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John Merrow

John Merrow

Posted: January 24, 2011 01:49 PM

Teacher bashing is all the rage these days, unfortunately.

Teachers are leaving the profession, and I am hearing from teachers I trust that the exodus would be greater if the economy were better. While I think that aspects of the profession ought to be criticized, particularly the 'trade union' mentality of some -- but not all -- union leaders, the bashing is way out of line.

I write about this in my forthcoming book, The Influence of Teachers, and wrote about it last week on my blog, Taking Note. In that post, I simply presented a litany of complaints from one veteran teacher, a woman I know to be dedicated to her students and the profession. The rules at The Huffington Post prevent me from posting it here anonymously, so I will summarize her complaints and then go from there to my own thoughts about what's behind the bashing.

This woman teaches in a public high school whose students reflect the full socioeconomic range of the U.S. But, she says, rich or poor and regardless of the educational backgrounds of their parents, many of her students seem to need her to be their parent and teacher. In her letter, she provides disturbing examples of children essentially on their own, such as a gay teen whose mother seems to have abandoned him. Even more upsetting are her examples of parents who, in her mind, have abdicated their responsibilities and simply expect the school to take over. She mentions one father who apparently berated her for chastising his daughter for not studying and a mother who lets her 14-year-old son stay out after midnight on school nights (her excuse: "He doesn't listen to me.").

Would you trade places with that teacher? Could you last in the job as long as she had and still be as effective and caring as she is? Does she have a right to be upset?

When I posed those questions on my blog, many people responded with strong reactions. Joe Nathan, a friend of many years and a committed education reformer, was upset. He wrote, "For 40 years, literally, I have heard and read comments like this. As an inner city public school teacher, administrator, PTA president and parent, I vigorously disagree with this person's viewpoint. ... Yes, there are critical parents. There also are nasty teachers. There also are welcoming teachers and supportive parents."

A few readers asked me for examples of teacher bashing. That's easy. Exhibit A has to be Waiting for Superman, of course. In addition, several states have already either repealed tenure laws or are working on it. And while some praise teachers, I don't hear them talking about the quality of the work place. Why aren't people of power upset about a profession that loses 40 percent of its work force in the first five years?

But 40 percent shouldn't be that big of a deal, one reader who identified himself as 'jim' commented, "I started my career with Price Waterhouse, one of the big consulting firms, and the attrition rate in the first five years was much higher than 40 percent, more like 60-70 percent. They system should be designed to weed out the weak and ineffective as soon as possible. That gives people who chose the wrong profession the opportunity to find one that they are better suited for. This was Jack Welch's philosophy in reviewing managers. 'Do them a favor and don't let them continue to fail by staying in a job they are not suited for.'"

That may sound sensible, but in education, it's not a matter of design or philosophy. Allowing newcomers to "sink or swim" without making serious investments in their growth and development is just plain bad practice.

A reader named Michael Osterbuhr, who identified himself as a college teacher, raised an interesting point that suggests that all the "parenting" responsibilities that fall on K-12 teachers get in the way of student learning, something that he and other college instructors then have to deal with. He wrote, "Most students who arrive at our door are seriously not ready to do college level work, especially because it requires more than the 'memorize and regurgitate on exams' simple information that NCLB has wrought. They do not like to read and regularly refuse to read textbooks, they do not understand analysis or synthesis, and most don't know why they can't copy whole articles off Google and paste them into 'research papers.'"

I conclude that we need higher standards and a more challenging environment. Not a more "rigorous" one, but a more challenging and interesting one. Unfortunately, and for reasons I don't understand, many powerful people are defining public education's problem as "bad teachers." That's simplistic and dangerous.

Blaming teachers won't get us where we need to go. We have to move beyond "regurgitation education." Our kids don't live in that world anywhere else. Two of the three justifications for school no longer apply in anything resembling the traditional sense (and the way it was when we were kids, unless you are under 27 or so).

The three:

1) Schools (and libraries) were where the knowledge was stored -- in books, in teachers' head, and so on. Not true today. Today, knowledge and information are all around us 24/7, so schools have a new function: help kids ask questions, separate wheat from chaff (and choose wheat).

2) Socialization -- we went to school to learn to get along with other kids. Today, however, there's an app for that, dozens of them. So schools have a new function there as well -- 'socialization' with people all around the world. Pen pals on steroids. The old way is dead.

3) Custodial care. We still need and want that, but schools that do only that and provide merely marginal education are in fact dangerous places, because the energy of kids will come out somehow. Unfortunately, often in negative and nasty ways, if it's not channeled into meaningful learning experiences.

That's the "magic bullet" if one exists: meaningful learning opportunities. Not small classes or charter schools or pay-for-performance, etc.

When I talk about teacher bashing, am I going beyond the data, a couple of people wondered? Unions are being attacked, but many prominent people are saying nice things about teachers -- not bashing them. Those questions made me realize that bashing is not always verbal -- and that one may say one thing and do another.

Here's more on that, prefaced by a couple of quotes:

"O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,--meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain:
At least I 'm sure it may be so in Denmark."

"Watch what we do, not what we say."

The first is from Hamlet, and the second from Nixon's Attorney General, John Mitchell.

Unions are the easy whipping boy, but a flawed target because, after all, some school board somewhere signed every one of those 'terrible' contracts that let teachers arrive two minutes before the bell and leave three minutes after the final bell, keep administrators from observing, limit faculty meetings, etc. Attack unions for their trade union mentality for sure, but take the same number of swings at school boards, please.

As for teacher bashing, follow John Mitchell's advice and pay attention to behavior. Have university presidents stood up and objected to the lousy training, or have they willingly accepted the "cash cow" status of their schools of education even though they know the training is sub-standard? Isn't that a form of bashing?

Some states still allow administrators to assign teachers to teach subjects they themselves haven't mastered, as long as they don't spend the majority of their time doing that. Isn't that disrespectful treatment a form of bashing?

This is a 'profession' that loses at least 40 percent of its members in their first five years. What other field would tolerate that? Is the turnover that high at Walmart? The information as to why teachers leave is readily available and repeated every year in surveys, yet the powers-that-could do little. It's a lousy job. Next time you are in a group, ask all the former teachers in the audience to stand. I think you will be surprised. (That group includes me and two of my three children, by the way.)

So, in my lexicon, "bashing" has to be redefined to include inaction. Indifference and inaction are forms of teacher bashing.

As for the Hamlet quote, start with Waiting for Superman and its content.

Did you see the Oprah hour about that movie? She said she was not talking about the "good" teachers, but the message of the hour was clear. Bad teachers (and evil unions) are public education's big problem. It was left to Bill Gates to defend teachers (because Randi Weingarten was relegated to tape, played before commercial and never referred to again).

NBC's Education Nation is another example of a failure to dig deeply into the issue. Instead, they accepted the premise ("bad teachers..."), featured mostly charter school teachers (who teach maybe 5 percent of our kids), and never asked any tough questions about conditions, respect, etc.

What we have here is a failure to properly define the problem, to paraphrase Cool Hand Luke.
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