The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be..."  ...Thomas Jefferson

Commentary of the Day - September 4, 2001:  School Reform?  Ask the Teachers - Guest Commentary by Georganne Spruce.

There are more ideas about school reform than you can shake a stick at.  Most of them depend upon legislatures, superintendents, or principals making changes and that means it will take awhile.  Here's a new idea.  Just give teachers want they need and that will truly reform schools.

I wish I could put together all the good ideas I've heard from teachers.  It would be a list that stretches around the world.  But to get those good ideas put into action would require an act of God.  Of course, this difficulty doesn't exist at every school, but those aren't the schools that need reform.

I once taught at a private school where, at the end of the year, the principal asked teachers to write down a "wish list."  To my surprise, some teachers got what they asked for.  Those of us who didn't were excited that the administration actually looked at the list.  The kind of optimism this attention generates in teachers can't be faked.  You have to take the money to the bank.

And speaking of that for the people who think teachers don't need more money, I'd like to say, "Phooey."  When was the last time your company didn't pay management wages to people who manage 150 or so employees every day?  Teachers are in the business to help children, you object.   They want to make a difference in the world.  Yes, but those internal rewards wear a little thin when they can't pay the mortgage, repair the old car, or put clothes on their kids' backs.  Would your lawyer or doctor work for the wages your child's teacher receives?  Not likely.  But the influence a teacher has on a child's development may save his life as surely as a doctor would.

Furthermore, teachers are life-long learners.  They need to travel, subscribe to journals, and attend conferences where they learn and exchange ideas with others.  They're required to attend school often to renew or expand their certification.  If their employers don't provide support in these areas, teachers need to be paid enough to do these things for themselves.

In addition to a professional salary, teachers need administrators who are intelligent, professional, organized, creative, compassionate and fair.  Teachers want to work for people who have a vision of excellence and who lead with courage.   They want leaders to listen to them and respect them.  They want administrators competent enough to keep the overall school environment under control so they can teach.  They want visible administrators who are not afraid to walk the halls of their own school and let the students and teachers know they are "present."

When I taught gifted classes, a senior frequently cut fourth period class.  Talking to him and calling his mother didn't help.  He would only say he had "responsibilities."  I sent him to the assistant principal who discovered he worked late every night trying to support his infant son.  She eliminated the classes he didn't need for graduation. Then she made a deal with him that he could come to school late if he stopped cutting classes.  This young man graduated and went on to college because an administrator was willing to think creatively and solve the problem, rather than react punitively.

Teachers want administrators, superintendents, and legislators to listen to them to listen and use their ideas.  At one high school, the Governing Council spent several months working on a block schedule for the next year.  There was a rumor that the superintendent might dump the successful block schedule despite the fact that teachers and student overwhelmingly viewed it as successful.  He wrote a memo assuring them he wasn't changing the schedule.   In May, he announced that the school would go back on a traditional schedule because it was less expensive.

The teachers were furious.  Not only had they wasted months of precious time, they were not given an opportunity to try to find a solution to the budget problem that would preserve the block schedule.  It became clear to them that they were a governing council in word only.  In far too many schools, administrators ask for teacher input but never implement their ideas.  When this happens on a regular basis, the teachers feel undervalued.

Teachers want principals to support the idea that learning is the most important activity a school.  For example, many public schools disrupt learning time throughout the day by making announcements over the PA system.  What this communicates to students is that administrators don't care if the  lesson is interrupted.  Since this problem bothers the teachers, it appears that the principal must not value the teachers very much either.  This erodes student respect for teachers.  The solution is simple. Why must teachers ask for this problem to be solved year after year?

To reform schools, we must reform teacher and administrative training programs.  It is a sad fact that most teachers feel they learned virtually nothing in education courses that is useful to them in a classroom.  When I took a methods class for gifted certification, the other teachers and I were appalled that we were taught no methods.  Most of the class consisted of reading and discussing philosophy that was popular thirty years ago.

Finally, we asked the professor why he wasn't teaching us methods.  He replied that giving us specific methods might cause us to use them mechanically.  He wanted us to be "authentic."  What did he know about authenticity?  He had never taught successfully in public schools.  He wasn't even teaching the appropriate content for the course we were taking.  We complained to the head of the department as many teachers before us had, but the man received tenure anyway.

As long as people who train teachers are allowed to teach nonsense, teachers will enter the work field unprepared.  Long before strategies for disciplining students were included in education courses, young teachers were put in classrooms with unruly, disrespectful students.  They had to learn from other teachers or figure it out for themselves.  Unfortunately, many of them left teaching and today teachers are still leaving because they are demoralized by having to spend as much time struggling with discipline as with actual teaching.  Sadly, many teacher training programs still do not adequately address this problem.

If we really want to revolutionize teacher training, let's require education professors to return frequently to the public school classroom.  In the last twenty years, I've had to make at least three major shifts in my approach to teaching.  First, I learned to make my classroom more child centered.  Secondly, I learned to work with more unmotivated students.  Thirdly, I learned new classroom management skills in order to handle increasingly troubled students.

If the classroom environment has changed this much, it is imperative that the people who educate teachers and supervise them make these changes too.  Asking professors to go back into the classroom will certainly weed out those who have no real interest in making their courses relevant and current.  Education is a dynamic field.  Neither the content nor the children remain the same year after year.

Teachers want to work in a safe environment.  Without knowing it, I worked in a school for three years that was built on a toxic waste dump.  At another school in one day, six fires were started in the bathroom next to my classroom.  When the first one occurred, no alarm rang.  When I heard noise in the hall and opened the door, I discovered a smoke-filled hall.  In yet another school, when there was a drug raid with dogs, the students always knew what was going on, but the teachers didn't because the code that was used to call the lock-down actually meant there was a possible shooter in the building.  This created much anxiety for teachers.

In these situations, it is clear that administrators didn't trust the faculty, and if the faculty is not informed, they can't fulfill their responsibilities to keep their classroom safe.  It doesn't set a good precedent for a teacher to have to get her information from the students.  The feeling that she is the last to know is just another source of unnecessary stress.

In addition to the respect that teachers want, the truth is that more money can help them in many ways.  It can relieve them of having to work part-time jobs, provide them with continuing education, buy them classroom materials, give them books that are current, and assign them fewer students to teach.

These are the tools of the trade, not luxuries.  When we treat people like they are worth something, it strengthens their self-esteem and motivation.  That, in turn, helps them become more reliable and competent.  It helps them choose to stay in education.

If school reform is going to happen in any meaningful way, the country needs to value teachers enough that the brightest and best from colleges and universities will choose to become teachers.  Every education course they take must be taught by people who have had successful teaching careers and who are aware of current classroom practices.  We need to be sure all teachers get what they need in order to be  professionals.  Then we need to pay teachers well, treat them with respect, and as a nation, come to value education and intelligence as much as we value money.  Because in the future if we want to make progress, we need leaders who aspire to be more than mediocre.

© 2001, Georganne Spruce
Georganne Spruce is a freelance writer from New Mexico who has had more than 20 years of teaching experience in public and private high schools.  She has taught English, speech, drama and dance.

The Irascible Professor comments:  Ms. Spruce has raised a number of important points.  Too many of those who have put forth prescriptions for education reform have never taught a day in their lives.  They would do well to read her comments carefully.  Likewise, too many of those involved in teacher training at the college and university level do their best to remain as far from elementary and secondary classrooms as possible.  It is no wonder that so many K-12 teachers complain about the uselessness of much of what they have been exposed to in their credential programs.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.