Curriculum Q&A

Is It Hard to Fire the Bad Ones? Authors Take on Popular Teacher ‘Myths’

By Kate Stoltzfus — February 05, 2018 7 min read
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“Teachers have it easy.” “Teacher activists are troublemakers.” It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher.” These common refrains, popularized by media outlets and public figures, had grown tiresome to education professors and former classroom teachers Crystal Laura, William “Bill” Ayers, and Rick Ayers. Their collective frustration over “sweeping assertions” about the teaching profession, many aimed at casting blame for education’s problems solely on “bad” teachers, got them thinking: How could they break through the noise?

In their new book “You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones!” and 18 Other Myths About Teachers, Teachers’ Unions, and Public Education, released last month by Beacon Press, the authors tackle what they see as the most prominent misconceptions about teachers, drawing on their wealth of collective experiences in the classroom and in education reform. They also spoke to many colleagues, asking what they thought wasn’t working in education policy and politics, and within schools. The result is an analysis of everything from teachers’ unions and activism to colorblind teaching to teacher-preparation programs.

For many years, Bill Ayers was a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is the author or co-author of more than 20 books about education. (He’s known also for his radical protest tactics during the Vietnam War, and for his relationship with Barack Obama, which sparked controversy during the former president’s first election.) Rick Ayers, who is Bill’s brother, is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco. Laura is an assistant professor of education at Chicago State University and the co-director of the university’s Center of Urban Research and Education. The authors have worked together since Bill was Crystal’s graduate professor at the University of Illinois several years ago.

The authors spoke to Education Week about how they hope to reframe the national conversation on teaching and learning and chart what they see as a more productive course for improving public schools. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Your book attempts to debunk what you identify as myths about the teaching profession. Why do you think there are so many misunderstandings about the field?

Rick Ayers: I don’t think it’s just confusion. I think it’s kind of a national narrative that has tentacles into a lot of broader issues. The whole narrative about teachers and education being problematic is a way to duck responsibility from poverty that is caused by so many other factors, from racism to housing to jobs. If we put all of our complaints into, “Well, kids just aren’t getting a good education,” everyone else is let off the hook. [T]here’s no effort to increase funding, to increase resources—it’s just like, “Education is bad, and that’s because teachers are bad.” It narrows it to a weird mythical bad guy in the whole social fabric.

You come at this topic as educators who are experts in topics from zero-tolerance policies to the school-to-prison pipeline to the politics of teaching. Every educator most likely has their own set of myths they would pick out about what’s true and false in the education conversation. Why did you settle on the ones you did?

Crystal Laura: This book was our attempt to craft almost a love letter and a sense of community among folks who care about young people, who care about the current state and future of the field of education, and want us to be more accurately represented in the public eye. We really wanted to accurately echo what we experience ourselves, what we hear our colleagues frustrated and complaining about. ... I tried to imagine this book as something that an educator could whip out in the heat of the moment. Somebody is talking lots of noise about what we don’t do, what we can’t do, what we probably shouldn’t do ... they whip it out and go to page 63 and get the support they need to say, “Uh-uh, actually, this is how we ought to reframe the conversation.”

Bill Ayers: The thing that [has driven] me crazy for a long time is policy that’s disconnected from kids in classrooms. The question that policy people should always ask themselves is: “What does this mean to a 2nd grader on the west side of Chicago?” That’s where we should begin policy, not from the idea of some rational linear model that we can then impose down in the 2nd grade everywhere. This is very much a book about reframing the framing we were objecting to—the one that talks about teachers but never with teachers, that wants to talk about units of profit and loss and not about kids who are breathing and trembling at the wheel.

Is there one myth that sticks out for you among the 19 as the most prevalent?

RA: The whole line that there’s a thing called tenure that makes teachers untouchable is really problematic, because really all we have is a requirement of due process. And teachers who aren’t working out can be moved out. We’re the only profession that loses around 50 percent of our teachers in the first five years. Why aren’t we looking at that? What is driving them out? What is driving them nuts? These are young, idealist, awesome teachers. If we were losing that percentage of doctors or lawyers in five years, it would be a national crisis. But they’re happy to grind through teachers with policies that eat them up and spit them out.

Let’s examine a few of the myths you identify, starting with the title one: “You can’t fire the bad ones.”

CL: Part of what we’re doing is complicating this idea of what it means to be bad. [T]his isn’t an individual problem. What we’re talking about is teacher preparation, support, professional development, the pipeline from teaching to leadership. We’re talking about the currents of policy and funding streams that will make sure that teachers have what they need to do their jobs. Every time people talk about individual choice or personal responsibility for actions, I always want to push back and say, every choice is made within a context. ... In what conditions of power and access was that choice made?

What about the idea that “teachers’ unions are the biggest obstacle to improving education today?”

BA: We’ve come to the realize that good working conditions are good teaching conditions, and good teaching conditions are good learning conditions. What’s good for teachers is actually good for student learning. [Teachers] want opportunities to prepare; that’s good for kids. Teachers want to be well-rested and not have a second or third job; that’s good for kids. All the things we want for kids actually make sense in terms of teachers fighting for decent conditions for work, for teaching, for learning. If you don’t like the existing trade unions, that’s fine with me, but then tell me, how do we get the collective voice of teachers at the table?

What is the truest thing you know about teaching?

RA: The truest thing I’ve learned about the teaching profession is that it is as beautiful and complicated as life itself. It’s the best job you can ever do, because you see miracles every day. There are very few institutions in our society where who we are and what we’re going to be are contested and struggled over and worked on every day. That’s why teachers are exhausted when they get home, but that’s why they’re on their toes. It’s an incredibly generative and powerful profession.

BA: My middle son [has been] a middle school math teacher for 13 years, and one of the things that’s so apparent from his early and mid-career is that teaching is bottomless. There are very few things you can do in this world that you say: “Every day I go to work with an intellectual challenge, and it’s ethical work. The choices I am making in the classroom have huge implications for the life changes of the folks in front of me, and I have to take it seriously as a moral, ethical challenge.”

CL: Teaching is about learning. Every good teacher is also a good student. I can see that in the creation of this book, in putting this book out into the world, that we as teachers belong to a community of learners, and that doesn’t ever stop. I’m thinking lots of other things, too: Teaching isn’t a business. Teaching is the highest calling. Teaching is hard as hell. Teaching is beauty. The most important people are teachers in my life, people who have this huge fount of knowledge that I’m going to be tapping into for the rest of my life.

Photo credit: Photos courtesy of the authors / Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.