What’s the Deal With Teachers These Days?

Teacher unions, budgets, parents, boards of ed and politics...we're losing sight of the important difference a good teacher—or bad—can make.

My children have had great , and they’ve also had one really not-so-great teacher. We saw right away the impact each kind had on our kids’ performance in the moment.

Thanks to some researchers at Harvard and Columbia, now we know the good ones are going to help our children earn more money and have a better chance at professional success when they’re all grown up. Recent research and hard data backs up the hope for our children’s future — when they have great teachers.

So why are we arguing about what we pay good teachers? Somewhere along the way, we’ve diverted the argument away from what it should be:  how do we recruit and keep good teachers, and what can make it easier to winnow out and eliminate the bad ones?

My son’s current teacher is a gem, and I don’t say that because I want to curry favor; everyone thinks so. Our school did an amazing, nontraditional thing — they decided to allow her to loop up with the class from third to fourth grade, and they gave the parents of the students in the class the option to continue with her for a second year. Unilaterally, 100 percent of the families chose to stay with this teacher.

She has challenged each child to surpass his or her own expectations after focusing long and hard at assessing individual abilities. She’s put in tireless overtime hours to give her curriculum depth and innovative perspective. She’s come up with unique , and they’re thriving.

In complete contrast, my son still talks — and shudders — at the recollection of another teacher he had earlier in his school career. She had a reputation for favoring girls over boys, and parents often whispered that she was known for being a yeller. She didn’t think my child was capable of learning the way I told her he could, because “he is never one of the first to raise his hand.” She was the kind of teacher who took recess away as a punishment for fidgety kids —counterintuitive for a room of 20-plus restless 7-year-olds, no?

My son’s take on this teacher: he told me she made him afraid to go to school.

We even talked to administrators about ways we could find in school to add in challenges for my son, for all the educators to recognize who he was as an individual learner, and to build onto the basic curriculum he was getting. When we asked, “What can we do while he’s in your care from 9 am to 3 pm?” they ping-ponged back their one suggestion: “You should enroll him into private music instrument lessons.” Really?

Understandably, schools are pushed to budgetary limits these days, and I live in a community that is fortunate to have a school system rich with resources and opportunity. I’ve seen teachers who are equipped and willing to weave in differentiated learning, and others who say, “I just don’t have the time.”

You can see who has the spark, and you can also see when it’s not there.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof just wrote about exactly this issue, and one of the main issues he points to is how teacher unions often deflect attention from quality teachers to the role parents play in the school-home equation. “One of the paradoxes of the school reform debate is that teachers’ unions have resisted a focus on teacher quality; instead, they emphasize that the home is the foremost influence and that teachers can only do so much.”  

Philosophically, I support unions; but I think in this complex argument too many bad apples have spoiled the good of union theory — whether it’s emphasis on “No Child Left Behind” and teaching to the test, or misguided tenure support; whether it’s unfunded mandates at the state levels, or partisan, political rhetoric.

Where we’re getting a grade of ‘F’ is in failing to find better ways to spotlight great, committed teachers — and reward those that merit it. We shouldn’t be demonizing teachers as a whole, but ferreting out the bad ones and celebrating those that put in the effort. We should make the profession more attractive with benefits that don’t get begrudged and withheld for those who commit — and the profession is full of teachers like that.

Understandably too, let’s recognize that there are good parents and bad. The partnership between home and school is crucial. The kinds of helicopter parents in our Fairfield county communities can be a difficult and ugly reality as well. It’s not cut and dry from a teacher’s perspective either.

But it starts with a basic, larger recognition that we’re failing in the long run: if we don’t invest in new curriculum, in teaching methods and educator development, we’re failing our future. We’re already losing ground internationally, scoring lower against other industrialized nations—not just on tests, but also when it comes to economic and business successes, and on the scientific, medical, technological and artistic playing fields as well.

Teachers deserve more respect — the good ones especially. We just have to reach for the A in learning how to better figure out just who is good, and who isn’t.

Howard Deixler January 19, 2012 at 03:35 AM
Well, as I've implied above, it's really more of an art than a science. Good luck.
Dan Thaler January 19, 2012 at 10:46 AM
As with any profession you have a bell curve of skill. Some are really excellent, most are pretty darn good, and some are really terrible. A way to weed out the bad ones would be a good thing.
Steve Wilder January 26, 2012 at 12:32 PM
I see no problem with YOU paying a lot of money to a teacher that YOU think is good at a private school or as a tutor. But let’s not forget that public school teachers do not get their money from their consumers. They get their money at the barrel of a gun (euphemism= taxes) from those who consume their services or not. You seem to believe that you have the moral high road in promoting more guns to people’s heads demanding more money (i.e. higher taxes) for causes which YOU believe are worthy. I fail to see the morality in that. In fact, it is the opposite of morality. Who granted you this authority? Even if a majority of people agreed with you, would that make it moral? What if the majority voted to steal all money from people named George to pay for it – would that be moral? You also seem to understand little about economics. Even if the premise were true that good teachers generate higher incomes, doesn’t that beg one to ask: “How much higher?” and “Is the additional pay to teachers worth it?” “Are they already getting more money in lieu of this? (A teacher in this area gets about twice the salary of the average teacher nationally.)” (Of course, the “study” is meaningless. There is no way to statistically determine who a good or bad teacher is. I thought one of my 8th grade teachers was one of the best until I learned about the proposition he made to one of my friends.)
Tony T February 01, 2012 at 11:15 PM
Read this head line from the LA Times (January 17th) you will see what is wrong with teachers and they system. ........ LA teacher accused of feeding own semen to kids is jailed on $23 million bail He is also accused of binding, blindfolding and even putting cockroaches on the faces of the kids he photographed.......
Rob Bernstein March 07, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Good comment


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