Rants, Raves, Teacher

Ensuring Good to Great-Teaching 21st century kids in a 21st century world

Quick: what’s the first rule of Fight Club? Remember the 1999 movie starring Brad Pitt where he takes his shirt off a lot and fights other buff guys in basements and parking lots? (OK, stop thinking about that now. Focus. Back to me.) So, the first rule of Fight Club?  You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club.

Being part of the teacher’s union is sort of like being part of Fight Club (minus the hot guys with their shirts off – that may happen in some places but sadly, never where I’ve worked).  As a teacher, I do my job and I don’t talk about what my union is doing, at least not in a non-positive, super-supportive way. Now don’t get me wrong. I appreciate everything my union has done for me. God knows, if I had to teach and negotiate my own contract, I would have left long ago. They allow me to do my job; however, just as there are things I could do better as a teacher, I think there are things my union could do better as well.

Across North America we are seeing teacher unions decimated by their government leaders and demonized in the court of public opinion. In order to balance budgets and leave no child behind, governments have slowly but surely worked to take power and control away from the unions and put it into the hands of administrators. In response, many unions have retaliated by threatening to strike, only to have that option legislated away. When they use the only other means available to them, their actual work with children, they find themselves attacked by parents and the press. Teachers are only in the profession for the money, the benefits and the summers off! It seems like teachers and their unions just can’t win.

So, where do we go from here?

While researching teacher unions in the 21st century, I came across an interview with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.  Ms. Weingarten, whose union represents more than 1.5 million teachers across the United States, was a key speaker at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer. Her presentation Can Teacher Unions be Partners in Reforming Schools in the 21st century? focused on what teacher unions need to do better in this ever-changing world.

She admitted that unions, hers in particular, haven’t always put quality teaching at the forefront.

“We…were wrong. Not that we meant to be wrong but our job initially was about fairness, not about quality. Our goal was to make sure teachers and our other members were treated fairly. Our job has to be about quality as well. Due process has to be about fairness, not about job security for life. Not about being used as an excuse for managers not to manage or a cloak for incompetence.”

She said it’s not enough for some teachers to be great.

“What we have to do is ensure good to great for all teachers.”

In response to questions posed by Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, Ms. Weingarten touched on a variety of subjects, including the controversial “bar exam for teachers”, but her focus always went back to making teachers accountable.

“We need to have real evaluation systems that can assess whether teachers are doing their jobs. And if they’re not, you help them. If they’re not, they shouldn’t be teachers.”

“What we have seen is that schools that work…have collaborative environments where there’s a real thoughtful process for how you recruit, support, retain and yes, dismiss, teachers.”

So, how do we make certain that our children are getting the teachers they deserve?

First, she said, we need to ensure that teachers have the tools and conditions they need in order to teach properly.

“You can’t give new teachers a rigorous kind of methodology to teach and then basically say, ‘You’re on your own.’ It’s not fair to the kids and it’s not fair to the teachers.”

Then, she said, teachers need to ask themselves: Did I teach the material? And most importantly: Did the students learn it? This is where standardized testing has a role to play. Sometimes a teacher can present a lesson and feel that it was the best lesson she has ever taught, only to discover that the majority of students didn’t really understand.

Ms. Weingarten was quick to point out that while standardized tests serve a purpose, they should not become the end goal.

“You have to look at the data to see if kids get it,” she told the audience. “You have to have enough data so that people concentrate on it, but when it becomes predominant then education becomes about testing and not about teaching and frankly the current generation of tests have no connection with what we have to teach kids right now. [They] are about the memorization of facts as opposed to about how kids critically think.”

If the jobs of tomorrow require critical thinking and creativity, why are we still teaching kids to memorize facts and then regurgitate them on a series of standardized tests? According to Ms.Weingarten, this focus on testing is one of the most serious problems facing education today.

Teachers need to be trained to teach critically, she said. New teachers need to be able to walk into a classroom feeling prepared, as opposed to the ‘sink or swim’ model we have now. Half of all teachers in the United   States leave teaching within the first three to five years, she pointed out.

“Love is important. You have to love kids to be a school teacher. You have to know your content. And you have to have a pedagogical bag of tricks so that you can differentiate instruction.”

This ability to offer differentiated teaching is what makes teachers great, she said.

“It’s how we go to our toolkit and understand that Walter is different than Randi, that Celia is different than Michael. [It’s] how we actually engage with kids to try to create that seminal moment of learning.”

At the end of her presentation, she went back to her initial question: can teacher unions be a part of educational reform in the 21st century?

“If we actually want to help all kids, the union needs to be a partner in this,” she said. “At the end of the day, if we don’t start focusing on…how we are solution-driven, how we problem solve, how we ensure that all kids get what they need in the public space instead of this constant polarization, education is not going to get better.”

And that’s the goal, isn’t it? To continue to improve education so that it meets the needs of all children? Having unions and governments, parents and teachers, all at each other’s throats does nothing to help students. We need to work together to figure out how best to teach 21st century kids in the 21st century.

So, I’m doing it. I’m breaking Rules #1 and #2 and I’m talking about my union (albeit anonymously and with loads of trepidation). I am grateful for everything they do but I want to make sure the voices of students are heard above all else. In the long run, I think it’s the best thing for me, as a teacher and a parent, and for our planet as a whole.


Presentation at the Aspen Ideas Festival, June 30, 2012 – “Can Teacher Unions be Partners in reforming schools in the 21st century?” Link to complete video of presentation: http://www.aspenideas.org/session/can-teacher-unions-be-partners-reforming-schools-21st-century

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