The Inside Scoop -- One Teacher's Experience

Schools across the nation have opened their doors; kids dressed in their new school duds, carrying their new school backpacks have headed off for another year of learning. Their teachers have lesson plans written, and their rooms decorated.  Many are just as excited as the kids.  Though teachers, because of unions and because of the often left-wing curricula, have been stigmatized and blamed, we need to realistically look at what is happening to our teachers, many of whom work 50-60 hour weeks in extremely frustrating, counterproductive circumstances. The miasma of public school education is a many-headed monster, and many of those horrid heads are administrative. Let me tell you a story:

A good friend of mine teaches in a Title I grade school. Title I means that a high percentage of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunches (such as they are these days), which means that a large percentage of the students come from poor, and often dysfunctional homes. My friend -- I’ll call her Rachel -- teaches in the middle grades -- 3rd and 4th -- some years both in the same classroom. Luckily she’s very good at what she does and has successfully pulled that off. This year she didn’t know what grade she should be preparing to teach until the end of her in-service “week” -- the few days she’s paid each fall to prep for the year.

Her district knew in the spring that its 3rd grade enrollment was up, but no district wants to commit to adding staff until the gun is cocked and pressed against the temple, so nothing was done. Rachel understood that she might have to teach the combination class again -- or she might not. No decision came down until the end of the last day of the prep week.

Okay. I can hear you -- All jobs are hard and she’s had the summer off – stop the whining, but that’s just the beginning. So, at the last moment Rachel’s principal gets the go-ahead to hire a new 3rd grade teacher -- just days before children will be filling the classrooms.

Oh, and there is no classroom. No desk for the teacher, no desks for her students, no books, no stapler -- no nothing. Just the myth of another section of 3rd graders -- and they are ready for school.

So, the principal orders the teachers to clean out their break room, move the resource room into the staff room, and set up the new classroom in the resource space. Then he went home for the weekend, leaving the teachers, who are not paid for that time, to spend their last few days before the doors open for the year, not prepping for their own classes, but schlepping furniture and scrounging supplies for the phantom teacher.

Last I talked to Rachel no new teacher had been hired. They can’t find one. In this school there should be 4 teachers for 3rd grade. Only 2 are there teaching. One is out on maternity leave and has a long-term substitute (which is another bureaucratic nightmare) and the ghost teacher’s position is being filled by a substitute notorious for her incompetence (one who has announced her plan to go into administration). Angry parents are descending upon the principal’s office.

Why aren’t there any teachers available to hire for this position? Here’s what happened -- in the spring there was an available teacher, a talented young lady who had done her student teaching in Rachel’s school and who was hopeful of gaining employment there. When that hope dimmed she took a short-contract position at another school. When Rachel’s principal finally offered her a long-term contract to get her back, all hell broke loose.

The other principal who had hired the new teacher fought to keep her and successfully lobbied the superintendent to force Rachel’s principal to offer the new 3rd grade job as a short-term contract only. This robbed the new teacher of a chance at a solid career start and robbed Rachel’s school of any chance to secure another teacher in time.

Meanwhile back to Rachel, who has had no time to prep for her 4th grade class, which, she has just learned, will be burgeoning with students transferring from other schools. Why would they be doing that?

Well, that is courtesy of federal law. You see, if a Title I school fails the No Child Left Behind standards (in any category) parents are notified and informed that they may transfer their children to a passing Title I school at the district’s expense. Rachel’s school met the standards -- partly because 90% of her students passed their exams; as I said before, she’s very good at what she does -- so this year the reward will be more students. Not a bonus. Not a promotion. Not even an atta-boy. An overload.

This story is important, partly because it’s typical. As a veteran of almost 30 years in the public schools, I have seen this scenario played out dozens of times. In fact I still have an August nightmare that I get to school and find that I’ve been assigned to teach calculus or chemistry (I’m a typical English teacher so that is truly a nightmare.).

And the story is important also because it clearly illustrates much of what is wrong in public education -- the bureaucratic mindset. Let me enumerate the problems:

  • The people running things have no stake in the outcome. If Rachel’s class comes apart this fall because of inadequate planning, the superintendent is not going to live through the ensuing chaos, yet it was his decision to postpone the inevitable.
  • The number of rules and regulations from the union, the state, and the federal government has gummed up the works. Example: earlier I mentioned the complications with long-term subs. Well, federal regulations require that a long term substitute must be “highly qualified”. (What does that imply about the usual, temporary subs? Are they only moderately qualified?) The official definition of “highly qualified” is a person who has passed the $250 exam that they, themselves, have to pay for. When this district’s HR department hired the sub for the teacher on maternity leave they didn’t tell her about the test and when she found out -- just days before school started – she said no thanks. So the only available qualified person got that job and that left no one for the phantom 3rd grade section.
  • Teachers are quitting. Who wants to be jerked around like the instructors in this school -- in this very typical school?
  • Too often teachers who can’t hack it in the classroom become administrators -- who can’t do that job either, but there they don’t have to face out-of-control students -- they can hide in their offices.
  • Also too often excellent teachers who want to advance leave the classroom for administration. Partly this happens because in teaching the only way up is out, and partly it happens because these professionals want to make it better for both teachers and students. Then they discover how powerless they are to improve things. And the school is out another good teacher.

We hear a lot of fuss about Common Core these days -- and there is much to be concerned about, but most of the bother is aimed at the wrong target. Common Core, like its predecessor No Child Left Behind, is yet another layer of bureaucracy when our schools are already drowning in useless rules, and another tidal wave from the feds will not make things better. Nor will more demands from the unions. Bureaucrats, who are often lazy, self-serving, and incompetent, produce the fodder for the unions, and the unionized teachers, who are sometimes just as lazy, self-serving and incompetent, provide the need for the rules and regulations. Can you spell vicious circle?

And who suffers? Kids. Parents. All of us, actually. I do see hope in the charter school movement. I see hope in the voucher system – let the free market sort this out. Let good teachers earn bonuses. Let good administrators have more power. And keep it all small and local and transparent as glass. 

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