Economists Want to Stop Teachers’ Degree Bonuses-Washington Post
“You are just as likely to find a great teacher with 3 years of experience as you are a terrible one with 25 years on the job, and vice versa. Other than the first few years, experience does not matter one iota.”-Chad Alderman at the Quick and the Ed
“The problems with unaffordable, anachronistic teacher pensions have finally started to get the attention they should’ve gotten years ago.” –Rick Hess
That’s the latest narrative, isn’t it? Teacher experience matters very little, Master’s degrees are superfluous and expensive, and expensive, lazy, union teachers should be replaced by charter schools and Teach for America instructors.
I have a different point of view on this.
Both as a student and teacher in Los Angeles public schools, I have seen and experienced the wonder of master teachers. As a teacher assistant, my first assignment was in the classroom of a teacher who had entered teaching late in life, a career transition. He was clearly out of his element in a classroom full of wild, rambunctious second graders. They hid in the cabinets, pounced from the tops of closets, sat in trash cans, and on my third day of work held an elaborate wedding ceremony during recess, complete with the groom in suit and the bride in a fancy dress. There was even a preacher. That teacher soon disappeared and the class was held together by day-to-day subs, for a couple of weeks. I never found out what happened to that teacher.
However, the class was fortunate to receive a veteran teacher as a replacement, Ms. Mary. Within the first 30 minutes of class she had made a seating chart, memorized each and every student’s name, and spoke to them in a clear and commanding tone, making meaningful eye contact with them as if saying “play time is over.”
I had never seen anything like it.
Within 30 minutes, the class of wild children had reverted back to the normal, well-behaved children I had seen in other teachers’ classrooms. I watched in awe as this soft-spoken woman took control of this classroom and turned it into a place of learning. She corrected me too; when I would threaten students with a consequence for misbehavior she told me never to threaten a student if I was not going to follow through with the consequence. What seems like common sense today was an epiphany 20 years ago. Looking back, it is evident that the preparation for the class began long before the bell rang; it is likely this woman spent countless hours preparing for her entrance, for the stage setting, for the action.
Just recently, a colleague from my former school, Bethune Middle School, started work in a new capacity at my current middle school. However challenging our current assignment is, it is nothing compared to the raw conditions we faced at the old school. Lockdowns, SWAT teams, drive-by’s and violence were an unfortunate part of daily life in that environment. Teachers learned to be tough and self-sufficient due to lack of established support systems. Moving up the street to L.A. Academy was like moving to Beverly Hills in comparison.
My colleague had been offered the position of elective teacher where she could create her own curriculum to implement however she wanted. It was a dream come true! Yet the challenges of this would prove to be daunting to this veteran teacher. Ms. Manning (formerly Ms. Mickey) would be teaching six classes of 35-45 students in four, eight-week rotations. This would result in her teaching 1,000 students in the course of a year: general education, Honors, and special needs students all in the same classroom, at the same time. She was new to the school, with no relationships built with support staff , students, or parents. She knew the students would be testing her mettle.
“Let me come over to talk to your students about how to behave,” advised the school police officer, “I mean, what, are you from the Midwest?” “I’m from Los Angeles, and I taught at Bethune,” she responded coolly. The officer’s eyes widened and he quickly left the room saying, “You don’t need me!”
The students were no match for this veteran teacher. With her steely blue eyes, she came armed with devastatingly well-planned and engaging lessons for the College Prep elective she designed. She called students’ homes the first few weeks of each rotation and held parent conference after parent conference until the students understood she was no new teacher. She assigned nutrition and after school detention to those who rebelled, and soon word got around school that she was not to be messed with; the antagonism dropped and the learning began.
The crowning moment for these students and their teacher was when the culminating project was due. The students had worked in groups to create their own university and were to bring a model and written report to class to present to classmates. All of a sudden, the campus was ablaze with students carrying poster boards, foam board models of a college campus, and T-shirts air brushed with “South Central University” on the front. The students presented their new creations to the class and proudly talked about their work with their other teachers. When I asked my own students what their plans for the future were, many of them would say they wanted to get a Masters degree or an Associates degree, when before they did not even know what the difference was between them. I could tell immediately that they had been in this teacher’s College Prep elective.
The lesson I learned 20 years ago is one I believe in even more today. There is nothing like having an experienced, knowledgeable teacher in front of the students who need it the most. I see this every day in the hard to staff school in which I work where I am fortunate to be in a team of teachers that is highly accomplished. They have what is necessary to push the students forward academically, and don’t for one second fall for the inevitable tricks and delay tactics that students will play to avoid learning.
But this is not another anti-TFA spiel that asserts it can only be one way or another. I do believe there is a place for the kind of teacher produced from Teach for America. There are still schools, mine included, that are hard to staff and were it not for the two year stint of such instructors, would face even greater instability. Fostering and developing the talent of new teachers, both TFA and traditional career, should be a goal of any education reform carried out by states and the federal government, but never at the expense of one or another. Many of my good friends are former TFA corp members who would tell you themselves that TFA is not the answer to the purported education crisis. Ultimately, however, ed policy must begin to address the real reasons why schools like mine are so hard to staff, why burn-out of all teachers is greater here than at other schools, and what changes must be made to mitigate the impact of society’s ills on our student population.
Let’s take a deep breath during this Thanksgiving week and give thanks to all educators, rookie and veteran who do right by students every day in the classroom.