Last year, as I entered the world of urban public education, I was overwhelmed not only by the engulfing responsibilities of a pedagogue, but also by trying to wrap my head around the complex and convoluted inner workings of all the differing political factions involved, such as the networks of city, state, and national teacher’s unions, all staking their claims alongside the sprawling but somewhat business-minded bureaucracy of the NYC Department of Education. Not only that, but within my building itself it was often hard to discern exactly who had what affiliations, and there was always this sense of paranoia, with teachers sometimes oddly whispering to each other, pointing at the intercom on the wall.
I also recall a disturbing training session over the summer before I began teaching, when our teacher brought in a weird subversive with tenuous ties to the city union, who whispered to us about the terrible things that administrators might do to us, and who would stop in mid-sentence and look petrified whenever the door was opened, as if some lurking officiant from the DOE would walk in and taser him.
As someone coming from the ‘business sector’–if that’s what you can call having worked in the retail and hospitality industry–I was initially quite skeptical of teacher’s unions. After having spent a wee bit of time in the field now, I remain critical of them, but more appreciative of the work they are doing to protect teachers in a climate in which teachers are all too often blamed first for a failing public education system.
There are some horror stories out there about administrators who abuse their power and plow under perfectly decent teachers, and I can attest to the reality of this, because it happened to a friend of mine last year. It leads to the perfectly common sense realization that we can’t point the finger at failing teachers if we don’t go further and acknowledge the greater culpability and responsibility of their immediate supervisors.
In the business world, if employees fail to perform adequately, then the person that gets grilled is their direct supervisor. A good manager never blames her employees. She takes responsibility for ensuring high performance from those that she supervises. That’s her job.
Similarly, good teachers will acknowledge that they are responsible for all of their students’ learning. If one of their students fails to learn, it is not because the student is incapable of learning, it is because the teacher failed to deliver it to them correctly.
If multiple teachers are failing to reach many of their students, then their administrators must therefore be held accountable. It is the responsibility of administrators to create and implement school-wide systems and policies that support their teachers’ development–and thus, that of their students. In an era of accountability, it should be the administrators that are held to the flame first, not the teachers. (And there are indeed systems out there that administrators can easily draw from, such as PBIS, Response to Intervention, SWIS or OORS referral tracking, and assessments that can explicitly notify the building of needed intervention).
It’s easy to blame teachers, because it makes it seem like all we have to do is get some better trained teachers in there and then the problem will be solved. But you could have some of the best teachers in the world in some of your classrooms, but if there is no school-wide system of communication and support, then inevitably many will continue to fail. Flowers need tending. Workers need nurturing. Teachers need administrators who are able and willing to put in the hard work necessary to create an environment of professionalism, hard work, respect, and collaboration.
This is not to say that teachers couldn’t be trained better. They could. The hard, practical reality of teaching is not often acknowledged in the removed academic programs of undergraduate and graduate schools. In an ideal world, teachers in training would work directly in the field alongside an experienced teacher, gaining experience and knowledge through working with real students as they receive feedback and guidance. This is why the TFA and Teaching Fellows programs are somewhat successful–except that you’re just thrown in there without that experienced teacher alongside you to guide you.
I think there are a lot of terrible teachers out there. I know, because I had a lot of them. And I’ve worked with some of them. And I think that if we had an education system where administrators were truly accountable, then we could remove those protective barriers around teachers and say, “off with their heads!” But in the system we currently have, with its muddied waters of political back rubbing and schmoozing, you can’t trust all administrators to make the best decisions.
By all means, teachers must be held accountable. (And believe me, a teacher worth their salt already feels the burden of accountability from those populations that they answer directly to: their students.) But that accountability must run all the way to the top. Until it does in a manifest and transparent manner, we need teacher’s unions to protect their rights and interests from public officials seeking to divert blame to easier targets. A good school is a good system, not just a collection of good teachers. A good school fosters excellent teachers, just like a good company fosters high performing employees.