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Are You Recession-Proof?

August 12, 2010

Recently I came across an article written by an older teacher in Slate Salon magazine lamenting her job loss due to the hiring of a younger, more energetic teacher.  The author, Beth Aviv, did good job conveying her sense of foreboding, anxiety, and ultimate disappointment as the year wore on, because she could read the writing on the wall.

I am a strong believer in the power of unions to uplift the lives of students, teachers, and school communities, but my first and foremost goal is to educate and empower students to be successful citizens in our society.  For this reason, I was not feeling the usual empathy I feel for that teachers who are unfairly singled out for political reasons.  It seemed like the teacher was someone who passively accepted the developments in her career without having taken steps to prevent them from happening in the first place.  Follow with me.

Teachers working with students from poverty know they must overcompensate for what the students are lacking in their home lives; emotional, social, psychological, academic, and even nurturing support.  It is not enough to be an average teacher with the expectation that parents will be able to provide the resources and materials needed for the student to be successful in school.  We know children will arrive without materials, a full belly, a clear and worry-free mind, and a good night’s sleep.  It’s not a stretch to say that most school populations experience a dire problem such as poverty, drug-abuse, or violence.  Teachers then must seek and obtain specific training in how to overcome these challenges.

Professional development may or may not be the focus of a school’s principal, or district.  In lean budget times, a teacher wanting to make an impact will pay out of pocket to find the right training, read the right book, talk to the expert in the field to make sure they are professionally ready to meet the needs of that classroom’s students, no matter what they are.  And it never ends; the students are different from class to class, year to year, school by school, state by state.  An exemplary teacher will never stop training.

An exemplary teacher’s resume would contain lists of workshops, conferences, and trainings they have attended.  It would show a depth of knowledge in a couple of fields, because knowledge a mile wide and an inch deep does no one much good.  As a content expert then, the teacher would have shared their knowledge in a professional learning community.  The resume would show local, state, and national conferences in which they have shared their expertise with other educators.  Fellowships, Fulbrights, awards and recognitions would demonstrate a teacher like this was determined to acquire unique learning experiences with educators at an international level.

Returning to the school, the teacher would be an innovator and a leader who would identify areas of need in the school community, and galvanize support to form clubs, programs, or initiatives that help students directly.  Are students hungry?  They acquire donations from the community.  Are they eating unhealthy food?  Lobby the district to eliminate junk food from schools.  Are there to many crimes committed against students on the way home?  Work with parents to organize a safe walk home program.  You get the picture.

In short, it is unlikely that an accomplished teacher like this would be allowed to be fired from the school to be replaced by a rookie who cannot yet provide the same depth of contribution as the veteran, no matter what kind of shoes they wear (the author lamented having to wear comfort shoes instead of more appealing shoes due to her age.)  Are there vengeful, unprofessional administrators who would try to fire such a teacher anyway?  Yes, and they have.  Are there Superintendents who do not believe in this paradigm and are opting for a younger cheaper workforce?  Yes; Paul Vallas in New Orleans is loud and proud about this.  But when you work in a school to make systemic changes and improvements, the students, parents you’re your colleagues will rally behind you, will make the Principal think twice before replacing you.  This safeguard is a natural by-product of excellence in teaching.

This last year has borne witness to the rise of the New Reformers, whose mantra is “schools are failing because of poor teachers.”  Teachers were caught by surprise by this turn of events because one of the joys of teaching is working in that little laboratory that is your classroom.  The magical place where you have the privilege of molding the lives of children, building relationships with unique, quirky individuals whose stories you rush home to share with family at the dinner table, or through social media.  We close the door to our classrooms and give students our knowledge, and receive even more from them in return.  It is this isolation that has given the New Reformers the opportunity to take control of the national dialogue on the education crisis.  While we were helping students, politicians, media conglomerates, and entrepreneurs banded together to shape the incessant and repetitive narrative we hear repeated everywhere, even by the President himself.

But no one can replace the power of the people, the power of the parents of the children you serve to stand up and testify about the difference you have made in a child’s life.  As one LAUSD teacher asked at a board meeting where teacher layoffs were being discussed, “the question isn’t whether you can afford to keep me; it is whether you can afford to lose me.”

So are you, the classroom teacher, the soldier in the field, doing everything you can to fulfill the goals of our noble profession?  Are you modeling the goals and visions that you demand from your students by being a learner and a leader yourself?  Undoubtedly, a vast majority of teachers are.  But those just starting out, or those who have been classroom hermits may need to realize that those in charge will have no qualms replacing you with someone they perceive to be a better worker.  Recession-proof yourself by joining a professional organization, collaborating with colleagues, sharing your knowledge and expertise with others.

How do you keep yourself recession-proof?

CORRECTION 8/12/10 :  Article referenced in this blog post was published in Salon magazine, not Slate.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2010 6:54 am

    Sadly, I’m on the other side of the whole “debate” (if it can even be called that). I am an unemployed teacher; I’ve been licensed for six years and have yet to have a permanent job in education. Because of this, it is difficult to be able to even afford basic training to keep my license up-to-date, much less a specific conference (which, being unemployed, I rarely hear about in the first place). I would love to be able to go to conferences and learn more about X, Y, or Z but I don’t have the income that allows this.

    It makes me sad that people like me, who want to do all these things, cannot even get a foot in the door while people that are not willing to go above and beyond their training are being allowed to not only stay in their current positions, but be allowed to stay much longer than in any other profession. Of course, it is a double-edged sword. Perhaps if I spent the money I do not have on these conferences and conventions, I would be able to get my foot in the door in the first place.

    • August 12, 2010 4:41 pm

      It is painful to hear that someone with the truest of motives and intentions cannot get an opportunity to serve the students of our country. It does seem to be that in boom times, there didn’t seem to be much foresight as to limiting the increase in bureaucratic positions, so now during the recession, the cuts to the bureaucracy result in a bump down effect that has seen the dismissal of many great teachers and the hiring freeze in many districts.

      If I may offer advice, state conferences for the various professional education association are run by teacher leaders, all volunteers. Feel free to contact any of the board members and ask if you can volunteer to help with registrations, set-up, break down, room facilitator, etc. Make yourself known, join listservs or email lists, and get ready to pounce when you hear of an opening. If you are known, or have a great letter of recommendation written by someone in educational leadership, it might help your chances. And all of this is free.

      By reading this blog, you are already becoming connected. You might want to try twitter too! Thanks for your comment.

  2. August 12, 2010 9:25 am

    On one hand, I hate to see lazy people in any job, especially teachers. However, I don’t think a resume of workshops attended or awards earned is an indicator of a teacher’s effectiveness (not that I am asserting you suggest it is). There are many ways to learn how to serve one’s students without sitting through workshops.

    As to your question about recession-proofing myself… it involved a shift in the way I react when the door opens in the middle of class and the principal or superintendent walks in. I’ve made sure to construct my practice in a way that no matter what happens in my classroom, it is always something my bosses could look at and see as effective. I’ve had my bosses walk in during one of those horrible, tense, classroom management moments. I’ve had them see lessons which bomb. But by keeping my door open and actually inviting them in, they see that I’m a thinker and I reflect, and I trust in them that they know that not every day will be a slam dunk and that since kids will be kids, sometimes there will be ugly moments. As a result, I’ve been able to actually have substantive conversations about educational practice with my superiors. This has nothing to do with my kids’ test scores or how many workshops I’ve attended. Perhaps this makes me recession-proof because they don’t see me just as someone who does my job, they see that I actually think about what I’m doing…and no, not everyone does that.

    I’ve worked with some teachers who are genuinely afraid of administrators walking into their classroom–for many this is due to a (misplaced) lack of professional confidence, but often I hear about teachers doing things they know they shouldn’t be: showing non-curricular movies, allowing “free days,” engaging in inappropriate conversations, or just turning on the TV. If a teacher is doing in the classroom something they wouldn’t want their boss to see them do, I think there is a serious problem.

    • August 12, 2010 4:59 pm

      It is difficult to discuss teacher quality without someone hijacking your comments or discussions. Teacher to teacher, I have to agree that in every school where I have worked, there has been that element of teachers whose classroom is not a laboratory of learning, but one of coasting. There was one teacher who could not stand to hear the students talk, so the day’s instructions were written on the board, meticulously, to prevent the kids from asking him questions. He knew himself this was wrong, and he retired. But administration would visit his room, see the kids “on task” and not give him a poor evaluation. Truly the idea that teacher quality can be based on scores alone is ridiculous to anyone in the field. His students probably did well; they read the book and answered all of the questions at the end of the chapter. The material was covered. But did they retain the knowledge?

      As to workshops, I’ve been to more than I can remember. Sometimes the benefit to the workshop is not the presenter or the presentations. It could be hearing a book that someone in the audience recommends, or a resource you have never heard of. The vendors offer the latest in materials you can use in the classroom. In state conferences, the leaders of the conference often put on a “state of the discipline” session where you learn about where your subject stands and in which it’s headed. In boom times, teachers were sometimes provided with airfare and hotel. I loved the feeling of being treated like a professional and took it to heart. It gave me the uplifting of the spirit that is necessary for those working in stressful, sometimes heartbreaking situations at school sites.

      That being said, I’ have been to career changing presentations by experts in the field. There should be a place in education reform for high-quality professional development. Ruby Payne, Donna Ford, Robert Marzano, should be required training for all teachers. But who can afford it?

      Congratulations for making teacher evaluation work for you. Of course administrators should be visiting teacher rooms often! They are supposed to be the instructional leaders in the school. Inviting them ahead of time when you have developed an exciting lesson makes perfect sense. i know many teachers who do this, not out of craftiness, but they want to share the learning experience with administrators who sometimes only come into contact with discipline problems in their offices. Keep initiating conversations with them. Even though it may have been many years since they have been in the classroom, their teacher roots are still there.

      Thanks for reading my post and for commenting.

      • August 13, 2010 9:36 pm

        Martha, I didn’t mean to hijack your line of discourse (I didn’t realize I did!)

      • August 14, 2010 5:30 am

        Oh, I was referring to when others take one line from your post or comment and try to portray it in a different light. No, I welcome your thoughts and commentary!

      • August 13, 2010 9:40 pm

        And back to recession-proofing my job… a point I was trying to make but which I apparently didn’t do very well: I invite my bosses in not to evaluate me, but to just see what is going on. I talk to them about teaching rather than assume that they are judging or evaluating me at every turn. As a result, they know how I operate and they value what I can offer–if they know what is going on in my mind and in my classroom, I sense they’d have a harder time getting rid of me.

  3. August 12, 2010 9:47 am

    Let me quote Moshe Sokolow of Yeshiva University from the Columbia University Teachers College Record:

    Had BEARING WITNESS been written 30 years ago as the tide of Holocaust studies was rising, rather than at its crest, and had I read it then, I would probably be a better person than the one I am today and certainly a better educator. This is the power of Beth Aviv Greenbaum’s narrative of her experience, along with her students’, in developing, delivering and assessing a course in Holocaust literature.

    Far from being a narrow, parochial presentation of a particularistic subject, the book is a paradigm of multi-media, multi-sensory, multi-intelligenced and multi-faceted pedagogy. While it may appear oxymoronic (or, at least ironic), I enjoyed reading the book. As familiar as I was with the plot and the characters, as much as I knew the outcome at the outset, I looked forward to each consecutive chapter. That is memorable, and memorable, in pedagogy, is effective.”

    Gerda Weissman Klein and her late husband Kurt Klein:

    “What is most striking about Beth Greenbaum’s method of teaching is that she is not content to merely present the facts to her students, but manages to engage them until they literally walk in the shoes of the victims, and to some extent in those of the perpetrators. Lengthy discussions follow the presentation of the material, and by challenging her students to face the moral dilemmas the victims were confronted with almost daily, she brings as much reality to the events as is possible from this distance in time and location. The effectiveness of her teaching is evidenced in the countless perceptive reactions on the part of her students, be it in their verbal analyses or in the essays they ware compelled to write. It seems that no one leaves her course without an entirely different perspective on that world that was than when they began those sessions.”

  4. August 12, 2010 5:11 pm

    Tom,

    The Salon article was, and could not be, a complete portrayal of the author’s teaching career. While Beth Aviv’s reflection sparked my idea for this post, my thoughts are not specifically about her and her dismissal from teaching. Obviously anyone who writes an publishes a book, especially on such an important and valuable subject is a learner and has something to offer to students.

    What strikes me is that the talent so many of our teachers have is invisible; silent. No one but the 25-45 students in your classroom knows what you can do. How does this help elevate the status of our profession? How does this help students in another part of the country learn? I know a colleague who taught an elective course on the Holocaust. She would have loved to access any curriculum written created by another teacher.

    Teachers can no longer afford to isolate themselves in the classroom. It does not mean we need to go out and do P.R. it means sharing our love and passion for our discipline by collaborating with colleagues in the school setting or through professional organizations, or maybe just on Twitter. In today’s education climate, administrators are being forced to cut teachers whether they want to or not. It would benefit both students and teachers to make themselves recession-proof.

    Thanks for your comment and the link! And thank you for reading my post.

  5. Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez permalink
    August 12, 2010 6:44 pm

    Since layoffs are purely based on seniority, and rehires also work on seniority, I think the idea of recession proofing oneself to keep a job is a little unfair (as Renee pointed out). In my district we still have 30 teachers out of a job. Many have also taught in other districts and most are truly amazing educators. My friend was teacher of the year for her entire district, and that same year was laid off. She tried to get rehired, but after a year of subbing she gave up and went to work at a charter. While public schools are being drained and maxed out on class size, charters are getting some of the best and brightest.

    With that said, I completely agree with you that we need to really think about what it means to be exemplary, and strive for it everyday.

  6. strategicteaching permalink
    August 13, 2010 6:01 am

    Martha,

    Good professional development is key to excellence in our classrooms. This is clearly supported by research as having a large impact on student learning. As professionals we have an obligation to keep abreast of current educational practice. Indeed teaching is an art, but as Marzano would point out it is also a science. There is clear guiding evidence substantiated by solid research about effective teaching and learning strategies. Professional development which for me includes membership in professional organizations, building a professional library, conducting my own action research as well as attending workshops and conferences has enhanced my practice beyond my expectations. As a result the rigor in my class has increased dramatically. At the same time my students’ success has also increased.

    I especially liked the following paragraph from your piece.

    “Teachers working with students from poverty know they must overcompensate for what the students are lacking in their home lives; emotional, social, psychological, academic, and even nurturing support. It is not enough to be an average teacher with the expectation that parents will be able to provide the resources and materials needed for the student to be successful in school. We know children will arrive without materials, a full belly, a clear and worry-free mind, and a good night’s sleep. It’s not a stretch to say that most school populations experience a dire problem such as poverty, drug-abuse, or violence. Teachers then must seek and obtain specific training in how to overcome these challenges.”

    It stands in stark contrast to another post I read on another site that was railing against student achievement having any connection to teacher evaluation. The author pointed out that she had taught in both a low performing school and a high performing school and in both places she had been the same. In my mind that is part of the problem. Too often we teach as Parker Palmer states “who we are” when we should be using all the resources available (including research) to teach to reach students where they are. I firmly believe we can make a difference and I seek out all the professional development (virutual, books, face to face) that I can to hone my skills in order to do so. In my mind not doing this would be the equivalent of educationsl malpractice.

    • August 13, 2010 9:34 pm

      I also read that piece where the teacher was talking about moving from one district to another and being the “same teacher.” I see your point about adjusting for your population, but I think her point wasn’t that she did the exact same thing, but that the outcomes of effective teaching will look different depending on the raw materials with which a student walks in the door.

      Part of my schedule, I teach in a 9th grade intervention program nestled within a very affluent district, while the other part of my schedule I teach “mainstream” 9th grade kids (in this case, generally affluent, privileged). I certainly adjust my approaches while striving to keep high standards for both. However, if I raise my ninth graders’ reading levels by four grades across the board, it will result in different outcome data depending on the population. With my intervention kids, it might mean I’ve raised them from fourth grade readers to eighth grade level readers. With my “mainstream” kids, it might mean they now read like a high school senior. Significant gains were achieved in both realms. Give the kids a test of 9th grade reading skills and guess what: the data says I failed my intervention kids but served my mainstream kids. If anyone cared about longitudinal data (which they don’t) it’d be easy to prove that I’d served both.

      Policymakers and politicians often want to ignore that it DOES matter what skills students possess and lack when they arrive in our classroom. Those skills help determine what is a reasonable finish line to strive for in a given stretch of class time. I’m not saying that if a kid lacks skills that he or she won’t be successful, but we need to be mindful about which ultimate targets are reasonable.

      • strategicteaching permalink
        August 14, 2010 11:10 am

        Mark,
        I agree that the current evaluation system is flawed and agree that the growth shown by the intervention group in your scenario is evidence of effective teaching. Certainly their gain should meet the growth target for that group. I am intrigued by the movement towards a multiple measure approach to teacher evaluation that would allow for a variety of data and include input from a wider range of stakeholders, especially teachers. The ACT report on teacher evaluation puts forth one such approach.

        I teach in a school that houses a diverse student population ranging from very poor (65% free & reduced lunch) to affluent, including a large population of English Learners. My classes last year ranged from English Learners (Level 2 and above) to mainstream to honors. Special Education students were also part of the dynamics of my classes. I also am the coordinator and teacher for a program that targets underrepresented and underperforming groups. Each August I am eager to add the info from the state tests to the data I gathered on my students throughout the previous year. (Data analysis is one of the benefits I have reaped from my professional development) I use this data to plan for the next year. In my discipline my students have continued to rise as I have become a more strategic teacher. Each year we have met our targets. Each year the test data have helped me identify what is successful and pointed out where I need to refine my practice. I do not teach to these tests, but I do teach the standards (and beyond) at the higher levels of thinking so that students create long term memory. The knowledge I have gained from my PD activities have allowed me to make Schmoker’s idea “What’s best for the best is best for rest” more of a reality in my classroom.

        Besides being a classroom teacher, I am blessed to have the opportunity to work with teachers across the United States. Although many teachers are eager to improve their practice I frequently see a disturbing pattern. Too often I see that the difference in the way we work with underperforming or even mainstream students is less rigorous, less engaging, and at a lower level of thinking than we do with high achieving ones. On the one hand we say we have high expectations for all our students, but when a rigorous strategy is presented too often the response is, “I can do this with my advanced students, but not with my regular kids.” My job is to facilitate as the teachers I work with reflect on their practice and reconsider some of their assumptions through the lens of rigorous strategies made accessible by strategic scaffolding. It is a most rewarding process to see teachers reflect and I always come away a more reflective teacher myself with some new tools.

        If we don’t begin thinking and acting differently will achievement gaps ever lessen? Indeed it is incumbent upon teachers to make our voices heard by policy makers. Indeed our students come to us burdened or blessed with skills and abilities that I might have little impact on. But I can change what happens in my classroom and it is incumbent upon me to reflect upon my practice and learn all I can about how to hone that practice to more effectively empower my students to succeed.

        Darlene

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