Opinion
Education Opinion

Walking in Teachers’ Shoes

By Walt Gardner — November 16, 2011 3 min read

It’s to Steven Brill’s credit that near the conclusion of his new book Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools (Simon & Schuster 2011) he reluctantly acknowledges that without the support of teachers unions systematic reform is impossible. I think what happened is Brill began to realize as he delved deeper into the subject that reform is far harder than he initially thought. As a result, teachers need unions to represent them as demands for results escalate. In fact, if unions were to disappear tomorrow, school outcomes would not significantly change for the better.

Nevertheless, we are incessantly confronted with claims made by theoreticians about the causes of the undeniable failures of so many schools and what needs to be done to turn them around. I’ve long believed that a prerequisite for publication of such essays should be classroom teaching experience. The argument made against my proposal is that one can be an effective coach in sports without having first been an effective player. There is some truth to that claim. But we are not talking about a handful of coaches but about 3.2 million teachers in 98,000 public schools with a population of 48.2 million students.

What might change the minds of public school reformers? I wish they would consider the following realities:

First, public schools have to enroll virtually all who show up at the schoolhouse door, regardless of motivation, interest or ability. This has always been the case, but never before have there been such high-stakes consequences. Sentimentalists like to refer to the Golden Age of teaching. But it never existed. When confronted with similar poverty and multicultural factors, public schools in the past were hardly paragons. In World Of Our Fathers (Simon & Schuster 1976), Irving Howe focused on schools in New York City, the principal port of entry for thousands of immigrants at the turn of the last century. His conclusion was that “the New York school system did rather well in helping immigrant children who wanted help, fairly well in helping those who needed help, and quite badly in helping those who resisted help.” This is far from an enthusiastic endorsement.

Second, childhood poverty affects learning in ways that lay people cannot possibly grasp. Once again, this has always been true, but the difference is that the rate of childhood poverty - nearly 22 percent - is the highest in two decades. Some will maintain that it’s hard to become outraged by a condition that’s been present for millenniums. But this view begs the question because whether a condition is as old as the hills doesn’t mean it should be minimized. Teachers are not miracle workers. They can do only so much to overcome the deficits that poor children bring to class through no fault of their own.

Third, inspired teaching doesn’t happen unless teachers care deeply about their students. When teachers are unable to post the results they want despite their best efforts, they feel personally responsible. As the number of students entering public schools from chaotic backgrounds increases, the rate of failure takes a toll on their personal lives. For example, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera cites the example of Jessica Reid, a talented young teacher at the Harlem Success Academy who suddenly quit because the demands of the job were affecting her marriage (“Teaching With the Enemy,” Nov. 7). I wonder how many other teachers fall into that category.

Finally, teachers unions are not the enemy. Although demonizing them is undoubtedly cathartic, it is ultimately counterproductive. Just as Randi Weingarten has taken a more conciliatory position, so too do corporate reformers need to rethink their reflexive antagonism. Maybe if more of them were to follow Atticus Finch’s advice in To Kill A Mockingbird to stand in another person’s shoes and walk around in them, they’d understand why unions are necessary partners who exist for good reason.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Recruiting and Retaining a More Diverse Teaching Workforce
We discuss the importance of workforce diversity and learn strategies to recruit and retain teachers from diverse backgrounds.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
Student Well-Being Webinar Boosting Teacher and Student Motivation During the Pandemic: What It Takes
Join Alyson Klein and her expert guests for practical tips and discussion on how to keep students and teachers motivated as the pandemic drags on.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Principal
Meredith, New Hampshire
Inter-Lakes School District
Elementary Principal
Washington State
Wenatchee School District
Principal
Meredith, New Hampshire
Inter-Lakes School District
Elementary Principal
Washington State
Wenatchee School District

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: February 3, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: January 20, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: January 13, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read