One for all, and all for one: No Thanks!
by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
Education has clearly become a white-hot topic. Recently, NBC dedicated much of an entire week’s programming to the subject. And one of the most popular items for discussion was the issue of tenure for teachers. Heated words both pro and con were thrown back and forth. One of the participants, Tom Whitby, stated his adamant belief that if tenure were removed from our schools it would be potentially disastrous. Although I disagree with many of the arguments he used to support tenure – a topic I will deal with at a later date – my more immediate sense of discomfort was with the overall tone of his piece.
A Chilling Moment
What I found troubling was Mr. Whitby’s displeasure with teachers who express their unhappiness with the current state of education. He described one comment from the audience in the following manner:
“There was one striking comment however, from one young educator that sent chills down my spine, only to have them go up my spine by the applause that followed her statement. As an educator of 40 years, I was truly in awed (sic) and upset. Her statement was that she did not need Tenure. She only wanted to be evaluated on her teaching and she was confident she would have a Job the next year. She saw no need for Tenure (down the spine). TEACHERS then applauded (back up the spine).”
These remarks would indicate that no teacher should question the value of tenure nor should other educators demonstrate their support. However, it was Mr. Whitby’s subsequent statements that I found most unsettling.
“The ugliness of this reform movement is in the name calling of teachers by teachers: Public school teachers against Charter school teachers; Young teachers against experienced teachers; Non-Tenured Teachers against Tenured teachers.”
Such statements are both misguided and unfair. Teachers are not some monolithic group that agrees on every aspect of their profession and are somehow injured if they dare express any difference of opinion. On the contrary, who better to discuss the proper approach to educational reform (including the role of tenure) than the people most directly impacted by such changes? More importantly, the concept of teacher versus teacher is not nearly as destructive as Mr. Whitby believes. The reality is that this confrontation, in a slightly altered form, plays out on a regular basis in schools all over the country. Indeed, teachers have a highly vested interest in the professional abilities of their colleagues. This concern is firmly grounded in the fact that, other than the students, no individuals in a school are as adversely affected by ineffectual teachers than the remainder of the staff.
An infection that spreads throughout a building
A poor teacher will disrupt not only their own classes, but all subsequent classes in courses that are taught sequentially. The worst case scenario for students is to pass a course with poor understanding of the required material. These students are then doomed to struggle with all successive classes in that sequence. When this happens due to poor teaching, it is truly tragic. As these students move through the curriculum, they are destined to struggle just to keep up with the other students in the class. The progress of the class as a whole will suffer and competent teachers will face a difficult decision. Should they teach the topics again, resulting in a significant loss of valuable class time or allow some students to be deficient through no fault of their own? Regardless of the choice, the progress of the class will suffer.
A poor teacher creates classroom management problems for everyone. One of the most common characteristics of an unproductive classroom is weak discipline. Unfortunately this problem can be contagious. Adolescents do not automatically differentiate between one teacher’s standards and another. It becomes a far more difficult task for teachers to enforce their own behavioral expectations when similar expectations are being ignored in other locations. How many times has a teacher heard some form of “But Mr. X allows us to do that”? Again, more critical class time is spent on problems that should not occur.
A poor teacher results in students losing time in other classes. Most administrators will tell you that suspensions are more frequently the result of misbehavior in a weak teacher’s room than in a strong one. But a suspension results in students missing all classes not just the one where the infraction occurred. In addition numerous conferences are often the product of such conduct which will also cause more time out of classes.
A poor teacher can affect other class activities. One year a young science teacher had a room adjacent to one of the weakest math teachers in the building. He once told me that not a day went by without at least one administrator coming to that teacher’s classroom. He added it was never surprising to find that teacher’s students in the hallways. Whether they were wandering because they had opted to skip the class or had been excused from the room without proper justification, they spent the majority of the time that they should have been learning math, disrupting other classes.
A poor teacher can wreak havoc with the grading system. Consistent grading throughout a building is critical. Grades influence student class placements as well as the expectations of both the teachers and students. Any disruption to this process is counterproductive. The typical ineffectual teacher will assign erratic grades. Sometimes in an attempt to gain cooperation undeserved high marks are given; conversely, poor grades are often the result of weak instruction or worse, punitive. Regardless of the direction, other teachers will suffer.
A needed dialogue
Teachers depend upon the good work of other teachers. They not only have the right but the responsibility to question educational policies, plans for reform and each other. Teachers need to have a united front on one crucial issue—formulating ways to ensure student success. Being appalled that teachers do not always reflect a united front on how to reach that goal is foolish and wrongheaded.