Are You Recession-Proof?
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.