2005-10-28 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

Had I still been teaching, I would vote a resounding “NO” on the new teacher’s contract. There is no doubt in my mind that the contract is not only retrograde in terms of teacher’s rights, but the raises it promises are largely illusory.

I have nothing against a school’s principal having responsibility for his or her building, but there have to be checks and balances on that principal’s power because not all principals do the right thing.

I worked for one principal who appointed a new teacher as the school’s treasurer without posting the job because the principal was in an investment club with the teacher’s father.

I worked for a principal who refused to put a black teacher or a woman in a responsible position such as dean or cafeteria coordinator because “blacks were unreliable” and women “were absent whenever their kids got sick or they got their period.”

I worked for a principal at another school who would hire only black teachers, convinced that white teachers could not teach black students.

I worked for a principal who locked himself in his office for an hour and a half each day for his personal lunch period and left orders that he was not to be disturbed “even if the building was burning down.”

I worked for a principal who spent his entire workday focused on the three computers he had in his office, never bothering to turn around even if somebody came in to speak with him. Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

I worked for a principal that was so badly disrespected by the district office that he was made the titular head of the school while the real work was done by the assistant principals and grade coordinators who each had a specific grade.

On the other hand, I have worked with a number of principals who knew what they were doing, who valued those who could help them achieve their goals, who know how to work with people.

Today, thanks to Bloomberg, we have principals who have never been teachers, whose only school experience has been as a student. I don’t care what the mantra is, that many business people such as Bloomberg and Klein believe that a good manager can manage any business, even one in which he or she has no expertise. That will not work in schools. As the Music Man once said, “You got to know the territory.”

There are two kinds of principals. The first is what I call the “Commander.” He or she makes all of the decisions and is ruthless in making those decisions known and enforced. The commander knows that he or she is right and knows much more than any of the people working at the school.

Then, there is the “Leader,” who allows staff input into the major decisions and makes the staff believe that they are part of the team that runs the school. The true leader knows that there are people with expertise in his or her school that goes beyond what he or she knows and uses that expertise to run a better school.

The majority of the people who work at Region Five, from the regional superintendent to the local instructional supervisors to the district superintendents are commanders. Worse, they are drones who are only interested in results, whether the bulletin boards are up to day, whether the teachers are on the “right day” in the curriculum, whether the petty rules are being followed to the letter, regardless of what students are learning.

What, you say, aren’t results the most important thing?

No, learning is the most important thing.

When I was the head of one of the early school leadership teams I was asked to write a mission statement for the school.

I did. It said, “teach students.”

Everybody laughed, but what other job should a school have?

Many students are not learning today, except how to take tests.

To my mind, and you have to remember that I have more than 30 years as a teacher and a curriculum developer, there are two reasons why the scores on standardized tests are up.

The first if that the kids who are potential failures are, to a certain extent, hidden. Special ed kids, bilingual kids, other special needs kids are not given the test.

Secondly, so much time is spent on learning how to take the test and on subjects that address the tests, that there is little time for actually teaching kids anything about subjects such as Science and Social Studies. Think about it. If there are forty (eight periods times five days) periods in a week, and five are lunch periods, that leaves 35 periods.

If a student has ten periods of Language Arts each week and ten periods of mathematics, that leave 15 periods. The mandate for physical education is three periods a week. Teaching to the test (Kaplan, etc.) takes four periods a week. That leaves eight periods for science, social studies, foreign language, music, art, technology, etc. The answer is not more periods, the answer is less time worrying about standardized tests and more time educating kids to become knowledgeable citizens.

While we are producing kids who can do better on standardized tests, we are not producing kinds who know about their heritage or about their government.

And, despite the rise in reading scores, I am not even sure that we are producing kids who can read better.

So, when you give me a contract that does away with seniority for compensatory time jobs, giving all of the power to the principal to choose, I shudder.

When you tell me that seniority transfers no longer exist, that principals will make the final decision on who will teach at their schools, I wonder what that will bring.

When you tell me that teachers will no longer have the power to grieve negative reports in their files, that the principal will have the final say with no teacher input, I wonder what the UFT negotiators were thinking when they approved that one.

Weingarten said that the city really demanded that one and refused to move away from the demand. She said that the union agreed because negative letters really have no effect on teachers. Why, then, was the city so insistent? Think about it, Randi.

While you’re at it, think about the pay as well.

Teachers will receive a raise, but they will have to work three days more – the two days before Labor Day and Brooklyn-Queens Day, traditionally a holiday. They will also have to work an additional 37 ½ minutes each day, Monday to Thursday. They will have to do hall patrol and cafeteria duty on a rotating basis.

So, for the 15 percent wage increase over nearly five years, teachers will have to work nearly 100 hours longer than before.

The UFT should have a mission statement.That mission statement would be simple: It should say, “protect teacher’s rights, improve teacher’s salary. Improve and protect working conditions.”

That, however, no longer seems to be the union’s major goal. Al Shanker would be turning in his grave.

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