The American Teacher Trials (and their Unintended Consequences)

November 23, 2009

Viola Swamp, the evil teacher in the classic picture book "Miss Nelson is Missing!"

Michelle Rhee, the face of school reform and her nemesis.......












Michelle Rhee insisted that the cover was supposed to symbolize sweeping change and assertive leadership. She was not a witch, but a hero. Who are the witches then? Bad teachers, of course: Viola Swamps that tempt little children into gingerbread schools and promptly proceed to devour their achievement potential and self-esteem. Thank goodness, then, for Superintendent Rhee, who has arrived just in time, brandishing notices of dismissal and harsh words for the child-eating-witch-enablers: teacher’s unions.

Michelle Rhee is not alone in her courageous struggle. Anyone branded as a reformer these days is likely to agree with her premier policy proposal: out with the old (bad teachers) and in with the new (preferably well-credentialed graduates of Ivy League schools.)  Policy experts with less rhetorical flair and more tact emphasize the importance of “human capital,” calling for new teacher recruitment programs, the elimination of tenure and new incentive structures for high performing teachers. (Frequently, the “human capital/bad teacher” model is dished up with a large serving of free market rhetoric, a call for charter schools and a strong distaste for unions of all shapes and sizes.)

Obviously, the existence of bad teachers is not just a fairytale. I had one or two in my 10.5 years of public school, and I saw a few more in four years of teaching in Harlem. I completely agree that it’s bad when bad teachers teach students to read badly, that giving tenure to bad teachers is bad, and that a lot of bad teachers makes one very, very bad school. 

But I also think it’s bad that such an obvious point- readily apparent to anyone working in any field who has noticed that when someone does something badly things do not generally end well- has come to dominate one of our most important public policy conversations. Bad teachers have become the bogeyman of education reform, polarizing the debate, obscuring the complex problems that plague the public education system, and making it more difficult for good teachers to do their job well.

Forgive my polemics. To be fair, advocates of the “human capital” approach have legitimate policy proposals and many are honestly interested in producing much needed change in public schools. But their rhetoric has had unintended consequences for teachers. I’ll talk more about policy in the future: school culture is my topic for today.

Recently, one of the teachers I worked with in college published a book. The book- It’s Not all Flowers and Sausages– was originally a blog, started as a space where she could vent her frustrations with teaching, thereby sparing her husband and saving her marriage. Contrary to what you might expect, the kids are never the problem. As recounted by “Mrs. Mimi,” they are funny, honest and kind, putting things back into perspective when the adults in the story most need it. Rather, the narrator depicts good teachers struggling to teach well in an institution that disregards their ideas and skills, fails to support their work and development, and transforms them from teachers into glorified data-collectors and readers of scripted curriculums.

With the spectre of the bad teacher looming, policymakers and administrators have lost faith in the ability of teachers to teach. In It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages, professional development “experts” insist that a phonics curriculum requiring the use of an owl puppet can be taught “in a coma” and is “guaranteed to work for every child,” staff developers assign additional assessments and grade them (incorrectly) weeks late, and legally-mandated instruction times add up to more than the average school day. There is palpable tension between teachers, resentful of their lack of control over their daily schedule, and the rest of the school staff, who ignore their concerns. Put simply, schools have become battlefields, places where even the most committed teachers face burnout and exhaustion. (I can personally attest to the widespread frustration among teachers, having been present at four years of working/venting-lunch-sessions at which many papers were graded and filed and many not-so-teacherly words were used. For the record, in my classroom at least, no eating of small children’s achievement potential occurred.)

It's Not All Flowers and Sausages: My Adventures in Second Grade

Admittedly, we are really talking about two problems here. One is at the level of the school, where a lot of these problems could be solved with a more supportive staff, the provision of positive feedback along with constructive criticism on a regular basis, and more active inclusion of teachers in school decision-making processes. (And maybe name tags: I worked as an assistant teacher at this school for four years and neither the principal nor the vice-principal ever knew my name- a symptom, I think, of the general disregard for the work of classroom staff.)

 But schools are also simply doing what they are told: implementing policy that represents the attempt of policymakers to teach for teachers. Nowhere is this phenomenon more obvious than when it comes to student evaluation and data collection. By the end of October, Mrs. Mimi has given her students “no fewer than seven tests in the area of literacy alone,” while four or five instructional days every month are set aside for math assessments.  The resulting data is then graphed and submitted to the higher-ups, as well as filed in multiple portfolios and binders (my job.)  Mrs. Mimi chalks all this assessment up to “testing the compliance and/or patience” of teachers, because it’s hard to believe it’s actually doing the students much good.

The “bad teacher” assumption has even filtered into progressive not-for-profits. I interned at an amazing advocacy group this summer that focused on juvenile justice and school discipline policy issues. I have great respect for their work and knowledge of the issues. But at one coalition meeting (following a few sly jokes about teachers), I realized that we were pushing for the city-wide adoption of a discipline curriculum that consisted largely of strategies already at use in the classrooms where I had worked. The only difference? Now teachers would be required to collect data, tracking improvement in students’ behavior over time. Presumably, graphs would be involved.

For all that the “human capital” approach seeks to put what happens in the classroom at the center of reform efforts, it seems to me that most of its advocates fail to understand what good teaching requires. Good teachers do not work in isolation: they thrive on collaboration and flourish in supportive institutions. Nor should teachers be isolated: if we’re serious about putting the classroom at the center, we should also engage teachers – including their unions- in the education debate. Simply getting rid of hopelessly bad teachers is only the beginning. Changes in school culture, education policy, and the tone and structure of the reform debate are necessary to make sure that good teachers stay where they are needed and that mediocre teachers improve.

Until then, the New York Collective of Radical Educators is providing what I think is an important model for teacher organizing. “Inquiry to Action” groups convene teachers to discuss classroom methodology, policy issues and social justice, providing space for critical reflection, mutual support and professional collaboration. NYCORE encourages teachers to think beyond their circumscribed role in the classroom, re-imagining their role as student advocates and political actors.  You can check out their Web site here: (Sorry kids, still figuring out this link business.) If schools could find a way to implement similar kinds of programming, I think it would go a long way towards addressing the combative character of school culture and would ultimately help teachers teach better.

Janitors with broomsticks aren’t capable of fixing the school system. To stretch the metaphor, we need construction crews, teams of politicians, teachers, parents and students who can renovate institutions from the inside out. But first, we need to stop imagining teachers as Viola Swamps.


One Response to “The American Teacher Trials (and their Unintended Consequences)”

  1. […] That teaching is an “extraordinarily specialized” skill is apparently news to The New York Times, but not to anyone who has actually spent time in a classroom, where one garbled sentence can make the difference between a successful activity and a wasted hour. But as much as I would like to mock the somewhat obvious truths presented as revelations in this article  in today’s New York Magazine (which serves to prove just how disconnected policy makers are), I’m glad to finally see some education common sense in the media. Compare “Building A Better Teacher” with The Atlantic’s “What Makes a Great Teacher?” and you’ll see what I meant when I railed about the specter of the “bad teacher.” […]

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