Teaching With Heart in the New Millennium
[EDIT: see end of post]
Teaching is being redefined.
Sitting in recently for a detained LAUSD Superintendent Dr. John Deasy on KLCS Teachers’ Hour, I talked with a pair of teachers who represent the future of teaching – your future. Dawn Cardon teaches at Locke High School, Paul Payne at L.A. River School; they are both respected colleagues who have contributed much to their students and our profession. They discussed what is required to teach at today’s urban schools: unquestioning dedication; total collaboration; almost total self-sacrifice.
Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles have a new tentative agreement that says teachers can form their own schools and waive certain provisions of the regular union contract. (It’s “tentative” because it operates under a three-year Memorandum of Understanding). Both Dawn and Paul work at schools where the staff has elected to do this, with their students’ best interests, full accountability for all stakeholders and complete autonomy in mind. Both have a significant voice in governance, curriculum, assessment and accountability and instruction in their schools. They also serve in multiple roles that stretch far beyond the normal teaching day and the at-home grading and planning that we all do. Each serves as a grade- or subject-level team leader, on their school site council and as a coordinator, mentor, tutor, counselor and quasi-administrator, as needed, in their respective small schools.
Dawn is in her fourth year as a math intervention teacher at her unionized charter high school. Paul teaches math at one of five small high schools on a new campus. Both schools serve low-income populations that are largely black and/or Hispanic, with small staffs. Each describes serving the needs of children and their school communities by any means necessary. Is this sustainable work? Can we reasonably expect teachers to volunteer for this kind of duty? Dawn and Paul both agreed – passionately – that investing oneself this way is part of establishing a committed and caring school culture. It’s possible, they said, when we have strong principals who support us in our work and marshal resources on our behalf. Both described a teacher interview process that includes a discussion of expectations, which may include an extended work/school day, professional development at $25/hour, and majority-rule decisions over such things as afterschool programs and Saturday workshops.
Both Dawn and Paul take this work for granted. They speak rationally and with passion about stepping in where they are needed because their children need them to do so. We have to respect this kind of commitment and we would want it in our children’s teachers. The new LAUSD/UTLA agreement gives any teacher group the ability to choose the configurations they deem appropriate for their own small school. Teacher groups can now define their own duties. The tenets are fairly straightforward and can be viewed on the UTLA website. But still, I worry.
I teach in a small school that is one of seven that were created from one comprehensive high school. In the year and a half that we’ve been operating this way, I’ve seen human and material resources scrapped and teachers stepping into the breach. The work that was done by administrators and coordinators is now taken up by us. While we know our colleagues and our children very well, the out-of-classroom duties are daunting and they have crept up on us until we scarcely have time to pause for a hi-how-are-you conversation. Paul and Dawn, my hat is off to you. I have managed dozens of projects while maintaining up to six classrooms and I always felt that my students and professional practice suffered for it. I could not be the best teacher possible when I was also working on schoolwide tasks. I cannot imagine having to coordinate the CAHSEE for my small school while also teaching four preps. Maybe I’m just old. Should I be cut from the staff roster because I cannot or will not coordinate, counsel, tutor and lead while doing my instructional best? Under the new tentative agreement, if my school elected to take on the new autonomies, I would have a year in which to “transfer without harm.” We haven’t even put test scores and value-added evaluations into this mix.
Many older teachers, who have seen reforms come and go at the whim of policy-makers, see the tentative agreement as a threat. While I have always believed that the greatest classroom good comes from teachers making decisions together, I do see their point. If 60% of teachers decide they want to reorganize, I’m likely to want to stay at my school because I love my children and now that I know them, I want to see them succeed. As the year goes by, I may discover that I’m not down with the duty roster or expectations. This happened to a girlfriend of mine who left a stable position to sign on with a pilot. The teacher-leaders, God bless them! were doing the best they could in the moment as they discovered layer after layer of new needs. Their principal, also a friend of mine, saw his duty as supporting his teachers – he is more a facilitator than a director. The last time I ran an instructional program I had the same approach – teachers do know best. Give them what they need and let them innovate. So as my girlfriend’s teacher-leaders learned their jobs, they required more and more of her. Sometimes, as a single mom, she couldn’t do the mandatory last-minute parent night or staff meeting. These things were not in the scope of her elect-to-work agreement, but they were definitely part of the school culture.
We all have treasures at our schools: the people who manage to find a way to teach multiple sections of Advanced Placement classes along with the “regular” ones; those who are always available to kids during breaks, and before and after school; those who coordinate trips to local venues and foreign lands; those who write amazing grants, and so on, and so on. I watch them, love them, appreciate them, praise them, and then go home to face piles of dishes, laundry and dust, along with fiddle practice and my own children who have their own needs. And I am (hurrah!) a newlywed wanting to enjoy a mature relationship with a very valuable partner. Can I do it all? I have tried, and it takes more than 24 hours.
My school is replete with 20- and 30-something teachers who are on fire with collaborative projects, experiments, project-based learning and social justice. “Where’s the heart?” one asked me recently. “You are such a good teacher, Lisa. You know how to get students to read better, learn grammar, and write well. But where’s the heart?” Yes, indeed, my beautiful teaching friend, where is the heart?
The real question in front of us now is, is this the future of teaching? Is this what new teachers, who have a discouraging attrition rate, have to look forward to? It will take a truly selfless person – truly selfless – to look at this new landscape and want to step into it. The LAUSD/UTLA Tentative Agreement aside, our rigid and pessimistic budget environment dictate these new terms to those of us in urban schools, regardless of our management model.
Are you a Millennium Teacher?
[Note: This blog post was originally posted as an ACT Guest Blog Post. Lisa has since become a regular contributor to InterACT, and her old "guest" posts have been modified to reflect her authorship, and have had the original introduction removed. - David Cohen]