I cannot remember a time when the teaching profession has been subjected to such a withering attack. It is hard to open to the editorial section of the newspaper without seeing some sort of commentary on the need for immediate and far reaching reform in the public school education system. Opinions abound regarding new state regulations, common standards and outside assessment of anything and everything happening in our schools. As I wrote in last week’s blog; the eyes of the nation are upon us, and they are not happy with what they see.
It seems to me that the core of the problem is a fundamental lack of respect for the teaching profession. They say that in every joke is a thread of truth and we all have heard the line; “Those who can do, those who can’t teach (and those who can’t teach, administrate)”. After spending over 30 years in the classroom, and the last 17 as a school principal, believe me when I say many (dare I say most) of our students parents do not think it is simply a joke.
The fact that so many of the teaching profession’s critics have never actually taught a class is one issue. Another is that many reformers in decision making roles have very little exposure to the very institutions they are trying to reform. In a January article in the New York Times, Michael Winerip writes:
Those who call themselves reformers are a diverse group, men and women of every political stripe and of every race and ethnicity.
But there is one thing that characterizes a surprisingly large number of the people who are transforming public schools: they attended private schools.
Which raises the question: Does a private school background give them a much-needed distance and fresh perspective to better critique and remake traditional public schools? Does it make them distrust public schools — or even worse — poison their perception of them?
I am afraid the answer to the above question is yes and yes. Distance from the public school system does provide fresh perspective, while that very same distance also renders them incapable of truly understanding the unique challenges of urban realities. Usually, we bring such people on as consultants, not decision makers.
That said, teachers and administrators alike must be cognizant of the fact that they have brought much of this upon themselves. Schools have been notorious for employing a ‘circle the wagons’ mentality whenever criticism was expressed. Harvard Professor Richard Elmore in an article entitled Building a New Structure for School Leadership, talks of the ‘buffering’ that schools employ to ‘protect’ teachers.
Buffering consists of creating structures and procedures around the technical core of teaching that, at the same time, protect teachers from outside intrusions in their highly uncertain and murky work, and create the appearance of rational management of the technical core, so as to allay the uncertainties of the public about the actual quality or legitimacy of what is happening in the technical core.
Such defensive methods have not contributed to building feelings of trust and mutual respect between schools and those they serve. And, even though I can understand why schools act in this manner, it has come back to bite them. The tone of the rhetoric of reform often speaks volumes as to the rather low esteem in which teachers are held.
A middle road will be found. Schools will most certainly be held to transparent standards and teachers will find ways to continue to educate, sometimes because of the added scrutiny and sometimes despite it. We hope that in the end our children will be the true beneficiaries of this ongoing debate and that the teaching profession will once again receive the admiration it deserves.