2003-11-21 / Columnists

From the

Editor
By Howard Schwach
From the Editor’s Desk By Howard Schwach

Teachers are an easy target for all of the ills of the school system. I ought to know, because I was a teacher for thirty years, spending most of my time in Rockaway schools and in the District 27 office as a staff developer.

There are those who would say that my experience has made me biased in favor of teachers. There are others who would say that my experience as a teacher gives me an insight that other editorial writers do not have.

Both would be right.

There is no doubt that the city’s schools are in crisis and that most of them are not performing up to par.

There is no doubt, at least in my mind, that the fault lies not with the teachers or the administrators or the custodians, but with the constituency that gets the least public notice – parents and students. If our public officials demanded as much accountability from parents and students as they do from the professional staff, things would change very rapidly in the schools, and it would change for the better.

To read the latest round of teacher-bashing by Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz (the chair of the council’s education committee) and by those who write editorials and columns for the daily papers, however, one would think that they were the devil incarnate (or, at least, the revival of the evil empire) and that there was no problem with either the students or the parents who demand that they get away with anything they want to get away with during the school day.

Those who write for the daily papers often point to the fact that teachers no longer have to do cafeteria duty, hall patrol or bus duty as one of the major problems with the schools, as one of the rules that does not allow a principal to control his or her own building.

While I believe that teachers and supervisors should patrol cafeterias, hallways and do bus duty, everybody should remember why that rule came to pass.

The teacher’s union (which is controlled by non-teachers) wanted to do away with "non-academic" duties. Mayor Giuliani wanted a contract that allowed for two years of "zero" raises. The city offered to give up the patrols in return for the union taking the two zero years.

I was incensed at the time. Not only because I ran a cafeteria each day and knew what it meant to not have teachers present, but because I would get no raise for two years in return for getting something I personally did not want.

So, blame the city, blame Mayor Giuliani. Blame Sandy Feldman and Randi Weingarten. Do not blame the teachers for not having to do school patrols. It was the mayor’s idea and it was accepted by a union leadership out of tune with its membership.

Then, we come to lesson plans. Administrators say that the rule that allows teachers to plan in their own way harms their control over the school.

Let’s get something straight. Teachers need to plan. Some teachers need to plan more than others. New teachers, especially, need to do detailed plans. More experienced teachers do not.

If anybody out there works at a profession where, at the beginning of each week, they have to turn in a detailed work plan to their supervisors, telling them everything they are going to do during the week, on an hour-by-hour basis, then I’ll eat this week’s paper (metaphorically, at least). Nobody else has to do it. Why should a professional, licensed and trained individual, have to jump through hoops to write detailed plans that he or she does not need to do the job so that an administrator (the majority of whom do not have subject-level credentials in the teacher’s academic subject) can look at them, initial them and give them back.

Let’s also set another record straight. The job of the UFT is to represent teachers, to get them the best deal possible in terms of salary, working conditions and benefits. The UFT is not in the business of making education better (at least, it should not be), but in the business of making the working lives of teachers a little bit better. To knock the UFT for getting the best deal it can for teachers is like knocking bears for doing you know what in the woods.

Another knock on teachers is that, at least at the middle and high school level, they don’t have to teach more than three 42-minute periods in a row.

As one who has been there, I would challenge the Daily News editorial writers to take over a classroom at a school such as MS 198 or MS 53 and not have a break in the intense concentration that a classroom takes for more than two hours.

Being in a classroom in front of 35 teenagers for that long, keeping them working, keeping up their concentration, keeping them engaged, insuring that they don’t destroy each other either verbally or physically is a draining job. There is no other like it. Even firefighters rotate in and out of a burning building on a regular basis. Nobody suggests that they are shirking when they come out and sit down on a curb to get some surcease from the fire.

I am equally sure that editorial writers and columnists do not spend forty hours a week on writing. They research, they make calls to sources, and they use the Internet. Teachers need the same time out of the line of fire to plan, to discuss strategies, to renew.

Middle school and high school teachers teach 25 periods per week (out of forty). Elementary school teachers teach 29 periods per week. Every middle school teacher gets at least one duty-free lunch period (42 minutes as opposed to most worker’s hour) and one preparation period per day. That makes 35 periods per week. The other five were once for patrols and cafeteria duty. Now, however, they are mandated for professional duties that are usually not done.

To increase the time a teacher is in the classroom reduces the teacher’s planning time as well as their time to network with other teachers and to speak with parents. It would be, in my opinion, counter-productive for the mayor to attempt to increase the number of teaching periods each week.

There are two other shibboleths concerning education and teachers as well, tenure and sabbaticals.

While I never took a sabbatical, I think they are important and should be continued if they are restructured so that people must take courses in their subject area. I can understand the anger of those who say that teachers can take such courses as basket-weaving and photography and I do not think that should be allowed.

Tenure, however, is another story. I had tenure, of course. When I started writing stories about our corrupt school board more than ten years ago, I was threatened by some of the school board members because I was telling a truth that they did not want told. Had I not had tenure, I would have been fired under some pretext and my voice would have been stilled. That is not good for society or for the schools.

Dissent is necessary in a democracy and dissent’s voice should not be stilled by the ability to fire somebody who speaks out. Tenure protects that right.

Change is sometimes necessary. Let’s change the things that matter, however. Let’s change the discipline plan so that continually disruptive students can be addressed outside of the school setting. That’s the change we need, not making teachers the scapegoats for the failures of society.


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