Teachers’ real value

From the March-April 2011 issue of News & Letters:

Teachers’ real value

New York–Politicians are clamoring to get rid of the tenure system for K12 public school teachers. They claim tenure makes it impossible to fire teachers, even those known to have abused students. The real motivation is financial: tenured teachers earning maximum salaries and benefits “cost” districts more than recent hires.

Many people assume that senior teachers do not have to prove “merit” and that “last in-first out” should not determine who is laid off. New York City teachers have to take both written and oral tests to get a license. They are required to take overly extensive and expensive college courses during their entire teaching career. Teachers can be observed by their principals and supervisors at least six times a year for three years before getting tenure.

Tenured teachers continue to be observed and still can be fired, but under due process, so that a principal cannot fire a teacher arbitrarily. Senior teachers have “merit” through years of valuable experience and they have been through a lengthy process of accountability. That is why seniority should be kept.

Teachers themselves say it takes at least five years of classroom experience to become truly competent. After four years, I felt like I was beginning to hit my stride. The next year I worked with a teacher who had 37 years’ experience. What an education I got! I marveled at her skill at presenting material and pacing the lessons to connect with her students. She could “read” her very challenging eighth-graders and could teach appropriate behavior and social skills along with academic content. Her repertoire of “looks” that silenced 25 teenagers in a heartbeat–priceless!

Just as valuable is the energy and enthusiasm of young teachers, their fresh ideas, tech savvy and their rapport with students. Until the real human value of teachers is recognized, students and society will continue to be deprived.

–Susan Van Gelder and Tom Siracuse, retired public schoolteachers

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