Friday, November 21, 2014

The Real Hero Teachers

While the corporate education reform movement is waiting for Superman and beating the bushes for non-educators who will “teach like a champion”, every day in thousands of classrooms across the country the real heroes of public education are working to provide the best possible education they can to children with widely varying backgrounds and preparedness for learning, often in over-crowded and under-resourced classrooms and under the cloud of a slanderous public relations campaign that seeks to make them out as the villains in a reform fantasy.

Of course, the real heroes I am talking about are the classroom teachers, building principals, and curriculum supervisors who have studied education, who are certified to teach and who are not looking for a quick exit to a more lucrative career, but are in the game for the long haul because it is their life’s work.

I am thinking about these real heroes today for two reasons. First, I read a research report in the Teacher College Record that at first I thought I was going to like, but in the end made me angry. The study, by Stuart S. Yeh, looked at charter school programs like Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and Harlem’s Children’s Zone (HCZ) under the premise that  they “may potentially be very effective in closing the academic achievement gap.”

Yeh concluded that these programs were simply unsustainable when “scaled up and implemented nationwide.” The reason? This is where I started seeing red, so get ready. “The vast army of unemployed, highly dedicated teachers that is required to implement KIPP and HCZ on a nationwide basis simply does not exist.”

Not a flawed educational design. Not ignoring the harsh realities of poverty. Not hiring unqualified temporary teachers. Not skimming the student population to eliminate students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Apparently the numbers of available teachers who have the “right KIPP stuff” doesn’t exist. Especially considering that three year attrition rates in KIPP and HCZ schools approach 50%.

So, not enough hero teachers. That’s the problem. What constitutes a hero teacher for KIPP and HCZ? According to Yeh, a “highly dedicated teacher in these programs” works long hours, teaches Saturday make-up classes, gives students a cell phone number where they are available 24 hours a day, visits student homes regularly, fosters students’ college aspirations and dedicates a large portion of instructional time on test preparation. I wonder why attrition is so high.

For me a real hero teacher in a KIPP school would be a teacher who refused to drink the KIPP Kool-Aid, refused to abuse children with hours of skill and drill test prep, refused to implement the draconian KIPP discipline policies, resigned his position, walked out of the building and then started a blog to expose charter school abuses. I am thinking maybe GaryRubinstein.

The second reason I am thinking about hero teachers is because I had a chance to spend some time with some true hero teachers this week. In my capacity as a literacy consultant, I often get a chance to observe teachers at work. I never cease to be amazed at these dedicated, hard-working professionals who are always striving to improve their practice.

I am thinking of Ms. C, who works with a population of English Language Learners. She knew that her guided reading instruction was helping these third graders, but she fretted that they would not perform well on the new PARCC tests. The concern was clear in her eyes and her voice as we discussed the challenges that ELLs have in comprehension as they continue to work on their fluency in English. I tried to reassure her that her work was making a difference no matter what the PARCC tests might report.

And then there was Ms. F, working in a lively classroom of 28 kindergarteners. The joy of learning was readily evident from the enthusiasm the children showed for every task and also from the noise level that Ms. F struggled mightily to contain. It was a happy room and there was great literacy instruction happening. I saw one group of students taking some early tentative moves to apply sight words they had learned to real reading situations.

After school and after her challenging 6 hours with her troop of 5 year-olds, I happened across Miss F. as she held a hushed and concerned conversation with the school nurse about a child who was often sent to school unbathed and unkempt and arrived in class on this bone chilling November day with no coat.

And then there was Mr. M, one of those rare male kindergarten teachers I have a special affection for. I observed as he directed his little ones to a variety of literacy centers and then sat down for an outstanding literacy lesson with a group of children who were about to take off in reading. Every comment Mr. M made was supportive and on target to help the children develop both the skills needed to read and a sense of the joy of reading. As the lesson ended Mr. M said to the children, “You guys are so smart. I want you all to kiss your brain.” With that the children all kissed their hand and tapped themselves on the forehead.

These folks are the real hero teachers. The real hero teachers show up, day after day, year after year after year. The real hero teachers are certified to teach. The real hero teachers studied education in college and they apply that knowledge to the real, often difficult learning situations they encounter. The real hero teachers seek graduate degrees in education that will help them refine their teaching and they are open to the kind of professional development that can help them hone their craft.

Ms. C, Ms. F, and Mr. M are heroes, but they are not exceptions to the rule. They are typical of the teachers I have known and worked with over the past 45 years. Good, honest, hard-working, intelligent professionals doing the best they can. And the best they can is very good indeed.

The notion that there are not enough heroic teachers to replicate the KIPP or HCZ models is stupid. There are not enough of those teachers because the model is fundamentally flawed and it seeks to draw people from outside the profession, who may have a temporary commitment, but no desire to stay the course. These are not dedicated teachers, they are temps. You cannot build a lasting educational program with temp workers. You just need all the Ms.Cs, Ms. Fs, and Mr. Ms you can find. You’ll find them in public schools.