed to stop this August, when the class size amendment is fully implemented, and class size means actual student enrollment in a classroom, not average class size over the whole school including all the "teachers" listed above. We'll see if the legislature finds some way to weasel out of it; after all, these are the idiots who enacted SB6 (mandatory merit pay for 50% of teacher salaries).

    May 19, 2010 at 8:56 pm
  • Yeah, firing teachers because there isn't enoughh money…boo! I always think about those entertainers that get paid by the million, but when we get off work we must be entertained. I hate being scared for my job. Last year it was suggested that the schools be in session Monday-Thursday in order to save jobs. I have worked in enough classrooms to know that some teachers need more training or need to move to a new district or should just give up teaching. It's not just a job.

    May 19, 2010 at 8:56 pm
  • Mimi, your blog has made me smile through some crappy times. I was laid off last Friday… & was supposed to be tenured in September. I know I'm an AWESOME teacher & am on an emotional rollercoaster of panic, anger, & numbness…Meanwhile, horrible veteran teachers who don't do ANYTHING get to keep their jobs. I just want to say thank you for your honesty & great thoughts. It feels great to know there are intelligent people out there who value education & teachers.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:11 pm
  • My question is always this– when do we get to fire the PARENTS?

    May 20, 2010 at 2:11 pm
  • bravo, bravo, bravo.

    Stop teaching scared. (excellent point.)

    May 20, 2010 at 2:11 pm
  • Wow — whatta post! Awesome.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:11 pm
  • i love reading your blog and all the infor you give! Back when I was in school..if you taught "out of the box' that meant you were creative and that was a good thing. Now a days ..it is called insubordination!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:11 pm
  • Nata – So SORRY that you were recently laid off! How terrible! BEST OF LUCK to you!!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:23 pm
  • Mrs Mimi – TESTIFY!
    Love those points – love that quote. Also love the comments on this one.

    May 21, 2010 at 7:33 pm

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