Keynote Speaking, Redux

It has been a long time since the night of January 10th when I returned home from the annual State Chamber of Commerce dinner and instead of relaxing and going to bed at a decent hour, I felt compelled to blog about a message the keynote speaker conveyed during his speech.  In my original post, I pretty much promised that there would be a Part II in which I explained why I thought some of what he had to say was a bunch of hooey. So, here it is. Sorry for the delay.

But first, I want to make a few points: (1) This is my blog. (I get to say what I want on my blog.) (2) The opinions are mine. (The opinions expressed are my own–not those of the organization I represent as President of the Delaware State Education Association.) (3) Lastly, I tend to be kind of smart-alecky here. (Refer to Point #1.)

In my 39 years as a teacher, I frequently explained to students that I liked them; however, I did not like the ways in which they chose to behave. That would be my message to Mr. Schoenhals regarding his public chastisement of the organization I hold near and dear, as well as his denigration of the values we uphold.  [Mr. S. and I will need to work together in the future. And, I am not one to hold a grudge.]

Here is the place in the speech on January 10 where my minor annoyance was roused to a fit of pique. Mr. S. posited the following:

“Finally,…teaching is a true profession, much like doctors, lawyers and engineers.  These are professions where people are expected to achieve specific outcomes: cure the patient, win the trial, build the bridge or educate the child, but the practitioner must achieve success in ever changing circumstances and conditions.  Yet the teacher’s union, DSEA, insists on personnel practices that are more appropriate for a factory floor than in a profession like teaching.  It is a philosophy where seniority drives assignments, transfers and layoffs; and where salaries are based upon years of service and educational level, not on achievements in the classroom. This philosophy is written into state law, so practically speaking a district has no choice but to follow this system.  I ask DSEA to continue be a forward thinking union by working with the legislature to change this law.

One size or system of pay does not fit all.  Let the districts and the local union determine what would work best for them.  With a system that is more reflective of the profession that teaching is, we can then work to get teacher pay to a level worthy of the task teachers perform….educating the next generation.”

And, so back on January 10th, I wrote : [More in my next blog about in what ways Mr. Schoenhals’s assertions are incorrect. More in my next blog about his misrepresentations, misconceptions, and just plain old mean-spiritedness. ‘Cause, Skip has never spoken to me about this topic before, and he has had lots of opportunities, including one just a few weeks ago before, during, or after a meeting at Rodel on December 12 where I was asked to give a report about school improvement goals and accomplishments. I do believe that I conducted myself very nicely on behalf of our organization, as well as for the children and educators in our schools. Plus, he surely knows where to find me.]

So,… here goes–Part II:

I am just a humble science teacher, but I know a poorly constructed sentence when I see one. “,…teaching is a true profession, much like doctors, lawyers and engineers.” Teaching is the profession; doctors, lawyers, and engineers are people. In good writing, concepts are reciprocal–they match. (I know, I am just being picky.) One could say that teaching is a true profession, much like medicine, law, and engineering/design. Anyway,…

This seems like a rather confused paragraph. It has several lines of thought and some of them provide “mixed messages.” With one hand we are positioned for recognition and status–y’all are PROFESSIONALS; and with the other, we get smacked down. You may be professionals, but you are not as good as those other professionals because you apparently are unable “to achieve success in ever-changing circumstances and conditions.” Bullsh**. Teachers are MASTERS at achieving success in ever-changing circumstances and conditions. Really. Teachers learn immediately that the need for flexibility, improvisation, and creativity is paramount. Teaching requires one to be in touch with the hearts and minds of twenty or thirty children all at the same time; being ready and able to adapt instructional strategies based on nuanced responses from both individuals and groups of children. Heck. Can you even imagine what the consequences would be if the one working copier in the entire school is down? Any teacher can. Vividly.

One other point: patients die; lawsuits are lost; bridges and buildings collapse unexpectedly. Does this make those practitioners any less professional in the eyes of the public?

The other messages are not lost on me. The real point of the swipe at professionalism was the move to bring in the topic of teacher seniority. Is teaching really the only job where special value is afforded to  experience, length of service, or seniority? Webster’s defines the term seniority as “a privileged status attained by length of continuous service (as in a company).” Hmm. So why has this concept become such a lightning rod for edreform?

In many cultures, advanced age and experience is associated with knowledge, expertise, and wisdom. In teaching, it has become taboo. Veteran teachers feel the sting, as well as the pressure brought to bear by those who presume that younger guarantees freshness, energy, innovation, and competence, while more senior staff denotes stale, tired, worn, and less effective. Less willing to go along.

Mr. Schoenhals misrepresents the function of seniority. He attributes power to seniority that it just does not have. He states “it is a practice that drives assignments, transfers and layoffs.”

Let’s start with layoff–or RIF–reduction of force. This is part of one of the favorite arguments of edreform: LIFO or last in, first out. You can see my earlier post that specifically tackles this topic. Anyway, teacher layoff is tricky. Districts do not and cannot just lay off the last ten teachers hired–as if their area of certification did not matter. In Delaware, layoffs are usually arranged to prevent the district from being over-staffed in any one teaching category–from being stuck with more teachers than the actual unit count would allow. So, in the spring, district HR departments very carefully calculate how many elementary teachers; how many middle school social studies, math, science, English, or reading teachers; how many high school physics, chemistry, or biology teachers; how many secondary guidance counselors–you get the picture–that they will most likely need in the upcoming school year. They examine every category of teachers and compare the current staffing to the projected staffing needs based on numbers that they get from the Department of Education. (BTW: I have been told that Department projections have not always matched district projections–they have sometimes differed significantly.)

A few years ago, a local district laid off two elementary guidance counselors, one middle school social studies teacher, one art teacher, one P.E. teacher, and six elementary teachers in the spring. They were all rehired by July, when the numbers became more solid, plus an additional 35 teachers were hired. The social studies teacher had seven years of experience. One of the guidance counselors had eleven years in.

Luckily, thanks to careful planning and financial support from the General Assembly, Delaware schools have been able to stave off teacher layoffs for the past few years.

The implication is that layoff time would be a fine time to clean house, to rid the district of dead wood, to sweep the less competent and the less effective from the classroom. Jeez Louise–what kind of a management plan is that? If Principal Jones had evidence in November that Mr. Smith was incompetent, why would he wait around until layoffs in May?

O.K. So, how about seniority and transfers? I have been teaching for only 39 years, but in all of that time I know of no transfer that was accomplished based solely upon seniority. In local contracts, transfer language lists seniority as one of five or six factors, including certification, qualification, experience, prior training, and recommendations. There is a limited time for application to transfer for a limited number of positions. Available positions are posted, applications are passed along to the appropriate administrators, and interviews are conducted. I am confident that each principal weighs many factors before ever considering seniority. I do believe that seniority would be used as a tie-breaker if there were two teachers equally matched and qualified for the job–a principal would resort to seniority as the deciding factor.

Now, tell me that a similar process does not take place in the world of business!

[However, unfortunately, due to the pressures placed on school principals these days, there have been several recent reports of discrimination against female teachers who “may become pregnant” and against older teachers seeking to transfer who may be “nearer to retirement age.” One can never be too careful–right?]

Senority and teaching assignments? Let’s see. Elementary teachers get assigned and reassigned year after year. Too many principals use a change of assignment as a management tool–a control mechanism. It is amazing. It is confounding. It’s a pain in the ass. However, I have never heard anyone complain that it was done on the basis of seniority or the lack thereof. They take someone who has done a fabulous job as a fourth grade teacher and move her to first grade–a grade in which she has NO experience, and does not want to experience. Why? To break up a powerful team of teachers–because, Lord knows, we do not want teacher leaders. To try to force a less effective teacher to leave. To show the staff who’s boss. To keep everybody on their toes. Hint: You could be next.

In middle school? Not much movement from year to year–you could be a 7th grade science teacher for years and years–for your entire career. Or, you train as a secondary math teacher. You land a job in a middle school. You get assigned to teach math. There you are. Not much seniority in that decision.

Now, when you get to high schools, things change a bit. When you and I were actually back in high school, we were probably unaware of the politics of teacher assignment. In high schools across this great nation, the more senior members of the staff get the more senior assignments. [BTW: I have been told that this never happens in the business or world. Or in law, or medicine, or engineering. Or, banking.]

The newbies get the 9th graders. Ninth grade is tough–on everyone. It is a huge transition year–a make-or-break situation, and very demanding. In the world of high school, 9th grade assignments are to be avoided at all costs. The veterans get the seminars, the AP classes, the classes for juniors and seniors. They also get the plummier extra duties, clubs, and sponsorships.

Is this fair? Maybe not. However, it has absolutely nothing to do with the local union. There is no contract langauage that I know of that governs this practice. No regulation–no policy. It is tradition, and is almost universally practiced. And certainly DSEA–the state affiliate of NEA–has nothing to do with who gets or doesn’t get the senior English classes at Wahoo High.

Now, I know all about the need to equitably distribute assignments and to get the most effective teachers assigned to the most needy sets of students. I understand, and I even agree. However, Mr. Schoenhals is out and out wrong about the power of seniority in Delaware schools. His simplistic rhetoric just does not hold up. DSEA does not insist on personnel practices that are more appropriate for the factory floor. We insist on very little other than the best for our children and our schools.

BTW: The contracts that our local units bargain are NEGOTIATED AGREEMENTS. They are agreements between two parties. Both sides must reach consensus. Both sides must decide what they are willing to give up, to get, and to see eye-to-eye on. DSEA does not sit down in Dover scheming and plotting, pulling strings and manipulating. Well, not anymore we don’t. Now it’s all done by computer!  LOL

As for that factory floor reference. If only we could manage teaching and classrooms like factories and assembly lines. Gee whiz. If a guy who has been trained to install steering wheels is laid off, it is pretty easy to imagine another worker who assembles door panels being trained to take his place. However, if one of the 7th grade social studies teachers is laid off, we cannot just retrain a stray math teacher to do the same job. We have never been nor will we ever be like facory workers–God bless them. Neither the teachers nor the students can ever be seen as the widgets or the fungible units.

Finally–and I am just as glad as you, Dear Reader–Mr. Schoenhals references yet another third rail of public education–“where (teacher) salaries are based upon years of service and educational level, not on achievements in the classroom.” The single scale salary schedule that has been in use during my entire 39 year career STINKS. At one time, it seemed a good idea. But that time has long come and gone. So, Mr. Schoenhals, here is something upon which we can maybe agree.

Nah. I am all for changing the ways in which teachers and other educators get paid.  As a matter of fact, DSEA has had a Task Force that has been studying this very issue, and we have a number of fine ideas. I regret to say that these ideas do not involve merit pay or what some call “pay for performance.”  But that, my friends, is fodder for another cannon at another time.

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This entry was posted in "Reform Experts", Accountability, Attacks on Unions, Education Professionals, Education Reform, Education Unions, School Improvement, Seniority, Teacher Tenure, Teacher Unions, Unions. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Keynote Speaking, Redux

  1. What powerful words you have here. Thank you for providing much-needed context. Let’s hope all the right people are reading what you have to say.

  2. Mike Hoffmann says:

    Excellent!!!, I am proud to have you as the leader of our organization.

  3. Frederika says:

    It is apparently easy to cast aspersions on public education and education unions. The national rhetoric is so common, so redundant, and so appealing to some on the outside. However, much of it does not stand up to the realities of classroom and school experience. Competent, confident, and effective educators of any age or level of experience are always willing, ready, and able to take on change–they seek it out–they thrive on it. They are always looking for better ways to teach and for better ways for students to learn. What they will resist is change that appears irrelevant, overly-complicated, inappropriate, driven by misguided intentions, or change for change’s sake.

    One more thing: My bet is that many of these public school practices that catch the attention of edreform, like seniority and single salary scale are not limited to unionized school systems. I would bet that they can be found in schools in right-to-work states and in districts where no unions exist. I will have to explore this further.

  4. gilda says:

    Great job of filling in the context here, Frederika. Let’s hope Mr. Skippy bothers to read it, and perhaps reflect on his comments before loading (writing) his next edreform cannon (speech). He appears to enjoy and encourage a siege mentality.

  5. Pingback: Why stop now? | Does Experience Count?

  6. Pingback: All special interests are not created equal « Mind of Mr. Matthews

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