2005-06-17 / Community

Honoring Teachers – Striking Teachers

A real way to honor teachers

In my last column (Mer-it-oc-ra-cy – June 3) I explored the theme of whether merely throwing money at teachers based on the “results” they get in the classroom – as defined by the powers that be – is a way to recruit and honor people.

In a variation of the theme, NY Times columnist Thomas Freedman wrote in his column of June 10, 2005: “Williams [College] asks the 500 or so members of its senior class to nominate the high school teachers who had a profound impact on their lives. Then each year a committee goes through the roughly 50 student nominations, does its own research with the high schools involved and chooses the four most inspiring teachers. Each of the four teachers is given $2,000, plus a $1,000 donation to his or her high school. The winners and their families are then flown to Williams, located in the lush Berkshires, and honored as part of the graduation weekend.”

Imagine if students (and parents) rated teachers? Most teachers would find the idea horrifying and they would probably be right considering they so often have to play the role of cop. How would a tough teacher on grades and discipline be rated? Surprisingly well I bet for teachers who are fair. Parents and students just may have a better idea of what is going on the classroom and their opinions might be more valid than those of some of the supervisors in today’s DOE. Think their main issue would be whether the Workshop Model was being used? Are there any teachers out there would be willing to make up and distribute a report card on their performance to their students and their parents? If positive, imagine having that information available to teachers being harassed. Of course, if negative…. but then again, there might be some interesting insights for teachers. If you actually know of a teacher who has tried this, let me know at nors cot@aol.com.

I was sent the Freedman piece in response to my criticisms of merit pay schemes in the Mer-it-oc-ra-cy column. If there were no money at all involved the teachers would be just as thrilled. “Every time we do this, one of the [high school] teachers says to me, ‘This is one of the great weekends of my life,’ “ said Williams’ president, Morton Owen Schapiro.

Most teachers in New York City schools will never get the chance to be nominated by a student at Williams College. If I tried to estimate how many of my students graduated from college at all, I would guess at less than 20% and this is high estimate. One of the disputes I used to have with my principal was over her practice of giving the same teachers the classes with top performing students every year, using every trick at her disposal to violate the contract provision calling for some degree of rotation. She got away with it 90% of the time as teachers who insisted on their rights ended up paying a price. I always insisted on my right of rotation (and paid the price) and managed to end up with three so-called “one” classes. My argument was that 20 years of teaching kids who had to struggle academically, though often rewarding, took a major toll.

I vividly remember the contrast between kids grouped at the top and at the bottom. In the 1974-75 school year I had my first top class sixth grade after eight years of teaching. One girl ended up getting a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University. Others became teachers. Over the years I went to at least three weddings of those students, the latest taking place in the late summer of 2001 in Williamsburg with the World Trade Center as a background just two weeks before 9-11. A number of former students were at that wedding (I had also taught most of this student’s siblings) with their families and the feeling of warmth I received was worth every bit as much as those teachers received at Williams College. (And the food wasn’t bad either.)

I was rotated to the “bottom” class the next year and the difference in the abilities of the students hit me right in the face. It took a month to adjust. Yet, this group of kids turned out to be one of my best classes with some later success stories too. There were some students just as smart as those in the class the year before but in later years many of them seemed to have a lot more struggles to overcome. (The recent NY Times series on social class differences has been one of the best things I have read on these kinds of struggles.) I ran into one of the kids I had grown closest to last year. Now close to 40, she was working as a security guard in a hospital and seemed very down on the state of her life. I always felt she could have done much better with the right breaks.

One can’t make generalities based on anecdotal evidence, but given the fact that the kids in both classes (school classes as opposed to social classes) came from the same neighborhood, the same school, with the same teachers, etc. what better evidence is there that merit pay schemes – bogus attempts to bring corporate concepts to education – cannot work? I was probably a more effective teacher with the kids at the bottom. But the results on the tests for the two classes – and in their later lives – showed a very different picture.

Will the UFT Strike? Should the UFT strike?

Most of the general public is quite horrified at the prospect of a strike by any public employee. When teachers strike, parents are particularly affected. But the strike weapon, used by teachers in an effective way that goes beyond salary, is a legitimate technique to fight for resources for public schools (the 1967 strike in my first year of teaching had a major impact).

Teacher working conditions are affected by the well being of their students and strikes can be a way to make a difference. Serious class size reductions as a contract demand (which the UFT refuses to do, preferring to fight this issue out in the political arena) would certainly be one such issue. If teacher unions were willing to take a stand in the interests of themselves and their students the public might actually support a strike by teachers. But dream on.

I wrote the following item for the latest edition of Education Notes , the newspaper I put out aimed at teachers in New York City:

“Reactions from UFT members over strike rumors have ranged from “Right on – a strike is the only way we will ever get anywhere” to “Oh my God, we can’t do this!” The rumors have even reached into the DOE. A regional administrator, planning a fall event, was concerned enough to consider holding it in August. I said I was willing to bet my TDA there wouldn’t be a strike. Well, maybe the non-fixed portion. “With the loss of dues check off UFT /Unity leaders would seriously damage the Unity patronage machine, forcing many UFT employees to go back to working in schools. So what do you think the chances are?

“I’ve been through three UFT strikes (’67, ’68, ’75) and the thing I noticed was just how important strong leadership at the school level was. With so many new chapter leaders and so many weak chapters, making a strike work at the chapter level will be more difficult than ever.

“We have discussed the strike question a number of times at ICE (Independent Community of Educators, a caucus critical of the policies of the UFT leadership) meetings, in particular the Teachers for a Just Contract (another critical caucus) position calling for serious strike preparations. Most of us are in basic agreement with a number of points being made by TJC. We certainly agree that a union without the capability to strike will never win a decent contract. My problem with the TJC position is that they are calling for the current UFT leadership to prepare for and lead a strike. If the current UFT leaders, who have been so ineffective in so many ways, were to attempt to lead a strike, it would be a disaster. With a union that relies solely on the 3 P’s – PR, politicians and patronage – instead of forging a militant active membership, do they have the capability to lead a successful strike? Frankly, I don’t trust them and am afraid that even if forced to strike they will use it to scare people into accepting any contract thrown at them. As a matter of fact, that is what I believe all the strike talk is about – when an awful contact is put before UFT members, they will be told: “What do you want to do, strike?” The exact scenario when the last contract was put before them back in ancient times.

“Now you’re going to ask – what is necessary before the UFT can, and will, have an effective strike? Sorry, I do not have a good answer other than – force this leadership into fundamental changes or replace them.”

A lot of people agreed with my analysis but some found my position depressing as the BloomKlein assault has made them so demoralized and angry that many feel a strike would “teach BloomKlein a lesson.” I’ve been told that pointing to the probability that striking out at BloomKlein would be unlikely to succeed given the current state of mis-leadership in the UFT takes away people’s hope. Sorry, I cannot hide the fact that the empress is not wearing any clothes. BloomKlein certainly knows that but the UFT publicity machine is aimed mainly at convincing its members of the fiction of UFT power.

The UFT’s willingness to negotiate the 100-minutes of professional development is a perfect example of this fiction. As Jeff Kaufman, my colleague in ICE and a member of the UFT Executive Board, wrote in an email, “Caving in the DOE’s demand to correct an obvious error made under the current contract sends the wrong message. It says that we lack the backbone to make our highest non-economic demand a real issue in contract negotiations. We should not accept piecemeal negotiations.” Does anyone still think the crew running the UFT has the will and the skill to pull off a strike?

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