So why is a school administrator like me so riled up about the Budget Repair Bill in the state of Wisconsin? Admins aren’t specifically mentioned in the bill regarding benefits, and neutering teacher unions ought to be a good thing for me, right? We always hear about the unions battling administrators, protecting teachers who are mediocre on their best days and also saving teachers who say/do horrible things to kids, parents, and other educators. That does happen, but not at the frequency that some sources want you to believe.
What you never hear about (because it isn’t that salacious and newsworthy) are the unions who work with administrators to improve or get rid of teachers who aren’t good for kids. The union folks I know don’t want bad teachers in our schools anymore than I do. Do you know who are the biggest critics of bad teachers? The teachers next door! Nothing enrages and disappoints a teacher more than a fellow educator who is selfish, caustic, uninspired, and just plain lazy. When a teacher doesn’t pull their weight, it is bad for those students with whom they work, but it also causes a lot more work for the teachers who get those kids next, whether it be the next period or next school year. Teaching is hard work and trying to pull a kid up to grade level when they are way behind is extremely difficult. The “bad teacher radar” of an administrator doesn’t instantly detect problems on its own; it gets tipped off by those who work alongside those who aren’t up to par.
While the situation described above does happen, this is where I think the teacher unions can do a better job with leadership and quality control among teachers. Instead of protecting the weakest teachers, unions and teacher leaders need to work alongside administrators to rapidly improve the subpar teachers or get them out of the classroom and profession. Getting rid of bad tenured teachers shouldn’t take years. Kids in those classrooms usually only have that one year with a teacher and the kids don’t get do-overs. We’ve all seen the research about the quality of the teacher being the most important factor in the achievement of a student. We can’t take that lightly and unions need to be a bigger part of that solution. Tenure rules need to change and administrators need to do a better job of accurately evaluating teachers for the benefit of improving student learning. When done right, unions and administrators work together to benefit students. The benefits for the adults (better working conditions, sense of accomplishment, more engaged students, etc.) are a nice side effect.
Even with that slight critique/suggestion about unions, a huge concern about the Budget Repair Bill in Wisconsin is that it seems to be a part of a larger (coordinated?) attack on public education. Combine the possible loss of wages and the right to collectively bargain, the film Waiting for Superman, loss of federal and state aid, and some of the provisions of Race to the Top, and no wonder teachers are frustrated and fired up. This attack seems to be centered on teachers, but the issues in public education go beyond teachers. To make the necessary changes across our country, we need to also examine parent involvement, poverty issues, shortfalls in funding, lack of a coordinated curriculum, etc. That list could/should go on and on. So when the blame is centered on teachers, it is demoralizing for a group of professionals who are already struggling with meeting higher expectations with fewer resources (and I don’t mean their personal compensation) to do it.
As an administrator, I’m expected to make sure that we have the right people in the right place in our schools to help our kids be successful citizens in an ever-changing and complicated world. If our society keeps blaming teachers without offering avenues of support and improvement, how am I going to keep finding the “best and the brightest” candidates to step in and shape these young people? Excuse me as I let my conspiracy-theorist side take over at the keyboard for a moment. I worry that some of these national events are intentionally setting up large scale failure for public education. Let’s continually cut funding, attack teachers, kill unions (who are great advocates for public ed), raise expectations, and then officially declare that public education is a failed 100-year experiment. Let’s then hand out vouchers so people can go to any school they want and then neighborhood public schools become a place equivalent to public defenders–the place where you turn when you don’t have any money and anywhere else to go. Some will be good and effective, most not. Those kids whose parents don’t have the knowledge, motivation, and resources to scout out the best schools, are likely the kids who need the most help. Sounds like an officially sanctioned class system. But like I said, that’s the paranoid conspiracy-theorist in me, and I hope that part of me is wrong.
So I’m against this bill because it could be a domino in the dismantling of public education and opportunities for all of our students. I greatly appreciate the education I received as a student and I credit it for where I am today. My brothers and I were free and reduced meal kids from K to 12 and received a great education from caring committed professionals in a little town in central South Dakota. We were equipped with strong academic skills and attitudes to go and be positive contributing members of our communities. I thank my teachers, who are just like teachers from across our country today. An extremely large majority of educators (certainly the ones I know and work with) just want to work with kids and their families to give them tools to be good citizens in our world. No certificates, commendations, or merit pay are needed. They might say to just keep the modest checks coming, provide healthcare for their families, and a little pension waiting for them after they retire. They forego the salary today for peace of mind later. I think they deserve it.
Teaching is a caring profession, and our teachers should be cared for as well.