June 24, 2014

Why (some) teachers complain so much

Late last week I happened upon this article in The Federalist by Daniel Payne. He simply asks, "Why Do Teachers Complain So Much?" What struck me, in particular, was how even-handed Payne is. Many analysts of (public) education usually go all-out one way or the other -- either public education and its teachers are evil incarnate, or they're noble institutions and individuals, one step below deity status.

The object of Payne's interest is a teacher resignation letter published in the Huffington Post. Why, he wonders, do so many teachers feel the need to let the world know why they're bowing out? "Was the post office in Colorado Springs closed that day?" he asks. "Did she attempt to send the letter to her superiors and accidentally sent it to the editor of the website instead?"

Obviously not. Payne is right: Way too many educators travel to their jobs on a high horse. Too many think they're overworked and underpaid, and that somehow their situation is so different from that of other Americans in other professions. Early in my career at a school referendum meeting (my state requires that the public vote on raising taxes for increased school funding), a colleague stood up and, sounding all exasperated, exclaimed "Listen -- I got up at 5:30 this morning. I did not get home until 6pm. I was on my feet all day ..." The groans from the audience were quite audible. And my own was among them.

Nobody wants to hear that sort of whining, especially at a gathering where a community tax increase is on the table -- a tax that, in part, pays teachers. You think the guy who drives a delivery truck for ten hours across 150 miles of territory wants to hear such grousing? How about the woman who works retail at the mall and just spent nine hours on her feet, dealing with pushy patrons all day? You don't think they'd like a pay raise? Better hours? Improved working conditions?

The irony is, many of these teachers need to realize that they exist in a (teaching) world largely of their own making. By this, I mean their political and cultural philosophies. You're part of one of the most powerful unions in the country, so when you go on strike demanding salary increases and gold label health benefits - when you're already well compensated - it doesn't go over well with the Average Joe who works just as hard but does not enjoy such perks.

Granted, the strength of teachers' unions varies from state to state, as do the salaries and benefits. But keep in mind (and I know this will anger many teachers) the length of the typical school day, and the school year. Winter and spring breaks. Every holiday off. Half of June, all of July, and most of August ... off. Yes, yes, I know teachers will clamor that their day doesn't end after seven and a half hours, and that the numerous breaks and summer are filled with grading, book-keeping and professional development. Trust me, I know. I've put in many a ten-to-twelve hour day, and worked for weeks during breaks and the summer on lesson planning and curriculum.

But so what? Again, how is this so different from what any other person does in any other job? And, generally, what teachers won't tell you is how many in the profession don't do these things. Which makes the salaries and bennies even better, right?

And what about the teachers who have gone on to administration, both school-based and at the central office? Classroom teachers are renowned for their objections to inservice content (inservices are "workshops" that are supposed to enhance one's teaching abilities) but who do you think develops them? Former teachers. Or, at the least (worst?), those who have degrees in education and/or have worked in the field all their lives.

In 1979, President Carter and a Democratic Congress passed the Department of Education Organization Act, which established the federal Department of Education. Many (mostly Republicans and conservatives) thought the move was a Democrat payoff to liberals and the National Education Association (NEA), the largest union of any kind in the country. But even progressive-friendly media acknowledge that Carter had promised the NEA the new cabinet role.

What have we seen, in particular, over the last decade and a half from the NEA and others? Endless grumbling about educational federal mandates. It was easy enough when George W. Bush assumed office in 2000; he was a Republican. That Republican largely co-opted the typical liberal/Democrat tradition of intertwining the feds and education policy with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The big difference here was that instead of largely throwing money at schools, Mr. Bush actually wanted something in return. The unions, and teachers in general, screamed and hollered about "unfunded mandates," "unrealistic goals," etc.

But in 2008 when Barack Obama came to Washington, his Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative was often referred to as "NCLB on steroids." The union and teacher complaints persist, although they were (are) less personal (Obama is a progressive Democrat, after all). With RTTT, not only was NCLB-based standardized testing continued with all the usual demographic components broken down and dissected as before, but selected states could now use federal monies to develop new teacher evaluation tools, and establish entities like "professional learning communities" (PLCs).

It's easy enough to understand the current kvetching. These new evaluation methods were too often hastily assembled and bring little to the table in terms of judging teacher effectiveness. I've personally seen outstanding teachers receive "ineffective" labels, and lemon instructors get "satisfactory" ratings based on the new assessment. Funding was provided for "data coaches" who are supposed to provide information to teachers on student progress. The problem, which no one could ever seem to answer, was when teachers would get this information and, more importantly, what to do with it.

To coin a cliché, haste really does make waste.

As someone who's been involved in public education for a quarter century I sympathize with many of my fellow educators' -- and union's -- complaints. The decline in student respect and discipline, to name one, remains a "bipartisan" issue, so to speak. But, as I noted previously, on whom can we blame a significant portion of that decline? And, even though left-of-center union complainers get most of the ink in the media, the general pubic should keep in mind that a large percentage of the NEA is comprised of moderates and conservatives, and many do not agree with the Association on national political matters.

The unions and statist educators may not have gotten what they wished for when the feds became a player in education thirty-five years ago. It was naïve to ever believe Washington would continue to throw money at schools ... and never demand anything in return. Grousing about that which you've been largely responsible, and doing so in wide-reaching public mediums, is unlikely to amass much general sympathy.

(Cross-posted at The College Fix.)

Posted by Hube at June 24, 2014 10:36 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

To be honest I love working as a college professor, but I have to say I would like to be paid better but who wouldent want more money.

Posted by: truthwillwin1 at June 30, 2014 10:23 AM