Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Student Advocacy and Tenure: A Philadelphia Story

I once had a superintendent of schools tell me, “Your loyalty should lie with the persons who sign your paycheck – the school board.” I disagreed then and I disagree now. Sure, as an employee of a school district I am sworn to carry out the policies and teach the curriculum that is approved by the Board, but my loyalty as a professional must reside with my students. When the students’ best interests, in my professional judgment, conflict with Board policy or action, I must work to change the policy or redirect the action. That is what it means to be professional. That is also one important reason teachers need job protections.

In an earlier post here, I wrote about the importance of teacher advocacy for children as one very good reason for teacher tenure. This argument was brought home to me through a recent online discussion with a special education teacher in the Philadelphia School District. Apparently the District administration, then under the leadership of the infamous reformer Paul Vallas, was concerned that they were losing special education court cases because special educators were advocating for the children. The teacher reported being told this by a school district lawyer.

“You are NOT advocates for the children…You are advocates for the School District of Philadelphia. You can't advocate for the district and the students…You must always support the district. That's where your loyalty must be if you want to keep collecting a salary from the district.."

At another later meeting the special education teachers were told by a supervisor, “You are not to put anything that costs money into an Individual Learning Plan (IEP).”

So, according to the School District of Philadelphia, teachers are not to be child advocates, but rather good soldiers that (goose) step in line with whatever the District decides is right for the bottom line. And, god forbid, if a child needs a service that costs money to be successful in school, you are forbidden from placing that in the IEP.

Now, I understand that any school district, and certainly one as cash strapped as Philadelphia’s, needs to keep controls on spending. I also realize that special education costs can be a huge drain on a school district’s budget, but to attempt to bully and threaten teachers into abandoning their roles as child advocate in the name of some sort of misguided employer loyalty is outrageous.

What this comes down to is an object lesson in why teacher’s need tenure. Without job protections and in a climate created by the administration of the Philadelphia schools, who will speak for the children?

Healthy schools embrace input from all teachers. In my role as a reading specialist, I sat on many child study teams looking into students who were failing to thrive in our school. I was not only allowed, but encouraged to share my perspectives from my work with the child, the assessments I had administered, and the observational notes I had made. Everyone in the room, teachers, nurse, counselor, social worker and administrator were focused on what was best for that child. Sometimes I made recommendations that were embraced and sometimes my recommendations were rejected in the light of other evidence, but they were always invited. I never feared that my job was on the line because I advocated for a child from my own professional viewpoint.

This type of collegiality in the service of children cannot happen in an atmosphere of fear. Teacher’s make thousands of decisions a day for their students. Some of those decisions involve student advocacy. Teachers sometimes must advocate for an individual child in communication with a parent, with other teachers or with school administrators. At other times teachers must advocate for all the students in the class or in the ditrict when the Board seeks to cut programs or adopt policies that harm kids. The protections of tenure allow the teacher to serve this vital role. If a teacher does not have these protections, the children will be the losers.

Ultimately, the teacher is a special type of employee; one who needs a special type of protection to do the job well. Members of this profession serve two masters: the board of education and the children. Job protections allow these employees to make sound decisions when the needs of these two masters are in conflict.