Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dear Reformers: Teachers Are Neither Heroes Nor Zeroes

April 18, 2012, 3:32 p.m.

As an argumentative writing challenge, I recently paired students and assigned them a fictional text. They were given the task of composing a persuasive letter to their partner about the main character.

Tim CliffordTim Clifford

One student had to stake a claim that the character was a Hero, and the other had to claim that the character was a Zero. Students had not only to prove their own side, but anticipate the counter-arguments of their partners.

The results were gratifying, because most students began to see that things are rarely as clear-cut as they first appear. Heroes sometimes have dirty faces, and even the most nefarious villains may act nobly at times.

I got to thinking about all this after I had read yet another hatchet job on teachers in a newspaper that shall not be named (no, not the one affiliated with this blog).

Every day, some education reform pundit who has never set foot in a classroom decries the state of education, with teachers as the primary whipping boys (and girls). So I decided to take on my own assignment and write the reform folks a letter explaining to them why teachers are not the Zeroes they are making us out to be.

Dear Ed Reformers,

Not all teachers can be life-savers like Cassandra Byrd-Scolaro, who teaches fourth grade at Public School 17 Henry D. Woodworth in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and who recently resuscitated a woman she found lifeless in a bathroom stall during her lunch break.

When revived, the stricken woman, who had apparently overdosed, gave Ms. Byrd-Scolaro the finger. I think most teachers can relate.

If judged solely through media coverage, one would be forced to conclude that teachers are the greatest plague on society today, collectively eroding democracy and leading this country down an inexorable path toward third world status.

To prove our villainy, many news outlets recently chose to risk the public shaming of teachers by publishing highly flawed Teacher Data Reports. Our names (and some teachers’ pictures) were smeared all over the papers as if we’d gotten D.W.I.s rather than T.D.R.s.

In your zeal to “reform” schools, you have, wittingly or not, excoriated teachers. Your mantra has been that the essential step towards building better schools is the ability to fire all of the “bad” teachers out there.

Even President Obama, an alleged union supporter who vowed to don comfortable shoes and march alongside us should collective bargaining rights ever be threatened, applauded the firing of the entire faculty of a school in Rhode Island.

While it is true that some teachers are better than others, and everyone can improve, the myth of the bad teacher is just that — a myth. I’ve taught for more than two decades and I can truthfully assert that I have only seen a handful of teachers who were so awful that they needed to be bounced from the classroom.

Of that handful, many were weeded out in the tenure process, and others were either forced out or exited voluntarily because they couldn’t cut it.

Speaking of tenure, let me remind you that administrators have as many as five years to decide whether teachers deserve tenure. Before that, teachers can be fired for any reason, or no reason at all.

Isn’t five years sufficient? If a teacher makes it that far — no mean feat in itself — doesn’t he or she deserve the right to the fair hearing that tenure affords them prior to termination?

And as for the oft-repeated meme, perpetuated in ed reform hit pieces like the movie “Waiting for Superman,” that once granted tenure, teachers stick their feet up on their desks and read the sports section for the next 20 years, I invite you all to spend even one period in a classroom with your feet up.

You will quickly learn why teaching cannot be performed while sitting on one’s posterior. Good luck combing the spitballs out of your hair.

Some of you reformers out there have even begun blaming teachers for the bad economy. You claim that greedy teachers are wrecking local and state budgets with our “exorbitant” pensions.

In truth, salary and benefits, including pension, are part of our total compensation package which is negotiated with local governments. In other words, we earn them.

Many states, such as New Jersey, were utterly irresponsible in underfunding their pension obligations, but that’s hardly the fault of teachers. And much of the shortfall is due to the near-crash of the stock market brought on by the irresponsible behavior of banks, and yes, even some of the hedge-fund billionaires who are at the heart of the education reform/charter school movement.

So, my dear education reformers, I humbly submit that teachers are not the Zeroes you make us out to be.

Are we Heroes? Well, perhaps not. We rarely confront fire-breathing dragons, but we do face off against hormone-engorged adolescents on a daily basis.

We don’t pull swords from stones, but we do pull thoughtful answers from reluctant learners.

And while the villains we face rarely wear black masks, we do square off against thinly disguised poverty, hunger, discrimination, abuse, bullying and neglect on a regular basis. Sometimes, we even win.

Maybe we’re just heroes with chalky faces. We can’t all be like Ms. Byrd-Scolaro. Still, it would be nice if, after we’re done with our minor acts of classroom heroism for the day, you would refrain from giving us the finger.

Tim Clifford

Tim Clifford is the author of several education books, as well as children's fiction and non-fiction. He teaches English in Queens.

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