Sunday, September 16, 2012

Teacher envy

I can just imagine the conversations that have taken place over dinner tables across the country last week as members of the Chicago Teachers' Union dropped their class planners to walk the picket lines.

Teachers -- who have been tearing at their hair trying to juggle more of everything: More students, more test requirements, more political assaults against their entire profession – are probably watching with great lumps in their throats, hoping beyond hope that what this union has to teach will not be wasted on the electorate.

They can not be the scapegoats of a system gone awry.

It's quite an obstacle to overcome. Those who feel, as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel evidently does, that the strike is the result of union-bloated educators choosing to extend their beach time by flexing their collective muscles and kicking sand in the faces of innocent children and beleaguered parents, are a vocal bunch who tend to weigh consequences with a thumb on the scale.

Take for instance Dr. Stephen Perry, principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, a Connecticut specialty school within the Hartford Public Schools system, whose complaint on Twitter Monday was repeated more than 1,000 times in 24 hours:

The Average Chicago teacher makes over $70,000 for a 5.5 hour workday, 183 year, 20 paid days off, 14 wks vacation @ they're striking? Wow.”

On the surface, and coming from a principal of a seemingly successful magnet school, the criticism seems appropriate. Take away the master's degrees and PhDs and for sure $70K sounds like a lot. Especially when, for so many people in this country, wages have been stagnant, jobs have been scarce, security is precarious and fewer and fewer people enjoy the protections of a union.

Who wouldn't be envious?

But I don't necessarily find it hard to argue with Dr. Perry's logic: For instance, I don't know any full-time teacher who puts in only a 5.5-hour workday. Instead I know teachers who prepare classrooms and lesson plans and enrichment as well as correct homework well after the bell has released their students. I know teachers who have purchased school supplies for those who had none and gone out of their way to figure out solutions to other problems as well. For sure I've known bad teachers, too. But more so I've known teachers with increasing class sizes, decreasing numbers of classroom aides and an ever widening chasm of aptitudes.

And now they're being judged on an arbitrary number – Student test scores.

Perry's own credentials seemingly boast the primrose path of achieving excellence simply by expecting excellence.

His school's website touts an impressive 100-percent graduation rate, including a 100-percent four-year-college acceptance rate. Some may say that's easy to do when your graduating class is only a tiny fraction of the district as a whole.

And in Chicago, the third largest school district in the country, class sizes can get pretty big – take a kindergarten class with a student/teacher ratio of 43 to 1. (New York Times).

I actually stopped breathing for a second when I read that figure.

Capital Prep's class ratios are considerably smaller. More like 18 to 1 from what I could figure.

In fact, I can't imagine more than 40 primary school students in one classroom with one teacher. I've tried. It ends in chaos.

I think about my son's kindergarten class and double it. I try to calculate all the problems you'd expect to find with new learners: There are four-year-olds as well as young five-year-olds; there are those who've never been to preschool and those who can't focus let alone follow directions. Those who don't speak the language are also counted. I move on to all the things I don't want to calculate: Kids whose families might be food insecure or homeless; or who are dealing with custody orders, orders of protection, alcoholism, drug addiction or abuse … not to mention all the surprises the teacher might learn as the year progresses.

In our case, things like refusing to walk on the ground when it rains … lest their shoes become squeaky.

In Chicago teachers deal with all these and worse. Murdered students.

Honestly, I don't envy teachers.

Perhaps policymakers shouldn't either.

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