Good schools have great teachers

Published 11:04 am Tuesday, July 1, 2014

When I returned to teaching some of my students asked, “Why would you leave a better paying job, to teach kids stuff they don’t want to learn?”

I’m sure they thought there was something wrong with my head. But my answer was easy. “I like helping people learn.” With children of my own, I also liked the reasonable amount of job security that went with teaching back then, in the 1980s, though I knew that I was taking a big chance, because that security wasn’t absolute.

I could mess up. I knew that in spite of all the criticism about how hard it was to fire a veteran teacher, it wasn’t hard at all. What was hard was being a good teacher — helping young people learn useful stuff and helping them learn to like learning.

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In the job I left, we helped manage about 50,000 state workers, and tried to get the best services we could for the people of Ohio from the employees, while treating them fairly. I knew very well anytime you were a public employee you definitely could be terminated, sometimes unfairly. I’d handled cases of teachers, hospital aides, drivers and others who were let go.

Most of them didn’t appeal to arbitration or the courts because they knew they needed to move on or they knew how hard it would be to win. The state, like school districts, won most of the cases and without great expense because we used in-house advocates.

The unions, never rich, in spite of corporate propaganda to the contrary, wouldn’t appeal a case unless it was a very good one.

I’d seen just about everything. Married women forced to resign because they were pregnant, a male teacher pressured to resign because he didn’t respond to his gay principal, and, as late as the ‘70s, teachers assigned according to race.

Teachers famously let go, like Scopes in Tennessee, for teaching the science of evolution or some other controversial subject. The biggest problem, then as now, was getting and keeping good teachers.

The pay was less than you could make most other places with similar college education — costing thousands of dollars per year for preparation. Most teachers only stay about five years, then go on to something less stressful.

Because getting and keeping good teachers was difficult, the legislature — acting years before there was a teachers union — passed laws requiring school boards to offer teachers, after three to five years of successful teaching, long-term or “continuing contracts.”

All it meant was that the teachers couldn’t be nonrenewed or fired without giving them the reasons and a right to challenge the truth of any charges. Most teachers never actually get a continuing contract — what is known as “tenure.”

School boards and administrators still decide what is taught, and how, using what books, to how many kids, and so on. Breaking any of the rules is grounds for dismissal. In the 1970s, teachers unions started helping teachers when it was clear they’d been treated unfairly, but teachers then and now can always be fired if they don’t follow the rules.

And they can be removed from the classroom immediately if they do something really terrible or threatening to the kids.

Now we have what amounts to a big lie by wealthy businessmen and their political allies to convince the public that America’s teachers are mostly failures, and that their unions are so big and powerful they can force school boards to keep bad teachers. They also argue that the best teachers are new, inexperienced ones and that more experienced teachers should be the ones let go when there’s a layoff.

All this would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. If teachers unions were so powerful, why would so many of our tax dollars be going to nonunion schools? Why would teachers allow themselves to be evaluated based on student scores using tests of questionable validity?

Good schools start with teachers who are knowledgeable, caring and creative. But what bright young person is going to want to spend five or six years in college, borrowing thousands of dollars, to work at the whim of sometimes capricious managers for modest pay and zero job security?


Jack Burgess is a retired teacher, former Executive Director of the Columbus Education Assn., and former Chief of Arbitration with Ohio’s Office of Collective Bargaining.