Friday, December 30, 2011

Dear NEA,

I have a New Year's Resolution for you:  Man-up.

That's what my students would say.  That's much of what your membership seems to be saying. And that's what I implore you to do.

I have been a teacher since 1978 and an NEA member for almost as long.  But the fact of the matter is that, as I improved in my abilities to teach through an association with other professional organizations (the National Writing Project, The National Council of Teachers of English), the NEA became less and less important in my professional life.  I came to think of my membership as an insurance policy: a fall back in case I ever found myself battling against the district that employed me which, it was clear, would treat me like a freelancer and leave me twisting in the legal winds should anything go awry in my teaching life.  (And there are so many things.....)

The NEA has done nothing to change that view over the years.  I hear from my organization almost weekly, but only to excite my interest in an NEA MasterCard, an NEA low-interest loan, an NEA home-owner's insurance policy.  The monthly newsletter NEA Today goes largely unread. Most of the teaching tips or online resources have come to me months before in online communities where my professional development continues.

Ten years ago I shouted at the NEA as I read the Sunday editorials.  It was clear that the "Texas Miracle,"  discredited as a fraud even as the Rod Paige plan was being marketed wholesale to the nation, was going to visit a classroom very dear to me: my classroom.  And so it was.  But where was my 3.5 million teacher-strong union on this plan that flew in the face of all the research we know about motivating, engaging and helping students toward a better life?


So here I am.  Ten years out speaking in a little-ole' backwater blog.  Wish I had the backing of a large education group.

Here's what I know about the union from the ground:

  • We are under attack, and sometimes deservedly so.  We need to lead the reform issue from a moral high ground.  By leap-frogging over our detractors we can create a profession where our clients - the children we teach - are at the center of everything we do. I want what Mark Simon suggests:  "Teacher Unions have a responsibility to advocate not just in the narrow self-interest of their dues paying members, but in the public interest, from a teacher's perspective." (Thanks Steve Owens.)
  • I can't convince young teachers to join.  They don't get it. We are losing them and a whole generation who will not seek teaching as a viable career. In this way, if the union is not destroyed outright by the current "reformers" it will die a slow death of attrition.  And so will teaching.  What will be left in its wake?  A predatory, privatized patchwork of questionable ethics.
  • On the largest issues we are defensive.  Not a good position.  We need to lead.  The more involved in policy I've become the more amazed I am by the alphabet-soup of disparate education associations all speaking similarly on the same issues but undercutting each other's message by being too many, too small.  Pull it together.   We need a single, very large, credible megaphone if we are to combat the billionaire's boys club.  That means leading from effective practice first.  It will raise our collective voice above the fray of profit-making plans.
  • I did two years as a union rep in my building.  Much of what went on in the local was about next year's raise.  We didn't even address the "slave clause" in my contract which describes my work as "anything necessary for the smooth running of the school."  Pretty vague description of teaching and learning.  I wanted to argue for a better definition of my role and practice.

Here is what I mean by Manning UP:

Assume the responsibility for improving education and take on the role of Educator-in-Chief.  We know what conditions are needed for good teaching.  It's time to put our effort, our money, and our mouths where our hearts are: demand what has already been proven best for the children of the next generation by demanding the training, induction, and working conditions that allows good teaching to flourish. Do it on OUR terms, from the position of Effective Teaching, not a corporate manual.  The plan has already been outlined in the Commission report Transforming Teaching.*

Embrace the report.

It has already been heralded as a ray of hope in an education wasteland.

We need to lead. After all, America invented public education.  It's time we  re-invent public education for the 21st Century.  It will mean hard work, embracing change, speaking out about what really works, and even arguing amongst ourselves and conducting ongoing research, but I volunteer to marry my effective teaching chops with your organizational chops to create a robust profession.

Do it.  Or it will continue to be done unto us.

Three and half million people moving in the same direction has to effect some sort of change.

*Disclaimer: I served on the Commission.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Boxing Day

Today is the traditional British holiday reserved after Christmas to celebrate the servants--those stalwart workers who keep the manor house running, make the holiday go smoothly, and generally make life much more enjoyable for the upper classes.

The "box" in Boxing Day refers to the the vehicle for enclosing the gift for the servants (and not for the fisticuffs I imagined when I first heard the term.)

I say we co-opt this day and turn it into an American celebration of public servants, those handmaidens to government and the collective good who make our lives run much more smoothly.

So, cheers, to the guy who came by two days before Christmas and collected the remaining leaves on our street. Their duties were delayed by the extensive cleanup needed after the surprise Halloween snowstorm that brought down limbs and trees all over town.  They cleaned that up too.

To the firefighters who show up night and day to correct our wrongs.  To the police who patrol our streets in the dead of night.  The snowplow operators who go out in the worst of the weather.  To the mail carriers, the emergency technicians, the road and bridge builders.  To all the invisible workers who keep everything humming.

And, of course, to teachers, who make every other occupation possible.

Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Teachers Leading their Profession

Today the NEA released the report of the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching and the NEA responsed to the recommendations of the 21 teachers from across the nation.  I was privileged to be one of those 21 teachers appointed to the Commission for the past year.  We first convened on December 10, 2010 and our charge was to define effective teaching and imagine a teacher-led profession that would result in a true reform of our nation's schools.

You can read the report, Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learninghere.  The recommendations are comprehensive and include changing expectations in teacher preparation, induction, and providing a career ladder where accomplished teachers can take on differentiated roles that would lead to changes in schools across the nation, all monitored and evaluated by teachers themselves.

In her remarks, the Commission Chair Maddie Fennel, a fourth-grade teacher from Omaha, Nebraska said the following:

We must make clear to the public, in both our words and our actions, that student learning is at the center of everything we do. Our vision is of a profession that clearly and visibly puts student learning at its core and guarantees that students acquire the critical thinking ability, ingenuity, and citizenship skills they will need to thrive as 21st century citizens. The schools we envision develop students’ academic knowledge, critical thinking, and innovation skills, while also attending to their overall well-being. Our vision for the teaching profession rests on three guiding principles:  1. Student learning is at the center of everything a teacher does.   2. Teachers take primary responsibility for student learning.         3. Effective teachers share in the responsibility for teacher selection, evaluation, and dismissal.
We envision a teaching profession that embraces collective accountability for student learning balanced with collaborative autonomy that allows educators to do what is best for students. 
I can assure you that changing the landscape to ensure success for all of our children, along with a schooling system that ensures the well-being of every child was at the fore of every discussion.  We were always aware that our nation cannot stand on the status quo and that the real road to reform will rely on strong, effective teachers in every classroom.

The NEA's response to the report is to initiate a Three-Point Plan for Reform which includes raising the bar for entrance into the profession,  using teachers to ensure that great teachers are serving our children, and providing union leadership to transform the profession into a teacher-owned profession.

The Commission report did not stop with recommendations to the NEA.  There are suggestions for pre-service providers, policymakers, and the teachers themselves.

The NEA's response is a start.  But the teachers themselves must support and work toward the ownership of our profession--and much of realizing that vision will not be easy.

The Commission has provided the opening for claiming our profession.  Now it is up to us to take on the hard work ahead.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What's wrong with this picture?

Yesterday, flipping channels to see if there was a Virginia Tech game on I could listen to as I baked, I happened on the halftime of the SEC championship game. (You can tell I am a tepid football fan.  There was a Tech game, but I missed it.)

They were just about to begin the huge halftime event: a Dr. Pepper Tuition Scholarship contest.  At stake? $100,000 in tuition money.  Apparently they do this every year.  Who knew?  I didn't.

Here is how the contest works: You enter with a video.  This year's winner expressed her love for Dr. Pepper before launching into an explanation of her goals and her lack of ability to provide tuition money.  Then the finalists come to the championship game and are pitted against each other in a football tossing contest.  The one who can throw the most passes into the hole (isn't this just a mega-cornhole contest?) wins the whole she-bang: $100,000 devoted to tuition payments.

To be fair, in a search of their website, it appears that Dr. Pepper gives away a lot of scholarship money.  But the video, and a love of the product is de-rigeur for winners.

When she won, she completely broke down, barely able to express her appreciation for the opportunity to pursue her education--clearly a relief to an issue where she has struggled.  It was hard to turn away.  As a piece of entertainment, it was riveting.  Who knows what happened to the loser.  We never saw her.

It sickened me.

I know it is America and we believe in pullin' yourself up by your bootstraps, winners and losers, the power of physical prowess, fate, chance, rags-to-riches, but come on.  Since when is throwing 13 footballs through a hole the necessary pre-requisite to gaining an education?

This whole spectacle reminded me of the desperate dancers in the depression-era movie They Shoot Horses Don't They?  The dance marathon in the movie depicted lots of down-on-their-luck participants dancing till they dropped in hopes of winning a prize that stood between them and utter destruction.

So what's wrong with giving away tuition money through an entertaining contest?  Let me count the ways.

  • The girl is clearly bright.  Why isn't school possible for her and anyone else who has worked hard and plans to give back?  It used to be.  I remember.  At one time there were several states that offered free tuition to students who had maintained their grades....and wanted to go to college.
  • The contestants must prove their love of Dr. Pepper.  Dr. Pepper has conscripted free testimonials from desperate kids.
  • My students already suck down too many soft drinks.  Many have diabetes.  And so forth...
  • Why does it take $100,000 to go to school?  (It does.  I have colleagues who still owe $50,000 or more as they start their careers--earning just enough to scrape by month-to-month.)
  • The winner throws a football.  Yay.  Football reigns.
  • We are entertained by someone's need.
  • A mega corporation holds sway over people's fate.  Hmmmm.....
I never liked Queen for a Day either.