Thursday, June 29, 2006

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.


Blogger Benjamin Whelan said...

I used to worry a lot about not having a seniority system, until I realize that I was actually pretty decent at what I do and that because of seniority I wasn't going to make it anywhere in the context I was teaching in.
Now, working at a charter school, I see, merit-based, room for advancement. Now, I know that, by saying "merit-bassed" I'm walking a slippery slope as some might interpret that as tying teacher pay to students' test scores. That is not something I agree with. But, if you are a decent educator who truly inspires your students, there should be some kind of incentive to continue doing the great job you are doing.
I encountered a woman yesterday who said I have one of the "most thankless jobs that exists." I might have agreed with her before. This year, though, I feel thanked.

6/29/2006 5:53 AM  
Blogger DCS said...

Good post. But beware. You may find that I'm about to say distasteful.

No one, not even teachers, should be allowed to sit on his or her laurels, get too comfortable, and feel that it's unnecessary to grow.

Politics is everywhere. No occupation escapes it. Live with it. Politics exists even when you're in a labor union, and I have been in a labor union. I learned that unions can sell you out.

I know about losing a job when you're good but politics prevailed. But you know what? That didn't stop me from doing my best, and it hasn't changed my feelings about the need for results-driven professions.

I would never suggest that the majority of teachers are incompetent. I value teachers too much. However, I can tell you that as a parent, I have seen an inordinate number of teachers who didn't keep up with the latest research in their subject area. I find this disturbing. No one should have to hand-feed teachers (or any other professional, for that matter).

Across the socioeconomic spectrum of school districts, I have found teachers who have opted for the status quo rather than continue learning.

The rest of the world is results-oriented, where pay is based on performance. I don't see why teachers should be exempt.

I make these comments as someone who lost a job because of politics. Does that mean that I believe that seniority trumps performance? Heck, no! That's because I've found that in any organization that is not results-driven, mediocrity has a way thriving.

Kids' futures are dependent, in part, on having good teachers. Anyone who feels that the good of the teachers (who already have their degrees) outweighs the good of the students needs to find another line of work.

6/29/2006 2:47 PM  
Blogger DCS said...

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a couple of bodyguards to hire!

6/29/2006 3:03 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

DCS, it sounds to me like you're telling it like it is. I'm probably trying to be a little more diplomatic than you tried to be, and I've got a slightly higher opinion of teachers in general, but I really don't think we're too far apart.

Ben, I really don't understand the charter school concept very well, so I might sound ignorant when I ask you questions. I'm wondering, though, what your merit pay system is based on? Who determines who gets what?

Minnesota has started a system where school districts can set up systems to pay their best teachers more. The state legislature granted extra money for schools that wanted to do this and met their criteria. I believe that some schools that have adopted it have some kind of panel of teachers decide who gets the merit pay after observations. I think this should just be part of the principal's job.

6/29/2006 6:57 PM  
Blogger Strausser said...

You have this wonderful knack of hitting the nail right on the head!

I actually come to teaching after a pretty successful business career working in everything from "mom and pop" companies all the way to Fortune 50. As such it has been really difficult for me to adjust to the fact that if you are really bad at what you were hired to do, it will take a LONG time - if ever - to get rid of you. This part of teaching just does not make sense to me.

Like you, I have run across VERY FEW bad teachers but the ones that I have seen realize that they really have nothing to worry about. The system is so well stacked with union regs that make it scary for a principal to even start the process so they figure why even try.

I guess I am just too much of a capitalist not to believe in the principle that in a free system, if you are good at what you do, you will survive and thrive and if you are not, you will be shown the door. Until we have a playing feel that embraces high achievement then a school will only be percieved as good as the worse teacher on campus (a la "a chain is only as strong as the weakest link").

Keep up the great blogging!


7/07/2006 5:48 PM  
Anonymous Stacy Frisbie said...

Dennis~ personally I think that this part of your blog was FANTASTIC! Of course I know exactly what you are talking about when you write about Daryl Frisbie and his being an inspiration to the students as well as being an excellent teacher. His classroom management is one to be admired...any principal would love to have a school full of teachers that control their classrooms as well as he does. He comes in hard with room to ease up. He earns the respect of the students by "walking the walk and talking the talk". He is always well prepared and expects the same from his students from the moment they enter his classroom. He mixes up his classroom instruction so the students are continuously kept stimulated. The answer "I don't know" is not acceptable as a response from them. They must either ask a question back for more information on the subject or come up with a reasonable answer that is an educated guess. He organizes hands-on activities as well as competitive games between teams that correspond well with his informative lectures. I was in his classroom one time when he was giving the students a talk about their actions toward another teacher, a long-term sub that had come into the school (she was a retired teacher of 35 years), they did not like her because she was "old school". Her teaching philosophy was to really make the students work hard in an area that they were severely lacking instruction in. The students were being very disrespectful and disobediant towards her. Daryl was stressing to them the importance of what it was that she was doing (trying to teach them proper grammer and sentence structure). He remarked to them "We don't expect you to come to school each day and thank us for teaching you...we know that will not happen...but when you are 30 years old and you are working in a job that you like and have a successful life because of the things that we taught you here...then I want to see you back here in my classroom, tell me that you are happy...that will be my see you successful, that is my goal for you." Building a future for his students is and was and will always be Daryl Frisbie's goal for his job. Not who he can impress, not who he can brown-nose, but seeing his students "get-it" and watching them succeed in areas that they never thought they could...that is his goal and that is what makes him an exceptional teacher.

I am very proud to say that I am Daryl Frisbie's wife...I hope that this will not make you think that what I have written is is not...if he were doing something wrong in his class I would tell him right out. I worked as a para-professional one-on-one with a special education student for two hours a day in Daryl's classroom and can honestly say that I learned a lot while being in there! I am now an Administrative Security Specialist at an Air Force Base in Alaska, so I no longer get to be in his classrooms, but we continuously have students that stop by the house just to talk. They have a very respectful relationship with my husband and he is a valued member of our community of Anderson, Alaska.

12/30/2006 4:23 PM  

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