Thursday, April 14, 2011

Teaching Profession

The focus of this blog is environmental geography, broadly conceived. As a teacher and a teacher of teachers, however, I include occasional observations about the noble but much-maligned profession.

Today's Letters to the Editor in the Boston Globe included an excellent letter from retired teacher David Amirault. I am taking the liberty of including the full text, since letters often disappear from news sites after a while, and I consider this a "keeper." 
I CAN’T imagine any reputable airline asking pilots to help out at the ticket counter or assist in serving drinks. I’ve never heard of a hospital assigning physicians to empty wastebaskets or provide building security between appointments.
Yet every day we see teachers heading out to recess or bus duty, keeping order in the cafeteria, and policing corridors and bathrooms. Maybe this model made sense at one time, but it doesn’t take an honor student to see something wrong with the current picture.
While the movers and shakers of school reform expect ever-increasing student test scores and seem to value linking teacher pay to “merit’’ (whatever that is), then isn’t it time to look seriously at the efficiency of how we use a teacher’s time?
Expectations for teachers in 2011 should include a significant reduction in housekeeping tasks. Planning, conferring, and research during non-instructional time seem more likely to aid teachers in helping kids than having to deal with the daily hassles of nonprofessional duties.
David Amirault Amesbury 
At a time when professional educators are constantly buffeted by self-appointed experts, many of whom seek positions of management over public servants, even though they disdain public service. Small-government zealots insist on "accountability" and then create large-government bureaucracies in vain attempts to measure the unmeasurable.

Some of the online comments are generally supportive and offer a few interesting considerations. For example, in small markets, airline pilots do take on more mundane tasks. Some of the non-classroom duties do also provide teachable moments. As someone who spends a lot of time in schools of all sizes, I think scale matters. In some schools, lunch or bus duty is large-scale, rushed, and chaotic, and should be treated as a specialty of its own. If time and space allow for more leisurely lunches and transition times, classroom teachers may well make constructive use of the time.

The key is to respect both the classroom professionals who need time for preparation, research, reflection, and renewal and the work of people who are sometimes called "paraprofessionals" and whose contributions are equally important to productive learning environments.

The letter also reminds me of other comparisons I make between educators and other professionals. Extreme caution with respect to student privacy, for example, puts professors in the role of physicians who are not given a patient's file. Cavalier administrations that exclude faculty from policy decisions put professors in the role of law partners whose firm has been taken over by an outside agency.

Teachers whose preparation time is not valued are like actors given no time for rehearsal. Jack Nicholson is among Hollywood's most prolific actors (and one of my favorites). His filmography lists "only" 75 credits over a 50-year period, and even when he stars, he is "only" acting about half of the running time of each film. Would anybody seriously argue, though, that Jack works only an hour or two a year?

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