Improving the Quality of Teachers
I've blogged about disruptive students, I've blogged about apathetic students, and I've blogged about good students. I've blogged about their effects on other students, and I've blogged about their effects on their classes and their schools. Some might think that I'm unwilling to see teachers to take any responsibility for trying to improve education. Well, I guess it's probably time for me to blog about teachers. I'm warning you, though--some teachers who read this might not like what I have to say.
Some critics of public education make it sound as if there are so many incompetent teachers, that if you ever walked into a public school, you couldn't help but trip over one. Sol Stern, in his book Breaking Free, writes about what he calls "by the rules" teachers who work only 30 hours per week, and earn $81,000 a year doing it. As I said in an earlier post, Jay Greene's portrayal of public school teachers in Education Myths is insulting.
None of this squares with my experience. I've found most teachers to be hard working people who are thoroughly competent at their jobs. I live only a block away from our school, so I am up there working a lot--after school hours, on weekends, during Christmas and summer breaks, and there are always other teachers up there with me. And although I can't speak for New York City, I can assure you that there are no teachers in northern Minnesota bringing home anywhere near $81,000. Despite this, I don't think we're as good as we could be. And I think the major things that hold us back from being as good as we should be are our tenure and seniority systems.
I can count the number of incompetent teachers I've known during my career on the fingers of one hand, but that is still too many. Once teachers have tenure, it is too difficult for principals to get rid of them. I've said in previous posts that teachers should have the power to remove students who are hurting the education of others from their classes. If I'm going to take that position, then I'd better be willing to see principals given the power to remove ineffective teachers from their schools. There should be an effort to turn-around unruly students, and there should be an effort to help teachers to improve. But if it becomes clear that those efforts aren't working, none of them should be allowed to continue to hold back kids who want to learn.
I have known very few teachers who were truly incompetent, but I've known too many who never became as good as they should have. That is because they began to feel to safe because of the seniority system. I have also seen too many bright, enthusiastic, and hard-working teachers let go simply because they lacked seniority. The reason I left the first school I was at was because I was in such a precarious position because of the seniority system. I was one of the hardest working and popular teachers in the school, but it didn't matter when it came time for cuts to be made. It also didn't matter to the senior member of my department, so he spent all of his preparation time sitting in the teachers' lounge drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. For the past several years of my career, I have benefitted from the seniority system, but I made up my mind during my early years that it was unfair, terrible for education, and that I would never support it.
A few years ago, we had a social studies teacher named Daryl Frisbie. He came to Warroad after being cut by his previous school because he lacked seniority there. He taught civics to ninth graders, so I would get his kids the next year for my American History classes. As part of my class, I will frequently ask my students civics related questions. When kids are asked questions that they were supposed to learn the year before, there will normally be a couple of kids who will know the answer, there will be some more who will remember the answer after they hear it, and the rest of the kids will be clueless. When I asked Daryl's former students those questions, however, nearly every hand in the room would shoot up. And he didn't just teach kids; he inspired them. There wasn't a week that went by when some students didn't talk about something "Mr. Frisbie said' or "Mr. Frisbie did." It didn't take long for me to realize that our school had acquired a very special young teacher. But for the last few years, our school has been suffering through a period of declining enrollment. So when cuts had to be made, we ended up having to lose this outstanding teacher, while other teachers were shuffled into classes that they'd never taught before in order to protect the seniority system.
I know many teachers disagree with me about this, but one of the things that surprised me after my book came out was how many told me that they agreed with me. When I wrote my book, I assumed I was in a very small minority, but I'm not so sure about that anymore. I do understand the arguments for the seniority system. Teachers are afraid that if we don't have it, when cuts have to be made, politics will raise its ugly head. But as bad as that might be, I don't see how we can come up with a worse system than one that has us letting go of teachers like Daryl Frisbie.