I became a fan of Morning Joe on MSNBC back when I was on maternity leave. Since we had today off, and Beany got up before the sun, I was able to see the show. There was a clip with DC Mayor Adrian Fenty talking about school reform, and afterwards all the hosts engaged in a little teacher-union bashing. Inherent in that, of course, is teacher-bashing. Finding myself super-pissed, I devoted some of today to writing this response, neglecting the pile of dirty laundry that probably rivals Sarah Palin's entire RNC-funded haul.
I wish, before you and your co-hosts launched into your diatribe about evil teachers’ unions, that you’d done a little more research, and maybe you could have talked to a real teacher or two. For brevity’s sake, I can only scratch the surface of my experiences and thoughts, but I know that there are many educators who would agree with me.
I am a veteran New York City teacher who has worked in the South Bronx since 1996. While admittedly I only caught a snippet of your interview with DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, I am well versed in the reforms that Chancellor Michelle Rhee is attempting to implement in that city’s schools. The regime of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein has been attempting to make similar reforms, with mixed results (but don’t tell them; they are masters at spinning numbers to make it look like our kids are doing better than they really are.)
The public (and journalists and politicians) love to point fingers at unions, at teachers, to explain the abysmal performance of our schools. Unfortunately, blame and accusations take up time and energy that could be better invested in our kids. The reality is that the blame is on all of us: teachers, administrators, parents, even the students themselves. Unions protect bad teachers; there’s no doubt about that. But in my experience, most of us work very hard every day under challenging conditions. It’s hard, but not impossible, to remove bad teachers. Our teacher’s union has a little-used plan that works with teachers who need to be out of the profession, helping transition them to other careers. Unfortunately, principals rarely follow through on the process, though to be fair, they are overworked too.
Teacher unions are not evil. There have been a few years when I have had 36 and 37 kids in a class; during my first year, I had 40 bilingual students, no materials and no qualifications to teach bilingual kids. The UFT is constantly fighting to lower class size, as smaller classes are proven to be a factor in success. I can’t say I had the kind of success I wanted when my students and I were crammed into the room like sardines, with kids sharing books.
Since Joel Klein became Chancellor, we are constantly judged on test scores, which is unfair. I am an English Language Arts teacher. The test my students will take in January will be given over two days. These two days will inform the media, the parents, the kids, the administrators, if I am doing a good job or not. Ironic, isn’t it, that I’m not the one taking the test? Yet in the past I have had to answer for less-than-stellar scores while kids and parents have not. On any given day, I have about 10% of my students late or absent. I have several children who come to school without pens and pencils. This year I have eight sixth graders who are reading two to three years below grade level. Though I will do the best I can, the reality is that I can’t get them to make years of progress in a few months.
At some point, the parents and the students themselves have to step up. My school of almost 500 students has an average of ten parents at every PTA meeting and half of those attending are the organization’s officers. At our twice-yearly parent conferences, I see fewer than half of my students’ parents. The parents who I really need to see the most are often the least likely to show up.
Teachers in NYC and DC are under attack from politicians who are bent on reform at any cost. Unfortunately, in NYC, Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomberg chose to implement their reforms against teachers, instead of for children. Children should come first, but teachers are the key to making that happen, and our input was completely cast aside. And when I say input, I don’t mean more time for coffee breaks; I’m referring to input on curriculum and instruction, on assessment, on behavior management. Expectations are high for us to raise scores, but support is nearly non-existent. Many administrators are so intent on keeping their jobs that they resort to threatening and bullying staff and students. Obviously, respect for us is at an all-time low; I don’t even have the right to park my car in front of my school anymore, so some of the time I used to use for planning is now spent driving around, looking for a space.
Since Joel Klein became Chancellor, we have been working a longer day and longer year, something we agreed to in our contract. And while we got more money, most of us don’t consider more money for more time to be a raise.
Every group has its bad apples. There are teachers in classrooms that don’t belong there. However, the constant attacks upon those of us who try to do our best do not serve to motivate us. This is something that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have not figured out either. And the unions, with their power, seem to have lost sight of their true purpose: to fight for teachers so we can make things better for kids.
A week ago today I voted for Barack Obama with pride and excitement that I have never experienced. I hope that he includes real teachers in these crucial conversations that we need to have. I hope, in the future, that you do the same.