Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It's the Teachers, Stupid...Right?

Well, if this is what Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism looks like, apparently the Pulitzer folks have fairly low standards.

I'm very tired of the myth that schools are bursting at the seams with apathetic, unskilled, surly, child-hating losers who can't get jobs doing anything else. I recently figured that, counting high school and college where one encounters many teachers in the course of a year, I had well over 100 teachers in my lifetime, and I can only say that one or two truly had no place being in a classroom. That means that my satisfaction with my education overall, if it was based solely on the quality of my teachers, would be over 99%. And I went to a large, comprehensive, public high school with a substantial population of students in poverty, so I think it's safe to say that my experience is not atypical.

I know I'm just one person. But I've also made teaching my career, and I can say with some certainty that even high-poverty schools in New York City are not overburdened with terrible teachers. I've seen some teachers who don't do things the way I'd do them. I've seen some teachers--a lot of teachers, actually--who are young, inexperienced, naive, and tentative. That group once included me, after all. And, yes, particularly when I was out scoring the ELA exam, I saw a couple of teachers who were perhaps not quite right for this particular line of work. But are there hordes of lousy teachers who need to be gone yesterday? I was sold that myth when I joined the Fellowship, but I don't believe it anymore. I've met way too many teachers who tried every fad that came around the block and eventually rejected them all because they knew that what they did worked for their kids. I've met way too many teachers who have been at this for a long time and still do professional development and retool curricula all summer because they want to be better. I've met way too many teachers who spend hours on the phone with parents and tutoring kids, and too much of their own money on books and supplies in the hopes of reaching a few more kids.

Here's the kicker: The article I linked above wants to blame unions for low pay and low motivation for excellence among teachers. Tell me some local governments wouldn't pay teachers minimum wage if they thought they could get away with it these days! I get what he's trying to say, in part: Low pay and low prestige doesn't attract the "best and brightest." And while I certainly wouldn't mind getting paid more, it bothers me that people think there are no "best and brightest" in the teaching corps. I could tell you my college and grad school GPAs and my GRE scores, awards I won and honor societies I belonged to, but I could also tell you that I'm not alone. I know a great many very bright teachers. We'd like to get paid more, sure. But I'm not sure that trying to attract the same bozos who sold exploding-ARM mortgages to poor people into teaching is the answer, either.

Robert Pondiscio at Core Knowledge and some other bloggers are starting to spread the message that the myth of great unwashed masses of lousy teachers is just that: a myth. I want to be part of spreading that message, too, though I suppose the best way to spread it is to come back in the fall as an even better teacher.