Those who cannot teach, govern

Wish a heartfelt “Happy New Year!” to all educators embarking on the new school year for it has become clear that many of our national leaders are oblivious of the eternal optimism that compels dedicated educators to stand before their students each fall.

Just a year ago, two candidates for president suggested last year that Americans will need to work harder to get ahead. Another fantasized about punching teacher leaders in the nose. Then, Governor John Kasich declared that as “King of America,” he would abolish all teachers’ lounges “where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us.'”

It is clear that too many candidates for office are clueless about the real lives of those they hope to govern.

First, the nature of the typical school day does not furnish time for lounging anywhere at all. “Lounge” is a terrible misnomer; “Planning Room” would be more fitting. However, for most classroom instructors, the lounge constitutes little more than a way station to address biological needs while suffering the interminable quest to find a working photocopier.

On the rare occasions educators do engage in ‘woe is us’ discussions, it generally occurs in the interminable queue at the lone functional photocopier, likely clutching a ream of paper purchased at retail and a document they need to reproduce for class, awaiting their predictable turn to submit a request for the repair service when the machine inevitably sputters to a stop.

For the record: the teachers’ lounge is frequently the least utilized space in a school.

Decades ago, the National Labor Relations Act exempted professional educators from the provisions for overtime pay. If teachers, like lawyers, had billable hours, school budgets would nearly double. The average conscientious classroom instructor spends an average of nearly twenty hours at home on the tasks of grading papers, record-keeping and lesson planning.

Educators make the case for increasing resources in the school; and they used to hear platitudes about how important their work remains to children. Of late, however, it is far more likely that educators will be named as the scapegoat for all our national ‘failures’ in public education.

Hope hovers on the horizon. A few years ago, the Gates Foundation set out to improve the evaluation process for teachers with the Measures of Effective Teaching project. Hoping to identify the pre-supposed double-digit percentage of marginally competent instructors, their own research discovered that the actual number of struggling teachers hovers around six percent.

With that fact uncovered, the Gates Foundation changed the focus of its work in education and engaged in the work of decreasing teacher isolation in order to facilitate communication and collaboration in the education community so more teachers have increased access to the best practices of their colleagues around the country, a capacity the Gates Foundation is uniquely positioned to implement.

Unfortunately, our political leaders have yet to learn the lesson that improving instructional practice will involve trusting teachers. Instead of threatening to eliminate the federal Department of Education, it is time for the DoE to start hearing the teacher voice prior to implementing policy. 


[This commentary originally appeared on September 2, 2015 in the Prince George’s Sentinel.] 

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