Saturday, February 20, 2010

Why Teachers Teach

Andrew Reinbach

To listen to some people talk about education reform, you'd think teachers were a bunch of parasites who collect enormous salaries, do no work, and attack every idea that could give taxpayers value for their money.

Of course, this is garbage: Most teachers are under-paid, over-worked, dedicated professionals, unfairly attacked by politicians who use them as whipping boys.

The truth is, most of you reading this had at least one teacher who changed your life -- by steering you in the right direction, or just believing on you. I know I did -- and thank you, Mr. Mizzi, Mrs. McCauley, and Professor Savage.

Our children have a right to their own list.

The question remains: Considering what teachers endure -- long hours, short shrift at budget time, screaming parents, and posturing politicians, to name a few--why do they do it?

Here is one answer, sent me by a friend who teaches in the New York City schools. They've asked for anonymity, for fear of retribution.


I've been teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in New York City for nineteen years. Since the small school movement began, the big high school I teach in has been flooded with recently-arrived English Language Learners and Special Education students. Most of the ESL students are in the 11th grade.

The smaller schools and charter schools don't want these students, and won't serve them; in their view, they would have a negative effect on the school's data.

Combined with the Department of Education's ever-rising data targets for a four-year graduation rate, credit accumulation and so on, this situation has kept the coveted school grade of B just a point or two out of reach for my school, despite real increases in every area of data.

We have been told that it's our fault. We have been told that we must have a lousy ESL program. We have been told, by supervisors outside the school who have never taught ESL, that what we did in the past was worthless, that it doesn't help our students.

Never mind that we were the model for the Borough and the City. Never mind that New York State's Education Commissioner sent his video cameras to our school to film "best practices." Never mind that we spent five years conducting action research with Brown University, or that we were selected for that honor because of our renowned excellent program.

Ignore the fact that we made presentations at conferences of educators of English Language Learners. And that, unlike almost all of the small schools, we actually have a program for these students, and we actually want them--or that we have consistently modified our program as the profiles and needs of our students changed.

Apparently, none of that means anything. Instead, we've been told by people who have never taught ESL to change what we teach, how we teach it, when we teach it, and to whom we teach what; this, over the protests of everyone in the department.

But we persevere. If we're successful, our Chancellor and Mayor will take the credit. If we're not, we'll be "held accountable," and our school may be closed, forcing most of the senior (read: Experienced) teachers into the Absentee Teacher Reserve pool because we are just too expensive for any small school to hire.

Now I am hearing that I should be evaluated by my students' standardized test scores.

The problem: My students don't take standardized tests in ESL every term, and the Comprehensive English Regents Exam was designed for students who have had 11 years of English Language Arts--not a few months, or a few years. Furthermore, who can know which teachers in a student's career are the most responsible for that student's success? And isn't achievement in language skills and language arts the result of the efforts of every teacher who worked with the student toward that goal, not just the most recent one? If this policy is implemented, who would want to teach our at-risk students?

In recent months I have seen teachers vilified over and over again in the press. The writers would have you believe that teachers, especially experienced teachers, are the root of all evil in the New York City Schools. I have heard that we are greedy, undeserving, uncaring, lazy, burned-out and incompetent.

So why do we continue? It can't be that we are workaholics who enjoy marking tests and homework, writing tests and planning lessons for hours every night. It can't be that we prefer spending our evenings, weekends and "vacation" days this way instead of paying attention to our spouses and children. Or that we bask in the disrespect shown to us, as highly educated and dedicated professionals, by the mayor, the chancellor and, especially, the press. So why do we do it?

The reasons came to visit me the other day. They were former students--two boys from Africa who are now in their second year of college--one of them studying micro-biology and physiology. They hugged me and said that I had really helped them, although at the time, they had not understood it. Now, older and more mature, they said that I had changed their lives.

And so, Mayor Bloomberg, you can keep your selectively chosen data and standardized tests, your rubrics and your moving targets. That visit is all the evaluation that I need; and all the evaluation that really counts.

That is why teachers teach.


d said...

Some teachers at the Brooklyn Tech PEP on Jan 26 raised this very issue.
What kind of educational landscape is being created in NYC? As we continue down this road of closing schools pretty soon there will be no schools or teachers left for students to visit and give thanks.

Thank you for sharing your story, we need more teachers speaking out on the detrimental affects all these policies are having on education in NYC.

A devastating crime.

veteranteacher said...

Yes that IS why teachers teach. The children are the only reason any of us are in the school building. That motto guides me every day. Your portrait of how bloom&klein destroy schools is right on. NYC is a surreal teaching environment at the present time.