Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Vergara, the NEA, and Maria Montessori

I traveled to Washington, DC, the day after the Vergara v. California teacher tenure verdict was handed down. It was in the shadow of this event which has been rippling across the education community that I arrived at the doorway of the National Education Association headquarters.

The purpose for the visit was to gather the Teacher Ambassadors together (I am one) and create trainings for our colleagues back home to implement the new Smarter Balanced assessment system. The Teacher Ambassadors are supported by a grant directed in partnership between the NEA and WestEd. I've been working on a training to support writing instruction that addresses Common Core standards and helps teachers understand the demands of the assessment, which is a decent reflection of what we want students to be able to do.

While I'm still not behind all the assessments and am certainly an advocate of reduction in the time spent testing students, I can vouch for the teachers involved in this meeting: we are dedicated professionals, coming to Washington during the end of our school years or beginning of our summers - both difficult times to leave - in order to do this work to support colleagues.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel with Montana legislator Amanda Curtis (D-Butte) and me. 

In fact it's a rare teacher who is not dedicated. Perhaps we aren't all dedicated to fund-raising, or to club leadership; perhaps some of us are less interested in coaching or in mentorship. We are not cookie-cutter teachers. And some teachers do need assistance from their colleagues and extra instructional leadership from their administrators to reach their potential. And yes, a few teachers should find new careers.

However, my sense of the Vergara verdict is that it underscores and perpetuates the narrative that goes something like this: bad teachers = low-performing students = grim future for America. Therefore, fire the bad teachers by stripping their rights = high-performing students = bright future for America. There are so many things wrong with this misdirected logic that I don't know where to begin.

But let me try. Here are some simple questions: 1) what happens when teachers lose their job protections? With little incentive already to become teachers, who then wants to step into that lion's mouth? 2) And will removing job protections actually create better teachers? 3) Is it reasonable for a district to expect teachers to overcome the circumstances of the children who come to their classrooms, and then to gauge the teachers' success on these children's test scores, and to release a teacher from duties if scores aren't satisfactory? This negative narrative is currently gripping our public school system and fueling political maneuvers to privatize schools, which will reduce equitable access to high quality education in the long run.

I returned from the NEA with some newfound respect for my fellow teachers who are committed to helping their colleagues improve, no matter what their state legislatures and courts are doing. 

I attended Montessori schools through 8th grade and I believe Maria Montessori's method pervades my beliefs about teaching and shapes much of what I do in my public high school classroom. Her portrait in the NEA building reminded me of the chasm between her philosophy and today's conversation around public education. What would she say about all this? 

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