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Politics, Fear and Power: The Equation that Trumps Real Educator Discussions

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A reading of newspapers is a bad habit especially first thing in the morning when I would rather have the calm of first light invade me rather than the anger sure to bubble up when the voices of people from oddly sounding think tanks rumble on about teachers. Today’s New York Times op-ed page contained a double-barreled charge against the teachers and their need to unionize. However, if these gentlemen had been scouring the papers as I have been over the past few days, they might have come up with different conclusions.

 

First case in point: The idea that by altering one variable in an equation you can test the outcome is correct but if you alter one variable in order to test it but then alter several others at the same time, the test is meaningless. This is my conclusion after reading the article on the charter school opening in Harlem next term where teachers will be paid $125,000 per year to teach. Those interviewed by the paper mention that it would be nice, for example, after working a full week to see if they can afford to go to the movies. I agree, that would be nice and the fact of the matter is that is not what they are testing. But when journalists come in with an agenda and don’t state it, then the reporting too is skewed.

 

Further into this article, I learned that the gentleman who came up with this plan to pay these teachers at his new school more and to pay the principal (as fate would have it, himself) less on the face of it may not be so terrible. But the teachers at this school where the stated goal was to see if you paid teachers more would you be able to raise the level of performance in students seems to me to have some built in factors that are not part of the equation that teachers come into a school with every day. For one thing, the length of the school day and year are to grow, there is no union protection, the number of students in a classroom is to be larger than allowed by union contracts, there are no deans in this school and the attendance chores will also be a teacher’s responsibilities. On the face of it, you might say, well for $125,000 a year, they should do more but the point of the experiment was to see if you paid them more, would things be better, not if you paid them more and worked them beyond what is humanly possible will students perform better. This new school with admittedly underachieving students will only have 2 social workers on staff as well. If you took any math classes in school and if you also ever had to design an experiment, would this plan hold up as a proposal? I doubt it. But if you present this to the Department of Education, this plan looks like a winner because the gentleman who conceived of it has a Yale degree and ran a tutoring program that paid his tutors $100/hour and had great results. I have to argue that there is a huge difference between running a tutoring program and running a middle school in Harlem.

 

Then we turn our attention to the much discussed tenure of Ms. Rhee in DC. Last week, in her wisdom, based on no facts that anyone is as of yet able to disclose, 98 administrative workers in the much maligned Central Office were fired. Ms. Rhee was given carte blanche power to do this by the people who should know better and were elected to oversee this kind of official misuse of power. So now the District which is one of the worst performing in the country and needs to find the funds to run itself right is about to be slapped by some large lawsuits, you wait and see, because of the ways in which these workers were fired. According to the articles I read in the Washington Post last week and over the weekend, this attempt to bring some kind of efficiency to the administrative side of the functioning of the system has instead caused a number of severe fissures in the ranks of the very people entrusted to make sure that things run smoothly so the teachers can teach. Bringing in another untested and untrained brainiac to run a system that is failing is the kind of hail mary pass that too many systems are using in order to truly drop the ball on looking at what it is children need in order to learn.

 

Then today in reading the Times we find more brainiacs going to town bashing the teachers’ unions on a number of fronts. First for the political strength they have and second because they are holding back progress. For some reason, these gentlemen seem not to list in their credentials any teaching experience. But let us not forget that the city of New York’s huge education department is run by people who would never deign to be teachers for all the reasons we know about and those that are never spoken.

 

For the unspeakable nature of teaching is that it is for those whose main talents include not just their subject matter but the ability to nurture and to encourage growth and change. This kind of skill cannot be quantified or taught. You have to want to have it in you and you have to want to keep it alive. It takes an enormous amount of energy to do that and it requires a kind of commitment to the children that surpasses what lunacy you encounter every day from the administration of whatever school you teach in and the kinds of hurdles the lack of a real community can impose on you. The only way a teacher learns these skills is by being in the classroom and wanting to be in the classroom.

 

In the best sense of the word, teaching is women’s work. It is the kind of work that demands empathy and concern. It demands a consistency of dedication that is not based on the teacher’s ego but on the needs of the children in the classroom and what will work for that group that year based on what the experience of a good teacher has learned over years of doing this work. Let it also be remembered that there are excellent male as well as female teachers doing this job every day all over the country.

 

We will drive them out and for the reasons that these brainiacs seem to have totally ignored. Teaching is not an occupation that anyone goes into thinking I would rather be in business but I am going to be a teacher instead. So, to impose the rules and the standards we find in our business world to the world of education is to miss a very important factor. No one who goes into teaching is a person who has missed their calling as a tax accountant or a stock broker or a banker or a marketing manager. Teachers are for the most part people who teach a subject that matters to them more than the paycheck and are people who will say, as I have heard teachers in my partner’s school say, I go home at night worried because I am not able to get the students to read yet. This is their take home problem, not the pay raise they are hoping for or the corner office. What they want to do is teach. May we all get out of their way and let them do that, please?

 

Deborah Emin is the founder of the publishing company, Sullivan Street Press (www.sullivanstreetpress.com). She is also the impressario of the Itinerant Book Show as well as the program director of the REZ Reading Series in Kew Gardens, NY. Her (more...)
 

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...I'd like to add my observations. I recently qui... by Gustav Wynn on Monday, Mar 10, 2008 at 12:56:40 PM
Yes, much of teaching to the test occurs. But what... by Deborah Emin on Monday, Mar 10, 2008 at 1:06:44 PM
Another big lie is that voucher schools and charte... by philip rosen on Wednesday, Mar 12, 2008 at 8:04:37 PM