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Is teaching a special career, or a job like any other?



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Peter Smagorinsky of the University of Georgia is a frequent contributor to the Get Schooled blog. He gives us a lot to think about in his latest essay:

By Peter Smagorinsky

Earlier this year I had breakfast with a professor who was visiting Athens from the Midwest. All of his teaching during his career had taken place in universities, rather than schools. Our conversation touched on many areas, including how K-12 teachers are evaluated, retained, and dismissed. His view, he said, had been forged in his youth as a native of a southern state and member of a working class family who scorned labor unions. He posed a question that has given me much to think about: In just about every line of work, people get fired for ticking off their boss. Why should teaching be any different? Why should teachers believe that they deserve job protection from capricious administrators, when no one else’s job is secure?

 Most people in my extended family work in the private sector, and so I’m not a cloistered academic who is unaware of the working world of commerce. I have family members who’ve lost jobs due to downsizing or the sale or merger of their company, and who have had to go job hunting well into adulthood. The question of why teachers comprise a unique and special part of the working force has thus been put to me from loved ones who have, in spite of commendable job performances, found themselves out of work and on the market. Should teachers expect that their careers should be immune to such a possibility?

 A few points before I return to this question: Although many AJC commenters complain about “teacher unions,” in fact there are none. Georgia does have a few organizations like the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, and these organizations may provide some legal services to members. For instance, one lesbian teacher I know in a rural county had to use a PAGE lawyer to help protect her from attacks from hostile community members, and her dues gave her access to this service, which indeed enabled her to continue teaching (and quite well).

 But PAGE is hardly a labor union of the sort that I was a member of in two of the three high schools in which I taught outside Chicago. In those schools, a local union chapter—assisted by representatives from state organizations of which we were a part—negotiated contracts, aggressively fought school administrations, called strikes, and protected teachers’ job security, even in cases that made most on the faculty cringe with embarrassment. Illinois, especially in the Chicago area, has the sort of unions that many Georgians love to hate: those that negotiate contracts and protect jobs. Georgia in contrast has relatively meek organizations that do not get involved in salary negotiations and have little leverage in personnel disputes aside from using members’ dues to assist with legal issues.

Georgia schools also do not grant tenure. In Illinois I was granted tenure at the two schools in which I taught long enough to be eligible (two years), and so was protected from retribution from administrators when I disagreed with them. In Georgia there is no such arrangement. Every teacher works from year to year and is subject to dismissal at an administrator’s pleasure.

 One more thing: The friend with whom I shared breakfast was a tenured professor in an elite private college. Although he questioned the need for job protection for teachers, he said that university faculty members need tenure so that their scholarly research would not be a source of meddling by politicians and other powerful influences. His belief fell in the tradition that regards university professors as independent and academically free in their teaching and research, provided that it meets some standard for excellence.

 School teachers, in contrast, report to administrators—the boss—at whose pleasure they serve. That’s how my friend saw it, and that’s the way it works in Georgia.

 My point in this essay is not to discuss this seeming contradiction in my friend’s views of which teachers should have the freedom to speak their minds without administrative or political recourse. My goal is more to consider the question of whether school teachers are, or are not, working in a unique profession in which the nature of their work should provide them with a shield against arbitrary dismissal. I take on this question as one who earned such protection as a Midwestern high school teacher and at two universities (Oklahoma and UGA), subject to post-tenure review every five years.

 First, I do think that most teachers are special people. It takes someone special to work a field with guaranteed low income and increasingly poor resources because she believes in the societal value of her work. Teachers tend to be dedicated to their careers and to the goal of making the world a better place by making a difference in kids’ lives, which is the reason just about every teacher I know gives for getting into the profession. The most miserable teachers I have ever known were the few who got into teaching for the vacations, because they don’t enjoy the work and are mainly there for the periods when they don’t have to do it.

 Most, however, are in it because they care about people, especially young people, and aspire to elevate kids’  prospects for living satisfying, complete, and productive lives. That sort of altruistic and generous outlook makes most teachers special, extremely important people. They are not unique in sacrificing of themselves to give to others. People in social work, in charitable organizations, in faith communities, in nursing, and in other professions dedicated to service similarly accept lower pay for rewards that feed their souls rather than their bank accounts. These people, however, are not the subject of daily diatribes across the public spectrum.

 Does the singular nature of teachers’ work, however, entitle them to job protection? I’ll limit myself to two types of situations where a teacher’s job might be in jeopardy: (1) the teacher ticks off an administrator, and (2) the teacher does not live up to the lofty standard of cultivating youth and producing a better world.

 Each is vexing in its own way. The first assumption, the one raised by my friend, places teachers in a hierarchical relationship with administrators, who are presumed to have wisdom and managerial competence and thus should be entrusted with retention and dismissal decisions. I wish that were the case across the board, but a few too many school administrators are petty tyrants more concerned with protecting their own jobs than protecting those of their teachers. The great ones are irreplaceable, but such greatness is rare enough to give me pause about this top-down model.

 I was fortunate to be granted tenure in schools that I thought were managed questionably. The security allowed by tenure enabled me to speak out on behalf of what I thought was right. According to the hierarchical model, that would make me a target for termination by an administrator too insecure to believe that things might be better. In that sense, the freedom of independent thought that supports the university tenure system would be appropriate in schools, because enabling faculty to speak out would be healthy for the institution and ultimately for kids. I see little chance that such a system will ever be adopted in Georgia, however. We must then put our faith in administrative wisdom and equanimity.

 The second problem, that of poor performance, is easier to approve of in theory. The conundrum remains, however, how to identify high and low quality teaching. I continue to reject standardized test scores as the primary indicators of instructional effectiveness, even though they might be the easiest way of evaluating teachers. The outraged response from the teaching profession to this assessment system suggests that the people on the ground, those upon whom this evaluation is imposed, have little faith that one-to-one teaching-and-learning correlations can be disaggregated from the reams of other variables that contribute to a test score.

 So, should teachers have job protection? I keep returning to the approach I suggested in an earlier AJC essay, in which I proposed that teacher assessment be both formative annually and more judgmental at 3-5 year intervals. Teachers would thus not be subject to the vicissitudes of annual enrollment and test-taking ability, but be able to demonstrate over longer time periods and with a richer basis of contributions that reappointment is merited.

 This approach resolves the second challenge, that of job security based on teaching performance. It does not address the issue of being fired for disagreeing with an administrator, which is already happening in Georgia. As the APS cheating scandal has shown, disagreeing with an administrator can be an act of courage and integrity and not an offense that justifies bullying, abuse, and termination.

 Is teaching a special career, or a job like any other? It’s becoming a job like any other, and in the process is losing its appeal as a profession with few material rewards but many that feed the spirit. Making teaching just another job will ultimately cost the profession those who see it as a higher calling but find it increasingly hard to justify enduring the misery for the diminishing rewards. I find the shift in public opinion against teachers to be tragic, one that the next generation of young people is sure to feel as they take test after test, learning little and losing the relationships with caring adults that have made our schools such important institutions in our communities.