Education Opinion

“Managing” Teacher Professionalism

By Nancy Flanagan — June 24, 2013 3 min read
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Twenty years ago, Michigan schools were in a funding down-cycle. Lots of belt-tightening and angry school board meetings with parents protesting transportation cuts and pay-to-play sports fees. I was finishing up my tenure (reign?) as Michigan Teacher of the Year. I was pink-slipped in the spring, but unconcerned; I’d been pink-slipped six times before--I’m a music teacher and music is always expendable in tough times-- and understood that mass layoff notices gave the district some flexibility. It also gave teachers a heads-up, should they be considering a job change, or retiring.

A reporter from the Detroit News called, saying he’d heard a rumor I’d been laid off. My matter-of-fact answer (“doubtful”) was unsatisfying to him. The entire time we talked, I could hear him typing, as he tried to make a sexy story--Teacher of the Year Loses Job!--out of a fairly routine staffing practice. I would welcome a story in any newspaper about the critical importance of music in the curriculum, or the value of experience in building a dynamic classroom practice. But that wasn’t the angle he was pursuing.

So I had an inkling of how the new Michigan Teacher of the Year, Gary Abud, felt when the Mackinac Center’s Capitol Confidential (speaking of sexy titles) came up with this one: Union Salary Schedule Ensures State ‘Teacher of the Year’ Earns Near Bottom In Pay. In response, Abud, who is in his sixth year as a teacher (a fact not mentioned by Capitol Confidential) wrote a reflection on his personal blog on teacher compensation, noting that excellent teaching comes first from the heart, not cash incentives. It’s a long, thoughtful piece that dissects recent teacher-pay legislation in Michigan, stressing that teachers must be at the table if new professional compensation plans are to be workable.

Then--all hell broke loose. StudentsFirst Michigan “re-interpreted” the blog as support for MI House Bill 4652 which removes teachers’ years of service and the achievement of many advanced degrees from being factors in setting teacher pay, instead determining salaries by improvements in student test scores. Nothing in this bill would give Gary Abud more pay, but StudentsFirst felt free to suggest that good teachers like Abud would support it.

Mr. Abud, who has been Michigan Teacher of the Year for all of a month, has officially been put through the policy and media wringer. It’s no wonder outstanding teachers back off from the education policy fray, especially if they have something--like their good name--to lose.

I congratulate Abud for not backing off from the skirmish. Several good pieces (see here, and here) have clarified his views and called out those who tried to take advantage of him--but the most important part of this story is that Gary Abud behaved professionally, claiming ownership and deep knowledge of what should be a teacher professionalism issue: compensation. He didn’t wait to be “managed.”

“Managed” teacher leadership is all the rage these days. It works like this: get a group of teachers together, preferably young and malleable practitioners. Seek grant funding (Gates is a good bet) and a fundable topic du jour (Common Core, teacher evaluation, teacher preparation, etc.). Give teachers a small stipend (commensurate with their tiny salaries), and suggest that they’re “edupreneurs.” Feed them a one-sided series of reports and research. Then ask them what they think. Massage and edit those thoughts. Voila.

The resulting book or report will fund any number of conferences, press interviews and subsequent grants. And you can say that the content came “from teachers.” It’s not genuine teacher leadership, however. It’s massaging teachers’ voices to meet a specific (and usually well-funded) goal.

Occasionally, a real teacher leader like Tony Mullen, the 2009 National Teacher of the Year will emerge, find a platform, and refuse to be managed. Thursday, at an American Institutes for Research panel on “Evaluation Reform: Finding Solutions through Teachers” Mullen called the managers’ bluff:

It was not until the sole teacher on the panel, Anthony Mullen took the floor that the specifics of what teachers are contributing to these policy conversations were broached. When [Teach Plus's Celine] Coggins asked how he'd been involved in policy, he said, "I've had very few opportunities to affect policy, both on the state and national level. I've repeatedly asked the state superintendent to meet with me and he has declined." The answer was clearly not what the moderator had expected.

Good for Mullen--and good for Education Week, for reporting accurately. Gary Abud, meet your role model.

Way too much of what passes for dialogue and scholarship around teachers’ professional work has been managed, packaged and sold as authentic. It’s not teacher leadership or advocacy. It’s slick marketing, using the friendly faces of teachers.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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