How ‘Bout A Little Respect?

I realize the only work-related issue in K-12 education that anyone wants to talk about today is the rumored jobs bill making its way through Congress — a bill that could, depending on whom you ask, either save thousands of essential teacher jobs or simply delay the need to trim excess positions out of a bloated bunch of state budgets — but I can’t stop thinking about a conversation I had last night with my brother-in-law, a recent graduate of the NYC Teaching Fellows program and a prospective Special Education teacher in a city that sorely needs them.

Now, without bragging, I can objectively say that my brother-in-law is an ideal candidate for someone so new to the profession — he’s smart, dedicated, talented, well-schooled, astute, and also well-aware of the reality of the situation he’s entering. He’d make a great hire, and it sounds like plenty of NYC principals agree — except they can’t hire him yet, and they may not be able to until the last week of this month, just a few days before the start of the school year. That’s because a huge slew of jobs won’t technically become available until then, resulting in a now-annual mad dash at the end of the summer, and a rather disorienting (and stressful) point of entry into an already-challenging gig.

I remember that feeling of disorientation well. Over a decade ago, I began one school year as an 11th grade English teacher in Manhattan. Then, over a month into the school year, I was given my walking papers when another teacher with more experience who had been let go from somewhere else in the city was “assigned” to my school — leaving my department chair with no choice but to tearfully let me go, moments after the final bell on a Friday afternoon.

I was stunned. I had just started to establish meaningful connections with my kids. Now I would never even have an opportunity to tell them what had happened. I would simply disappear.

I spent the weekend frantically calling around to see if other opportunities existed at such a late date. Amazingly (and disconcertingly), they did, and by Sunday evening I was on the verge of accepting a new position. Then my department chair called to say there was an opening in the History department. I could stay at my old school as long as I switched the students, grade and subject I taught. And so, over the course of two days, I swapped out a complete set of kids and lesson plans for another classroom and subject — five full weeks into the school year.

My point in all this?

As I’ve written before, we will not have meaningful change in this country until we invest deeply and over the long-term in the establishment of a true long-term teaching profession, and not a short-term teaching force. There are a number of key policy levers that need to be pulled for this to happen — and a few ideas we must avoid at all costs. But how about we get started right away by ensuring that teachers don’t have to wait until a week before the school year to find out where they’ll be working?

Teaching is the most difficult and rewarding job a person can do. Under the sorts of conditions I just described, it becomes almost impossible. Deep and sustained investments in teacher preparation will take a generation to truly develop. But letting teachers know ahead of time where they’ll work is an easy, and important, self-correction that needs to be made ASAP.

Categories: Learning, Organizational Change, Teacher Quality

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  1. Debbie Tanner
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I think this is a problem that is getting worse. The same thing happened in a neighboring district-700 teachers were laid off at the the end of the school year and they just got word that most of them will be rehired. We started school TOMORROW. In what other profession does this happen? Somehow, I think WE as teachers need to get better at saying no. When they ask us to give up our weekends to re-level our entire classroom library to meet the new district curriculum. NO. When they ask us to stay after school to analyze data that comes too late to affect a change on our kids. NO. When they ask us to spend a day looking at technology that we can’t afford and will be out of data or unavailable to us. NO. When they schedule staff development on topics we have heard a million times already NO.
    But we also need to convince the public at large that education is important. The reason we get fired and re-hired in such a silly manner is based on funding. The layoffs I mentioned were a result of economic stimulus money that was coming from the federal government. Don’t our elected officials tell us all the time how important education is? Well if it is, why isn’t education at the top of the priority list for funding? I never hear about the Pentagon having to have bake sales to raise money to buy new bombers, why is that? Maybe we as teachers just need to blow a few things up.

  2. Sam
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your post, Debbie. Where in the country do you work? I agree that teachers need to become more active change agents and less passive recipients of a dysfunctional system that could not have been created without our participation. We are the ones who know best what needs to happen to transform our schools and help adults and children thrive. So yes, it’s time to start amplifying those voices and focusing on what works, not on what’s broken. As the theoretical physicist David Bohm once said, “Thinking makes the world and then says, ‘I didn’t do it.'” So too is it with the current and future state of our schools. The rest is up to us.

  3. Posted August 11, 2010 at 8:38 pm | Permalink


    Thanks for this post. The thing you clearly get: school, and learning, is comprised of a set of relationships between people. Nurturing and sustaining those relationships is the most important thing teachers do. The first thing kids get when they walk into Sam Chaltain’s classroom is a course in Sam Chaltain, then perhaps, maybe if everyone is lucky, history. Benjamins, no matter how large the pile, cannot influence that basic chemistry. School systems, large and small, exist to make a system function. The basic, important chemistry gets clobbered every time as budgets, teaching assignments, schedules, etc. rule. Seldom does the principal or anyone else charged with running a system get it that the first principle that needs to be adhered to is that relationships make a school what it is…rich or poor.

  4. Sam
    Posted August 12, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Well said, Mr. Williams.

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