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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014

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In Kids & Family Commentary

Teachers have a difficult and critically important job, says Dave Begel.

Teachers need support to prevent a defensive attitude toward reform


Over a long period of time I've learned a couple of very important things about teachers -- the demands on them are overwhelming, and they are very defensive about their jobs and are good at blaming others for the failures in our schools.

I am reminded of this by two recent readings -- a column on teacher tenure written by Jay Bullock for the pages of OnMilwaukee.com and a troublesome report on teacher preparation programs in Wisconsin prepared by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

I also recently read a report somewhere of a teacher who had behaved badly and still had her job. Years ago I was part of the administration at MPS. A teacher at a school had tried to discipline a child in his class by holding the kid's head in a toilet. We tried to fire the teacher, but because of union opposition, after months, we couldn't do it. The best we could do was get the teacher transferred to another school.

I am on record as saying that the formation of unions has been just about the worst thing that has ever happened to teachers. That act took teachers from respected professionals into the ranks of an opposition labor force.

Now, let's look at the two recent articles that have been troubling.

Bullock, a teacher in MPS, wrote a column about tenure for teachers. His article was a response to a decision in California that said the teacher tenure laws violated the equal protection clause of the constitution because tenured bad teachers were too hard to fire and they ended up in the poorest and least desirable schools.

This isn't a discussion of the merits of that case, but about something else in his article. Ten times he used the words "reform" or "reformer." And each time he put quotes around the word and the impression of sarcasm was unmistakable. In Bullock's column just by the use of his words, he makes clear his disrespect for those outside the system who might suggest reforms to make urban education better.

It's that kind of defensiveness that is one of the most unappealing and damaging aspects of urban teachers today.

The second thing is the report that found teacher preparation programs in state colleges to be lacking. There's lots of data and information in the report which you can read here but the bottom line is that teacher training schools in Wisconsin aren't doing a very good job.

The reaction was predictable. Those involved in training teachers blasted the study, the methodology, the ideology and just about everything else about the report. Like they say, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. We likely do an OK job of training teachers but there is probably a lot of room for improvement.

I just wish teachers would stop criticizing those who are trying to reform education from outside the establishment. They are, or should be, the most critical element of any reform effort but teachers need to embrace the need for reform within the school system.

Teachers have a difficult and critically important job. Rather than making it it an "us" versus "them" thing, teachers need to come to the table with aggressive and dramatic ideas for change.

The goal for any system ought to be to create a climate that makes it possible for teachers to do their very best job educating our children.

What that means is several things:

  • Teachers need consistent support from administrators.
  • Teachers need more time to plan and work with colleagues.
  • Teachers need help in the classroom. Find the money to put two adults in every classroom and give schools the funds to program a full boat of opportunities for kids.
  • Teachers need to be paid more so that the job becomes attractive to more young people.

That's four things that would make a dramatic change in urban education. And I think a willing public might come close to helping make some of those things happen.

But until teachers stop belittling "reform" efforts and until teacher preparation programs stop being defensive about their efforts, we are more than likely to just maintain the status quo.


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