by Christopher Paslay
February was quite a month for America’s public schoolteachers. Within the span of 10 days, Central Bucks East teacher Natalie Munroe was terminated for blogging about the poor attitude and work ethic of her 11th grade students. In Philadelphia, Audenried teacher Hope Moffett was sent to “teacher jail” for apparently voicing opposition to the district’s Renaissance School Initiative, a reform policy that implements the wholesale firing of teachers as a means of turning around failing schools. That same week TAG Philly—the Teacher Action Group—held a rally against intimidation by the Philadelphia School District at 440 North Broad Street which drew over 600 teachers, students, parents and community members.
And in Madison, Wisconsin, thousands of public schoolteachers called out of work and descended on the state capitol in response to Governor Scott Walker’s bill which put an end to collective bargaining.
As a teacher and blogger who frequently questions the workings of public education, I find these recent events quite curious. There appears to be a new boldness forming in America’s educators to make their opinions heard, a boldness not often seen in an era where teachers are paid to perform, not talk.
If I didn’t know better I’d think teachers were tired. Tired of being relegated to the bottom of the educational pecking order, tired of being blamed for all of the problems involving the economy and public education.
The most frustrating part is that the very teachers who get criticized for such short-comings are rarely given a say in shaping the policy that attempts to bring about solutions. Interestingly, everyone involved in public education is an expert but the teachers. As a rule, school reform is done to teachers, not with them.
Teachers are indeed the most valuable part of America’s public schools. Good ones must be respected and rewarded, the struggling ones should receive proper support, and those not cut out for the challenge should find a new profession.
With that said, however, the attacks on schoolteachers can at times be unwarranted. The fact that the Providence public school system in Rhode Island recently fired all of its schoolteachers—nearly 2,000 of them—is a case in point. The move was made by mayor Angel Taveras not because of performance issues but to give the district more flexibility to recall teachers the following school year based on student need. However, critics of the decision say it was clearly a union-busting tactic.
Not that teachers’ unions will get any sympathy from the American public. In the slick, carefully packaged documentary “Waiting for Superman,” director Davis Guggenheim did an outstanding job of disparaging teachers and their villainous unions while advancing his own reputation and film career in the process. Not surprisingly, Guggenheim told only one side of a very complex story.
Newsweek has also forgotten its manners when it comes to our nation’s educators. In 2010, the magazine launched a full-scale attack on teachers, dedicating their March 15 issue to the campaign for their termination. One story in that issue was headlined “Why We Can’t Get Rid of Failing Teachers” and blamed America’s troubled school system solely on teachers, noting that “teaching in public schools has not always attracted the best and the brightest.”
Educating young people is a complex task. There are many factors involved with failure and success. Engaging lessons are difficult to write. It takes stand-up comedians months and sometimes even years to develop a successful 45 minute act, one that engages the audience and keeps their attention. Teachers must do this four or five times a day, every day, for an entire year. Jerry Seinfeld isn’t that good.
The time-honored practice of making teachers scapegoats for all the problems of society and public education appears to finally be meeting some much needed opposition. As Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall wrote on March 4th in her article, “Punished teacher part of larger stage”:
“After talking to Hope Moffett—the Audenried High English teacher banished to ‘teacher jail’ since Feb. 17 for daring to publicly question a School District decision—it struck me that I was witnessing a pivotal moment in time. You know, a flashpoint. At a time when politicians are bullying teachers as sport, and the execution of educators’ rights comes disguised in the form of state budget cuts all across the nation, Moffett has emerged as a local symbol of courage and a unifying force—for public education, for teachers, for unions, and against acts of intimidation.”
To the folks like Hope Moffett I tip my hat, and hope more of America’s educators have the courage to stand up for their convictions and make their voices heard.
Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia schoolteacher. His new book, The Village Proposal: Education as Shared Responsibility, will be published in the fall of 2011 by Rowman & Littlefield.