My mother is a teacher. She has been a teacher all my life, first at day cares and preschools, then at a family day care in our home. A few years ago, she began teaching in the public school district in Philadelphia. She teaches in an elementary school that is 96% black, with 95% of the children eligible for free or reduced lunch. The school is located in a high poverty, as well as high crime neighborhood. Children come to school with no supplies, sometimes no clean clothes, and often hungry. My mother and her colleagues often not only teach the children, but they feed and clothe them. My mother did not have to become a public school teacher. She chose to because she loves black children.
So when Joel Kline, the former head of the New York City Public Schools, and DropOut Nation, a blog that covers school reform, both criticized the NAACP for joining forces with the American Teacher Federation in their effort to close 19 NYC schools, I instinctively gave pause. Both sources made the claim that effectively said that the NAACP were “hurting black children,” who, in their opinions, the group was supposed to be protecting. The teachers’ union and the NAACP say the lawsuit is based on the fact that the City should be fixing the schools, rather than shutting them down. In their view, the City’s process of gradually phasing out the schools means that the students left behind inherently get a worse education than the students in the schools that replace the shut down schools. The City is also allowing charter schools – which notoriously do not have to hire unionized teachers – access to the facilities previously held by the phased out schools. The City argues that the unions and the NAACP is standing in the way of reform and meaningful student, and parent, choice, and that all the union cares about are teacher jobs. They consistently express their “disappointment” at the NAACP for failure to protect black children.
But aren’t black teachers black too?
I just sayin’, even if the NAACP was in the lawsuit to protect teacher jobs, I wouldn’t be mad. My mother teaches because she loves children. But lately – actually, for a long time now – teaching has become a thankless job in this country, and quite frankly, I want her job to be protected. In Philadelphia, the top teacher salary is a mere $84,000 – and people want to talk about decreasing that based on student “achievement”? Philadelphia is in the 5th quintile in both total student and instructional spending per student as compared to the wealthier suburbs that surround it. When I talk to my mother about the challenges of teaching today, her concerns are not those of people who do not want to be held accountable, but of those who want the job to be fairly assessed, and fairly paid. Getting a degree to teach is not cheap, and to make it to the top salaries requires more than a bachelor’s. Student loans eat into that salary, and taking care of the needs of your students eats into that as well. Teachers in urban schools rarely have the technology – or training – to adequately keep up with this digital generation, to teach them using their own digital language. Teachers deserve some job protection from the tyranny of a system that does not always give them the things they need to be successful in the classroom. Strong union protection is key; it would be unjust to allow the system that is supposed to support them be the same system that can throw them away without due process.
I understand the want and the need, actually, to find a scapegoat for this educational crisis we are in. And teachers seem like a convenient one. But despite Waiting for Superman and Joel Kline and DropOut Nation, I really think we are wrong on this one. Teacher’s unions are not the bad guys. In fact, they are the ones with what I think is the right answer, even if they don’t know it.
If we all can agree that every child needs a great teacher, then what can we do to get great teachers? Incentives do not only work once a person is hired; they work best in order to get people in the door. Most educational researchers are coming to the conclusion that what really matters is teacher salaries. Increase starting salaries and pay grades to attract the best and brightest to the profession. Spend money to train and support them in their jobs, including equalize funding and expenditures between school districts and schools. Then sure, have some pay-for-performance incentives. Close failing schools. Make charter schools want the same teachers public schools have.
But fighting the teachers, and especially demonizing black teachers, just isn’t right. These are the people we will depend on, even once the battles are fought, to educate our children. I firmly believe that 95% of teachers really want the best for children. But the system has not been kind to them. I have to say that I’m with the teacher’s union. I support black teachers (and my mom.)