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The Best Defense


Why do unions defend “bad teachers”?  Why do lawyers defend “bad” defendants?

Peter Goodman asks these two great questions in his post, “In Defense of Teachers and Teachers’ Unions.”

Goodman argues that it’s about due process in both cases.  It’s about the right of the accused to meet his accuser in court and to defend his actions.  The role of unions, Goodman says, is to ensure that the rights of the accused are not trampled upon. 

Defendant I agree wholeheartedly.  The union’s job is to represent its members, whether the leadership agrees or disagrees with a teacher’s actions.  And good union leadership understands its role in protecting due process.  Union leadership may even admit privately that what the teacher did (or didn’t do) was indefensible; nonetheless the leadership is required to do their job.  And the school district’s leadership is required to do theirs.

During the probationary period a teacher can be let go not quite “at will” as Goodman suggests, but with a minimum of union intervention.  However, once a teacher is granted tenure, the teacher has earned a due process hearing. “Tenure hardly guarantees a teacher a cushy job for life,” he writes.  That notion, he says, is “nonsense.”  This is where Goodman and I part ways.

The process to remove a tenured teacher is long and involved and expensive.  The teacher is removed from the classroom, so the district needs to hire a substitute.  Now the district is paying two people for the same job (because the removed teacher still receives his salary).  There are lawyer’s fees.  There is the distraction from teaching and learning.  Parents are wondering what’s going on.  There’s no guarantee that in the end the issue will be resolved to either party’s satisfaction. 

Proving incompetence is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  In many cases supervision by administration may be spotty or nonexistent.   Even regular classroom observations may be politely vague about a teacher’s shortcomings.  Unless the teacher has committed a flagrant foul that cannot be ignored, it’s possible that there will be little on file proving incompetence. 

In addition, the idea of “progressive discipline” is foreign to school districts.  Districts may not simply reduce a teacher’s salary, give him days off without pay, or demote him (it’s all the same job).  So it’s all or nothing (save a letter in his file, perhaps).

Because due process is such an arduous issue, administrators need to take seriously their recommendations for tenure.  I understand that new teachers need to get their feet on the ground and need time to develop.  They need to be mentored.  But if you’re not seeing real progress and realized potential in 3 years, you’re probably not going to see it.

Second, administrators need to make supervision and evaluation a top priority.  Principals have lots of reasons that they don’t get into the classroom regularly.  But nothing is more important than the quality of teaching that goes on daily.  Principals need to schedule classroom observations and stick with the schedule.  They need to drop in to see what’s going on.  And they need to give honest feedback and opportunities to improve.  How does it happen, for example, that 91% of Chicago’s teachers were rated “excellent” or “superior” when 66% of Chicago’s schools failed to meet state standards? 

Goodman says that “jobs for life” is nonsense.  Unless supervision is a top priority, I’m not so sure.







Targeted Assistance

Diane Trim, an editor at Magna Publications, had a great idea:  20-minuted targeted educational videos.

Here’s the deal.  Teachers often need help with one specific aspect of teaching or classroom management.  Instead of spending a whole day talking about that one aspect (or talking about related or even unrelated aspects), the topic can be addressed in about 20 minutes. 

The topic is usually posed in question form.  How can I make sure students just “got” what I taught?  How can I engage students right from the beginning of class?  How can I get kids to work efficiently as groups?  How can I use volunteers effectively in my classroom?

There are 20-minute targeted videos for principals, too.  How can I use committees more effectively?  What can I do to promote a positive school climate?

The key to all of the videos is that they contain specific steps, specific examples, or specific suggestions of what the teacher or principal can do.  You’ll note that the key word here is “specific.”  And they won’t eat up your staff development budget either.

Image001-1  I’m so onboard with this concept that currently I’m in Wisconsin making a few of these 20 –minute videos (after 25 years as a school administrator, I ought to know something).  Example next week. Diane’s blog is found on Inside the School.

Also next week:  Look for a new feature on this blog -- Career Questions.  Teachers and administrators ask practical questions or present problems that are part of daily operations in schools.



Today's Agenda

Speaking of leadership, what’s on your agenda today?  Maybe observing a teacher, meeting with students, dealing with a discipline problem, checking with the bus garage, calming an irate parent, talking to the superintendent, reviewing test data, dealing with a bus referral, lobbying your local legislator, conferring with the union chief, dropping by the cafeteria.  That should take you to noon.

When you get a spare minute, it’s always interesting and informative to learn what’s happening at the state and national level in education.  Eventually some of it will trickle down to your individual school or district and you’ll have to deal with it in some way. 

For the most part, however, the daily leadership decisions of a school administrator are based on a mixture of school culture, district protocols, union contracts, legal decisions, precedent, time limits, ethics, your own experience … and heart.  Sometimes you have a trusted colleague to bounce things off of and sometimes you have to go with your instinct.  Sometimes you’re sure you’re doing the right thing; other times it’s your best guess.

This blog will be about the challenges and decisions we have on a day-to-day basis as school administrators. It will also be about opportunities we have to lead. Less theory, more practice.  After 10 years of teaching and nearly 25 years as an administrator, I know that leadership is more important than ever in our schools.  And leadership isn’t just the stuff of speeches and newspaper leads; it’s found in the examples set by school administrators across the country as they deal with issues like attendance, achievement, budgets and discipline.  Daily leadership will be the focus of this blog; maybe we can share our ideas and experiences for one another’s benefit.




Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.