Education reform rhetoric is sweeping this nation. The media hails work of tough change-agents like Michelle Rhee, who receive praise for actions such as closing down low-performing schools, firing teachers and principals, and taking on the “evil” teacher unions. The case for education reform is well-documented and currently movies like Waiting for Superman and educational showcase events like that of Education Nation on NBC have highlighted the problems in public education today.
Most people will agree that there are huge injustices in education and that too many children are not getting the education they deserve. Everyone wants change. But the recent wave of reforms has targeted “bad teachers” as the main problem, and colored the unions as supporting these awful people. While anyone who talks about these “bad teachers” is quick to add, “but we want to reward good teachers”, there is still this idea that there are tons of these “lemons” sitting in their classrooms reading newspapers and willfully not teaching the youth under their care.
As a former public school teacher, I take offense. I am offended not because these “lemons” do not exist (we all know they do), but because it ignores the horrible treatment and lack of support which turns once motivated and inspired beginning teachers into these non-performers.
To put it simply, public schools are too often horrible places to work.
Now, this is the place where the Michelle Rhees of the world would jump in and shout, “It’s not about the adults, it’s about the kids!” So let me tell you a story.
While putting myself through grad school for education, I worked at a children’s hospital in Chicago. During the hospital orientation, I remember a fascinating description of how the administration turned around the company during the 90s into the world -class organization it is today. At the time, the hospital was experiencing huge problems in patient care including frequent medical mistakes and poor patient-hospital staff relations as well as difficulties in staff retention. The patients suffered because of frequent staff changes and the low performance of the staff.
And so the hospital administration made a decision. They decided to make that hospital the most pleasant place to work they could for their employees. They created health programs and benefits as well as increased pay. They provided more educational opportunities as well as adding all sorts of recreational events. They lightened workloads when possible. In all, they focused all their energy in investing in having a happy, healthy, and content staff.
And that investment made a difference. Right away, patient care improved. Lives were literally saved as medical mistakes decreased. There was better continuity of care as more staff chose to stay with the organization. And the best people in their fields flocked to work at that hospital.
See, the hospital administration understood a simple fact. The staff is the access to the patients. If you want to provide better care, they are the hands that do the work, they are the ones who directly make decisions and impact lives. So the administration decided to support the hell out of those critically important employees.
It is no different in education. The teachers are the access to the kids. When you have a staff that is under-valued, under-paid, and over-worked, productivity is going to go down. Now, just as no hospital staff would purposefully make a mistake that harmed a patient, no teacher would purposefully neglect a child. But when you spend years in a horrible environment where every day is a struggle, morale is bound to go down. Add onto that, the hurdles we know many inner-city teachers face such as lack of supplies, over-crowded classrooms, lack of support, and the threat of real violence towards themselves and the students. And then, the hardliners like Rhee come in and start talking about accountability, threatening jobs, and firing seemingly at will. Is it so hard to see how some teachers lose their spirit? Also, the reality of education in a recession is that the jobs are hard to come by, meaning teachers cannot simply walk away from these hellholes. They have to somehow survive. And unfortunately, sometimes that looks like the “lemons” reading their newspapers when it gets too hard.
Now, just to be clear, I don’t actually know any of these lemons. In my inner-city school, the teachers there worked their butts off night and day. In fact, our workloads were so incredibly large that many teachers complained of staying up until 2 in the morning and working through the whole weekend. And I mean every night and every weekend. We had few books-including textbooks, no library, no support from our principal, and little help from the community. Teachers literally had nervous breakdowns, marriages and relationships failed, and many tears were shed in every corner of the school. Despite this treatment, teachers continued to do their best for the children in front of them. They spent thousands, yes thousands!, of dollars from their own pockets in order to find books and other resources for their students. They sacrificed their free time, their social lives, and sometimes even their mental health for those kids. They weren’t working that hard for the principal or the CPS administration, not even for the paycheck. They did it all for the children. They are heroes.
And so when Michelle Rhee and Co. talk about teachers as if they are the problem, I absolutely take offense. And when it comes to blaming the unions, I also take offense. With administrators like my former bosses out there, who use fear, intimidation, and show little concern for the well-being of their employees, the union is the only protection.
Stop the attack on the teachers. Begin a system-wide commitment to support teachers in every way. Give them a workplace where their creativity and passion can thrive, where the word “burn-out” becomes obsolete. Create collaborative, supportive communities where people love to be, and so end the 50% attrition rate of new teachers within the first five years. Compensate teachers well, without the stress of tying test scores into the equation. Spend the time and money to train teachers, especially new teachers, instead of relying on the current “sink or swim” mentality. Treat your teachers like what they are, the access to the children! Everyone seems to agree that the quality of the teacher is the single greatest in-school factor for student achievement. So let’s help teachers become the best they can be. Of course get rid of the few truly negligent or incapable, but support the hell out of everyone else.
Let’s learn a lesson from a once struggling hospital, which choose to invest in its employees with incredible results. There’s still time to turn these lemons into lemonade.