Ok I hate that I feel the need to write this, but I think people need to understand something. It’s always someone’s fault. If there is an effect, there was a cause. That’s a basic tenet of nature. I didn’t make that up.
I had a discussion with a fellow political volunteer on Election Day about the public’s current obsession with villifying unions, specifically, teacher’s unions. Unions are being blamed for the current state of education in general, and elected officials, community leaders, parents, and even other educational professionals are jumping on the bandwagon of identifying bad teachers as the problem and unions as protecting bad teachers. A=B, B=C, therefore A=C. Education stinks, bad teachers stink, unions protect bad teachers. Therefore education stinks BECAUSE of union protection of bad teachers.
Follow me for a moment through this scenario, if you will. A dedicated, compassionate, enthusiastic math teacher inspires a young person to become a teacher. This young person, Sam, goes to college to become a math teacher, is successful in the coursework, and is hired upon graduation by a local school district. Sam gets tossed into the classroom with a rudimentary support system and is, for all intents and purposes, forgotten by everyone, following an extracurricular mentoring program that takes up time Sam could be using for working on grades, parent contacts, professional development, or lesson planning/reflecting. Sam’s department chair is busy with a full courseload and doesn’t have time to observe Sam’s classes. Sam’s overworked administrator performs the required two evaluations of Sam and puts Sam on an improvement plan for poor performance. Sam, not knowing what to ask or how to improve on the areas of poor performance, becomes insecure and continues to do the same things in the classroom. At the end of the year, showing no improvement in the categories listed as “needing improvement”, Sam is fired, along with the other teachers hired on a temporary contract. Sam gets a job teaching math at another school only to have the same thing happen. After a few times no one will hire Sam, and, sad at the loss of a lifelong dream, Sam retreats into the private sector to work as an accountant with a banking company.
Let’s change one thing about this scenario and see how it shakes out. Sam’s teacher’s union steps in when Sam is placed on the improvement plan, ensuring adequate dialogue takes place between Sam and the administrator so Sam really understands what work needs to take place to improve. Sam’s teacher’s union provides workshops and literature which Sam can access to improve, and Sam begins to see what needs to change. Sam makes the needed changes and is taken off the improvement plan. Sam is still fired as a teacher on a temporary contract but is rehired due to satisfactory performance. Sam contines on to become a dedicated, compassionate, enthusiastic math teacher and an inspiration to other young people.
Did the union protect this “bad” teacher from being fired or help an inexperienced teacher gain the skills necessary to become a “good” teacher? Did the union interfere with an administrator doing his/her job or protect the process of maintaining high standards and quality among teaching professionals?
Think about it another way. A man is accused of killing someone. His lawyer “gets him off” on a technicality because the man wasn’t read his rights. Is that the lawyer’s fault? No. Whether you agree with the decision or not – and I chose this example with intent – the lawyer did his job and protected his client’s civil rights.
Do we improve our educational system by fostering a culture of fear? Fear prevents risk-taking, and we need to take major risks to better serve our students. I won’t argue with those who say education, and particularly public education, isn’t meeting the needs of all students. But I do believe that by making teachers better instead of constantly replacing them – or bemoaning the fact that there are teachers out there who just don’t care – we will break the cycle of public disrespect of the profession and a shortage of people willing to join it. It is exactly those young people who want to be teachers who we need to encourage and support. The Sam’s of the world will make a difference if we just give them a chance.
P.S. Delaware DOES NOT have tenure. Teachers can be and are fired on a regular basis following due process, which is essentially a protection against unfair firing.