Monday, September 05, 2005

Back to school

I am haphazardly reading the Best American Essaysseries, and I picked up the 1987 version, if only because it was the year I graduated from high school, and I thought I might find some topical essays that would transport me back to that year. Other than an essay by Robert Stone about cocaine’s hold on the American psyche (every five years the culture creates a monster out of a different drug), the essays are timeless in subject. The first essay in the book, by John Barth, is called “Teacher.” Barth describes teaching in college, meeting a fabulous, amazing student, losing contact for years, then reuniting with her years later and marrying her. His wife, to his mild chagrin, wants more than anything to become a high school teacher. Barth muses on why such a talented person would want to teach:

For a superachiever in the U.S.A., public-school teaching is a curious choice of profession. Salaries are low. The criteria for employment in most districts are not notably high; neither is the schoolteacher’s prestige in the community, especially in urban neighborhoods and among members of the other professions. The workload, on the other hand, is heavy, in particular for conscientious English teachers who demand a fair amount of writing as well as reading from the hundred or more students they meet five days a week. In most other professions, superior ability and dedication are rewarded with the five P’s: promotion, power, prestige, perks, and pay. Assistant professors become associate professors, full professors, endowed-chair professors, emeritus professors. Junior law partners become senior law partners; middle managers become executives in chief; doctors get rich and are held in exalted regard by our society. Even able and ambitious priests may become monsignors, bishops, cardinals. But the best schoolteacher in the land, if she has no administrative ambitions (that is, no ambition to get out of the classroom), enters the profession with the rank of teacher and retires from it decades later with the rank of teacher, not remarkably better paid and perked than when she met her maiden class. Fine orchestral players and repertory actors may by union-scaled and virtually anonymous, but at least they get, as a group, public applause. Painters, sculptors, poets may labor in poverty and obscurity, but, as Milton acknowledged, “Fame is the spur.” The condition of the true artisan, perhaps, is most nearly akin to the gifted schoolteacher’s: an all but anonymous calling that allows for mastery, even for a sort of genius, but rarely for fame, applause, or wealth; whose chief reward must be the mere superlative doing of the thing. The maker of stained glass or fine jewelry, however, works only with platinum, gemstones, gold, not with young minds and spirits.

I love my job, and I do not wish to complain about my lot in life; I knew (somewhat) what teaching would be like before I got into it. I enjoy what I do, and I don't know if I'm cut out for anything else. The time with the students is fun, challenging, enlightening and exhausting, and it is the best part of my job.

But after teaching for 12 years, the problems with teaching Barth mentions begin to wear on me. A problem with education my dad has mentioned to me is this: teachers are college educated, and we would like to be treated like professionals; however, our union and our employers treat us like laborers. Many teachers love the union benefits: the job security, the rules that protect teachers from exploitation. I love those too. But, as the previous paragraph points out, few people treat us like professionals (though I have to disagree a little with Barth—one great perk is our time off. Furthermore, our pay has certainly become more competitive since 1987.) I would welcome less job security if it meant I had an opportunity to be rewarded for good work.

As it stands right now, the only motivation I have to do good work is self-satisfaction. If I do a horrible job: 1) It’s next to impossible to fire me, 2) I can’t get a cut in pay. In fact, unless I have been in the district 17 years, I get a raise! 3) I actually work less than those doing a good job. Less planning and less to grade. If I have tenure, I have little (if any) extrinsic motivation to do a good job.

I think I do a pretty good job at teaching, but I do it because I have pride in my work. Should we assume that all teachers will be intrinsically motivated to work hard for our children? Or would we like to build in some extrinsic motivation? We all had the teachers who read the paper and showed movies all day. Shouldn't we give them some reason to work harder? Shouldn't we be able to fire them if they refuse to do what they're asked to do? Shouldn't we even require them to look like they are TRYING to teach? I don't know what the answer is for motivating teachers. Merit pay plans have been weak--they simply would encourage cheating on tests, which has happened in the Houston school district.

An idea I have been floating around is this: allow schools to offer teachers as much or as little as they like. For instance, I work with an amazing teacher named Jeff. If a school like Riverside wanted to dramatically improve their English department, the school could offer Jeff $10,000 more than he is getting at LC. Or, conversely, if a school is unhappy with a teacher, they could offer him a contract that is $10,000 less than he is currently getting. Obviously, this plan has holes, and certainly the principal would have to justify, in some way, his rationale for his offer. But I believe something must be done to halt the acceptance of mediocrity and attitude of complacency some teachers have.

Having said that, I truly believe that, if this plan were put in place, LC couldn't afford to keep all its good teachers. We have a wonderful staff of dedicated teachers, and I can rattle of a few dozen names of my peers who I believe are better teachers than I am. Maybe my plan wouldn't work. But if we accept things as they are, we are saying that we accept that some teachers will be horrible, and that we shouldn't do anything about it. Maybe an answer is to weaken tenure.

If my understanding is correct, tenure was designed to allow intellectual freedom. Well, teachers have tenure, but they don’t have much intellectual freedom. Our curriculum is delivered to us; often, our freedom comes in deciding HOW to teach, not WHAT to teach. So, really, what is the use of tenure? Right now, tenure seems to be serving only to protect bad teachers.

Even the ERIC (Educational Resource Information Clearinghouse) educational database, in its article on tenure, said, “It is not impossible to terminate the employment of a tenured teacher, but the process is a difficult and cumbersome one. Consequently, many parents arrive at the conclusion that administrators would rather retain incompetent teachers than go through the time and effort involved in a dismissal hearing.”

Maybe the answer is as simple as allowing principals more freedom to fire teachers. In fact, Governor Arnold is proposing just such a measure, and, from what I understand, it has a good chance of passing. I can't say if I agree with this ballot measure, Proposition 74, as I haven't researched it enough, but I can say I agree with the idea behind it.

What do you think?

1 comment:

MC said...

I do have to admit that the reasons John Barth notes are among the reasons I have had trepidation about teaching high school as a career. I think you really have to love it as you say and be self-motivated to be a good teacher, and there are many. But I think there would be more, if the pay and conditions were better. It always drives me nuts when educational reformers try some sort of gimmick to improve education. I think it's easy-smaller classes and higher pay to retain the best and brightest. Teaching is an art and all the testing in the world is not going to change anything.