02/28/2011 03:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Twisted Logic of Failure by Association -- Plenty of Incompetence and Callousness to Go Around

The teachers I know and respect are not impervious to the incompetence and callousness around us. We know that there are ineffective teachers and that they are a burden to students trying to succeed -- and, perhaps even more so, to students who still need some external motivation -- and we know that those teachers undermine the credibility of all of us and make our jobs harder.

We also know that many teachers are struggling in shameful working conditions with students who have been so alienated by poverty and institutional neglect that providing even adequate instruction can require remarkable skill and heroic commitment.

We are realistic about the role of our unions. We know that the economic collapse of a few years ago -- and the incompetence and callousness that inflicted it upon us -- has gutted the tax base in many communities and that budgets must be slashed accordingly. We understand the larger classes and withering resources and pay reductions to which our unions, on our behalf, have agreed. And we understand -- and I have had conversations about this with teachers from more than a few schools in a few different cities -- that in times like these, when teachers face layoffs, that the preservation of an ineffective teacher due to a system that exclusively honors seniority is problematic; we certainly are not in favor of protecting so-called teachers who are committing malpractice with their students at the expense of less experienced but more devoted and talented colleagues. For us even one such transaction is too many. We would like to see our unions professionalize teaching by holding its members to a high standard and by compelling administrators and school boards to be more effective at raising the quality of instructors -- through better hiring practices, greater incentives to increase the applicant pool, more effective training and support, and in some unfortunate cases the termination of our colleagues who cannot or will not adequately serve our students.

We are not blind supporters of our unions. We are not mindless defenders of our colleagues -- or even of ourselves. We would like to see things improve and we take responsibility as teachers and as agents of change -- and more of us ought to get involved in union politics and push for a greater role in improving instruction in every classroom.

Furthermore, as teachers who have made a difference -- and who continue to do so -- we have the credibility to support a higher standard for the teaching profession along with more responsible governance of schools.

But when state governors and mayors and school boards show blatant disrespect for the hard work teachers do every day with other people's children -- not only educating our nation's children but trying to solve many of the social wrongs that politicians have allowed and even perpetrated -- with massive firings in a cynical attempt to fracture unions and further erode the working conditions of teachers, then there is no point in believing that we can work with those so-called leaders to solve some of the real problems in our schools.

I -- and many other teachers -- want positive change in our schools as much as anyone. But we are not stupid. We are not ignorant. We know what life was like for workers before unions and we know about the struggles workers endured to achieve collective bargaining. Unions can be corrupt and their militancy can at times be misguided -- and teachers I've known are among the most reticent to use the right to strike because we know our students rely on us -- but don't tell us we can't organize.

Hold me accountable. Measure my success. Come to my classroom and watch me work. Send your children to my school and watch me inspire them.

But don't call me or my colleagues failures when you don't know. And you don't know -- and I'm not convinced you even want to know, Governor Walker, city of Providence and anyone else with a notion about improving education by alienating and demoralizing the only people in a position to really save it.