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What’s the Deal With Teachers These Days?

Teacher unions, budgets, parents, boards of ed and politics...we're losing sight of the important difference a good teacher—or bad—can make.

My children have had great , and they’ve also had one really not-so-great teacher. We saw right away the impact each kind had on our kids’ performance in the moment.

Thanks to some researchers at Harvard and Columbia, now we know the good ones are going to help our children earn more money and have a better chance at professional success when they’re all grown up. Recent research and hard data backs up the hope for our children’s future—when they have great teachers.

So why are we arguing about what we pay good teachers? Somewhere along the way, we’ve diverted the argument away from what it should be:  how do we recruit and keep good teachers, and what can make it easier to winnow out and eliminate the bad ones.

My son’s current teacher is a gem, and I don’t say that because I want to curry favor; everyone thinks so. Our school did an amazing, nontraditional thing—they decided to allow her to loop up with the class from third to fourth grade, and they gave the parents of the students in the class the option to continue with her for a second year. Unilaterally, 100-percent of the families chose to stay with this teacher.

She has challenged each child to surpass his or her own expectations after focusing long and hard at assessing individual abilities. She’s put in tireless overtime hours to give her curriculum depth and innovative perspective. She’s come up with unique , and they’re thriving.

In complete contrast, my son still talks—and shudders—at the recollection of another teacher he had earlier in his school career. She had a reputation for favoring girls over boys, and parents often whispered that she was known for being a yeller. She didn’t think my child was capable of learning the way I told her he could, because “he is never one of the first to raise his hand.” She was the kind of teacher who took recess away as a punishment for fidgety kids—counterintuitive for a room of 20-plus restless 7-year-olds, no?

My son’s take on this teacher:  he told me she made him afraid to go to school.

We even talked to administrators about ways we could find in school to add in challenges for my son, for all the educators to recognize who he was as an individual learner, and to build onto the basic curriculum he was getting. When we asked, “What can we do while he’s in your care from 9 am to 3 .pm?” they ping-ponged back their one suggestion: “You should enroll him into private music instrument lessons.”Really?

Understandably, schools are pushed to budgetary limits these days, and I live in a community that is fortunate to have a school system rich with resources and opportunity. I’ve seen teachers who are equipped and willing to weave in differentiated learning, and others who say, “I just don’t have the time.”

You can see who has the spark, and you can also see when it’s not there.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof just wrote about exactly this issue, and one of the main issues he points to is how teacher unions often deflect attention from quality teachers to the role parents play in the school-home equation. “One of the paradoxes of the school reform debate is that teachers’ unions have resisted a focus on teacher quality; instead, they emphasize that the home is the foremost influence and that teachers can only do so much.”  

Philosophically, I support unions; but I think in this complex argument too many bad apples have spoiled the good of union theory—whether it’s emphasis on “No Child Left Behind” and teaching to the test, or misguided tenure support; whether it’s unfunded mandates at the state levels, or partisan, political rhetoric.

Where we’re getting a grade of ‘F’ is in failing to find better ways to spotlight great, committed teachers—and reward those that merit it. We shouldn’t be demonizing teachers as a whole, but ferreting out the bad ones and celebrating those that put in the effort. We should make the profession more attractive with benefits that don’t get begrudged and withheld for those who commit—and the profession is full of teachers like that.

Understandably too, let’s recognize that there are good parents and bad. The partnership between home and school is crucial. The kinds of helicopter parents in our Fairfield county communities can be a difficult and ugly reality as well. It’s not cut and dry from a teacher’s perspective either.

But it starts with a basic, larger recognition that we’re failing in the long run: if we don’t invest in new curriculum, in teaching methods and educator development, we’re failing our future. We’re already losing ground internationally, scoring lower against other industrialized nations—not just on tests, but also when it comes to economic and business successes, and on the scientific, medical, technological and artistic playing fields as well.

Teachers deserve more respect—the good ones especially. We just have to reach for the A in learning how to better figure out just who is good, and who isn’t.

Digum January 16, 2012 at 02:13 AM
As a Junior in WHS, having gone my whole life in the Wilton school district, I completely agree. I have said the same thing almost verbatim. I have had some good teachers and some erm not so good teachers. What it comes down to is sharing opinions and having those opinions heard. In the high school, if students have a problem they talk to their guidance counselor. When a large group of students approaches guidance, a larger concern is conveyed and action starts to take place. We need a system for students, parents and even other teachers to give feedback on the faculty of our schools. One thought I was mulling over is the possibility of a teacher evaluation where a student can express his or her opinion on a teacher. I am not saying it is the perfect idea, but I believe students need to speak out when they have a problem with a teacher and that they shouldn't sit back with the class and whisper about how none of them have any idea what's going on. On the other hand, I have had some amazing teachers who do things unlike any other teacher, and that has really helped me. In the end it does come down to the individual relationship between the student and the teacher, but when the majority of students are having a tough time with the teacher, a personal issue not just a hard class, it is time to speak up and make a change.
WT January 16, 2012 at 02:37 AM
Tenure for public school teachers was created, in part, in response to the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial". Up until this point teachers could be fired for any reason. In John Scopes case, he was arrested for attempting to teach evolution in a Tennessee high school biology class. The purpose of tenure was to protect teachers from being fired/prosecuted soley because someone or some group didn't like what they were doing. (As JRM815 points out above) Tenure did not and does not give teachers "jobs for life". It only guarantees them "due process" before termination. A teacher in Connecticut can be granted tenure after three years in a given school system. During that time, they are observed, coached and reviewed many times by fellow teachers (instructional leaders), as well as building and district administrators. If at any time during this initial employment, the teachers work is found not to be up to the desired standards, the teacher is simply terminated. While parents do not have a direct role in this process, any new teacher who generates a lot of negative parental contacts isn't likely to gain tenure. Once a teacher has tenure, they can only be removed after they have been given what is called due process. Due process requires that the district "prove" that the teacher is ineffective and that they are not being terminated because of some other reason, including age and sex discrimiination. It can be a lengthy and expensive process as both parties lawyer-up.
m January 17, 2012 at 01:34 PM
Evaluation of teachers re tenure...What are the components of the evaluation? Who does the evaluating? How often? How often after tenure? What are the specific qualifications of the people doing the evaluating? What constitutes 'competency?' How are 'negative parental contacts' as described by poster WT handled? Are they all included in the evaluation? Who oversees them? Do they get to the HR department and the evaluation team? What mechanism is provided for transparency for the process? Who determines the specifics of the evaluations, the state (through union and legislature negotiated terms adopted as law) or the district? If it be the district, who determines the process and the specifics? the Superintendent's office or the BOE?) Many questions need to be answered for a productive set of solutions. THe process of getting the information and moving forward is equally important and revealing. .
WT January 17, 2012 at 02:42 PM
All teachers set annual goals with building administrators. Progress meetings between the teacher and administrator are held at least once during the school year. A final "report" on the goals is prepared by the teacher and then reviewed and approved by the administrator at the end of the year. All evaluations are done/approved by building and/or central office administrators. Once a teacher has obtained tenure, every five years they are in an "in depth" evaluation with a building administrator. These evaluations can take several forms but usually involve some sort of administrator observations as part of the process. At the end of this evaluation, the administrator writes a report that is placed in the teachers personel file. The teacher signs off as having read the report before it is filed. To the best of my knowledge, the evaluation process is established by the staff apprasial committee which is made up of teachers and administrators. The administrator conducting the evaluation would certainly be aware of any parental issues and be looking for evidence of any problems during their observations. Like all personel issues at any business, by law, all teacher evaluations are confidential.
wiltonwoman January 26, 2012 at 03:05 PM
Here's the truth: Wilton has some big problems with some of their teachers, and they do nothing about it if they have tenure. There are at least three teachers in the lower schools whose repuations for yelling, humiliating, 'phoning it in' are well known in town. When selection time comes, they generally give those teachers to the families who are new to town or have first-born kids coming in. They don't know better. There's one teacher at Cider Mill who had complaints from parents--serious complaints--for ten years in a row. This is a teacher who wrote on the faces of kids who didn't do their homework, singled certain kids out (usually boys) making it clear they weren't the 'best' kids, and then saying "its just a joke, and the kids get it". The year my son was in this class was a nightmare. The administration lied, deflected, patronized and otherwise dismissed our efforts to change things--we were trusting of them and they betrayed us and our son to save their own skin, since this guy had been the target of complaints for YEARS. I still do not know how or why they protected him after so many parents came forward. I'm talking like 30 complaints in five years. There were letters, meetings, petitions...all to no avail. I think he's still there, although on a reduced scheduled for health reasons. It's a travesty. If there were any honest evaluations, this guy would have been booted. Teaching is tough in this community, but it's about the kids, not the schools.

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