Saturday, February 28, 2009

Teaching under the Sword of Damocles

It appears the Florida Legislature is considering ending teacher tenor. The plan is being sold as an effort to help schools get rid of ineffective or poorly performing teachers. It is a familiar argument, one often used against teacher's unions and teacher tenure. When presented well it even sounds noble. After all, who could argue against getting rid of bad teachers. Oh won't someone please think of the children.

The problem of course, is it will not get rid of bad teachers, it will get rid of teachers who do not see eye to eye with the administration.

First let's put the myth to an end. Teachers, even teachers with tenures, can be fired for legitimate reasons. Getting rid of tenure for teachers only serves to make it easier for administrators to fire teachers for other reasons.

Now, I am certainly not going to argue that all school administrators are bad. In fact I've worked with some truly great administrators. But the fact is there are many administrators out there who care more about maintaining the status quo than the quality of education the students are receiving. Often these are people with what some would call old fashioned ideas about what a school environment should look like. Straight rows of desks occupied by silent students reading or filling in bubbles on multiple choice test sheets. Classrooms as sterile environments.

The problem is that more and more we are finding this is not the most effective learning environment. Students engaged in physical activity in the classroom, inquiry learning, and true open discussions often provide the most engaging and effective classroom environments.

While students typically respond best to teachers with those types of classrooms, all too often administrators do not. As a result, the teachers both students and educational researchers would call the best or most effective teachers are often the very ones administrators would like to get rid of the most.

So while this change in law could possible result in some truly great teachers losing their jobs, a far more drastic effect could be in making teachers fearful of experimenting with these techniques. It could push all teachers to a state of mediocrity. Getting students actively engaged in learning is not always a clean, easy process. It is something that takes practice and patience on the part of the teacher. If a law is passing in which teachers feel any slip up or temperary loss of control may result in unemployment we are more likely to see self censorship on the part of the teachers as far as trying new techniques is concerned.

Denying teachers due process in firing procedures could also make more teachers at risk because of person, political, or religious views.

Of course, none of what I've written so far even addresses the question of how do we evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher. My guess would be standardized test scores. Because when talking about the life of a child, really, what matters besides standardized test scores?

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