Reward Some Teachers, Fire Others and Allow All to Teach

I haven’t written about education much over the past 10 years. It’s not my favorite subject to write about because I don’t know much about it other than what I’ve picked up through my own personal experiences including being the parent of a teenager in a public school. But watching the spectacle in Wisconsin got me thinking.

I have begun feeling a sickening sensation in my gut, and I suspect my son’s education is the source. Smack-dab in what may be the middle of his formal education I am wondering if I have made a terrible mistake by subjecting him to the public school system. As the product of generations of working poor who nevertheless made the sacrifice to put their children through Catholic school I am wondering if I have betrayed my ancestors by avoiding a Catholic education and allowing the State to take the lead in educating my only child.

I have not completely outsourced my son’s education to others. I believe that a critical role of parenting is educating your child no matter what time it is. I have used TV to educate my son about marketing, to help him become skeptical of the promises made in commercials. He has learned that drinking beer will not make women flock to him, but developing a keen wit and treating women with respect will. I have begun involving him in my driving, using him as a second pair of eyes and a navigator as I try to pass along the important lessons I have learned in close to three decades and half a million miles of driving. A glance up at the night sky will provoke a discussion about interstellar distances – for example, the analogy how if the sun was scaled down to the size of a basketball, the earth would be about the size of a BB orbiting 93 feet away, and the nearest star system would be over 2500 miles distant. I want to share with him the feeling of vastness that the analogy gives me, and how instead of making me feel insignificant it makes me appreciate how wonderful, rare and precious Life truly is.

But my time spent with him is dwindling; he spends most of his time with his friends and in classrooms manned by professional educators who can’t be fired and who advance in their careers not through merit but seniority thanks to their membership in a union that is allowed to collectively bargain – a concept that even Democratic icons like FDR and George Meany would have opposed. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. Executive Council noted in 1959, “In terms of accepted collective bargaining procedures, government workers have no right beyond the authority to petition Congress — a right available to every citizen.” President Roosevelt wrote

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.

I have spent most of my career in IT as a contractor working at large companies. I have been dropped off at work only to be returned home an hour later by my boss when the startup I worked for went bust. I have lost jobs when funding was cut as often as when projects came to their natural conclusion. I have seen a woman cry as she was forced to clear out her desk under the passive gaze of building security, and saw my boss dance barefoot through the aisles after solving a coding problem that had her up all night. In short I have worked in an environment that is the exact opposite of my son’s educators. To call it Darwinian would be an insult to Darwin since I have seen incompetence and stupidity trump competence and brilliance more often than not. But it is dynamic, and to survive I have had to develop and refine a skill-set that didn’t even exist when I started in the field 15 years ago.

Survival hasn’t been easy. I have never had a pension or received subsidized medical insurance from my employer. I have seen positions outsourced and brought back in-house including my own. I founded a lobbying group to fight that and made Wired magazine. But even when I fought offshoring and its worse cousin, labor dumping through the H-1b visa program, I never advocated for unions. Why? Because unions reward the lazy and penalize the hardworking.

My son has come home with assignments scraped from the Internet. The teacher did this so often that I used the opportunity to teach my son how to use search engines to find the answers to the assignments. This year my son was struggling with negative numbers to the point where I scheduled a conference to talk to his math teacher. The teacher, a woman in her fifties, explained to me how she taught them: “I explain that the numbers are like a people being baptized. They walk into the river and their signs get changed.” If that doesn’t make sense it’s because I didn’t get her point either – especially since neither my son nor I have been baptized in a river. I explained my method of teaching negative numbers, where you lay out the numbers in a line – negative numbers on the left with positive numbers on the right. Negatives slide to the left, positives slide to the right. She didn’t get that and tried explaining her method again. She had one way of teaching and that was it.

I have also had my son bring home math assignments where he had to show his work. I would help him with the assignment only to find out later that it had been graded down because the way I showed him how to do a problem differed from the way his teacher did even though we arrived at the same answer. There was a right way (hers) and a wrong way (mine). I have learned that such concrete thinking gets you shown the door in large corporations; one has to adapt in order to survive. But such rigid thinking exists unchallenged in schools.

My son has had good teachers too, but these were often younger teachers who were paid less, received the tougher teaching assignments and were the first fired when cutbacks came because they lacked seniority. But most of his teachers are ordinary. They come and go and don’t seem to leave much an impression on him let alone me. Mediocrity is the norm in most areas, but mediocre teachers do more damage because we charge them with educating our children. When I compare where my son is today and where I was when I was his age, doing my best to account for my own bias, I am left with the fear that my son knows less than I did back then.

I meet his teachers every year and immediately contact them when there is a problem. I’ve found that some teachers don’t like that, ignoring voice mails and blowing off emails to the point where I’ve had to go to the principal to get their attention. I have been critical of public education and had my share of run-ins with these folks over the years. When my son was kicked by a girl in the nuts so badly that he couldn’t sit down for a week, I was in the principal’s office demanding an explanation why the girl wasn’t punished. I at least got the principal to admit that had the situation been reversed and my son hit the girl he would have been suspended. Other issues have been more dogmatic. Reverse discrimination. Labor Day, Martin Luther King jr Day and other holidays are respected by being made holidays while Memorial Day is not. Starting in first grade my son had disruptive kids in his classroom, what is known as “mainstreaming”. I remember that in my son’s first grade class one student shouted obscenities and hit the other kids and even his teacher, forcing his grandfather to sit beside him because he was the only member of the family who could control the boy. The disruptions continued through primary school with the problem student being passed like a bad penny from one teacher to another.

I attended Catholic school until my sophomore year of college. Most of my teachers were lay people, and as employees of the order or archdiocese they were paid a pittance. I have kept in touch with some of my favorites. My elementary school science teacher left and got a job with the Department of Defense. My fourth grade teacher/muse, the woman who inspired me to start writing is still teaching fourth grade at my old elementary school. You don’t stay at a job like that unless you love it. And my freshman English teacher, a young Jesuit novice who taught me to avoid cliches like the plague and appreciate spoken Shakespeare, left the order and now teaches dance in San Francisco.

Some of my favorite teachers left teaching, but I am grateful to have had them when I did. Those that continue today do so because that is their calling; the salary and working conditions matter less than doing the job they are called to do.

I am convinced now more than ever that some of my son’s teachers need to be fired and others need to be promoted or otherwise rewarded. Teaching should be left to those with a passion for it – whether those fresh out of school or those whose identity is so wrapped up in what they do that they can’t dream of doing anything else no matter how bad the pay. And administrative positions should be pared back to match the levels of Catholic and other private school systems.

It also should be expanded to those who are not professional educators but who have experience in their fields. Even though I have teaching experience, 15 years working in IT, know a handful of computer languages, how to architect complex databases, and build my own PCs, I was not qualified to teach an introductory computer science class at my local community college because I lacked teaching credentials. Although I was willing to teach simply because I enjoy sharing what I learn with others, I wasn’t going to spend $20k and two years of middle age to get a degree just to make $18/hour. How many others are out there that are willing to do the job but can’t because the professional “guild” controls entry?

The purpose of education is to educate students, not employ the most people possible. The debate in Wisconsin and other statehouses across the country seems to have missed sight of that fact. Good teachers need to be rewarded with cash, and poor teachers given pink slips no matter how long they have been in the classroom. Unions prevent this by paying teachers the same regardless of how good or bad they are, and need to be curtailed. The idea that doctors should unionize would strike most as being ridiculous for good reason: they can’t strike because doing so could cost a life. And the idea that seniority should determine pay would make it even harder for a patient to tell a good surgeon from a bad one than it is today.

Society wouldn’t stand for unionized doctors, yet we have somehow tolerated it with the education of our children. Is it really so different? When I kiss my son (on the head – he is a teen after all) and watch him climb the stairs to his school every weekday morning, I am watching something that is more precious to me than my own health and my own well-being walk away from me. Yet for the past few years I have trusted him to a system that seems geared towards the full employment of teachers and administrators than it does with educating my son with the skills he needs to achieve his full potential in our society.

As his parent, I am kicking myself for my stupidity and laziness. And the parents in Wisconsin should do the same for allowing their children to be used as pawns in a selfish game in which the only true losers are the kids themselves.

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  4. Hube:

    Terrific post, Scott! One of the best I’ve read in some time!! 🙂

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