In a speech today, Randi Weingarten said, “The further away from the classroom, the more authority someone seems to have over teachers’ work. That makes no sense.”
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

Are we killing soul of teaching with treatment of educators?

Union leader says teachers told to leave their ideas, imagination and initiative at schoolhouse door

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten gave a wide-ranging speech this morning focused on the disinvestment in public education and the deprofessionalization of teaching. 

“This deprofessionalization is killing the soul of teaching,” said Weingarten. “Teachers meet students where they are, and teachers should have the freedom to find ways to get them to where they need to go.” 

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Weingarten’s speech capsulized many of the concerns being raised by teachers in Georgia, from aging schools with leaking roofs and dangerous mold to scripted lesson plans and mandated pacing that strip teachers of the ability to determine what their students need.

Among the highlights of her speech, which I listened to via livestream:

“Teachers often have classes so large they can’t engage with every child every day,” said Weingarten. She cited the many obstacles teachers face in their schools and the scant resources given to them to overcome those obstacles.

“How about copy machines with some paper? Every school should have wrap-around and enrichment services, so we are meeting every child’s needs. Often, resources are so limited we are grateful for a part-time school nurse, overworked counselors and cast-off athletic equipment.”

Weingarten wondered why we never ask teachers what they need to do their jobs to best enable student success and then design education policy, funding and school structures around those responses. 

Citing the frequent complaint that teaching isn’t attracting the best and the brightest college graduates, she provided a possible cause. “When teachers start working, they find all too often that they don’t get to make consequential decisions. They are simply told to check their ideas, their imagination and their initiative at the schoolhouse door.”

On who runs schools, Weingarten said, “The further away from the classroom, the more authority someone seems to have over teachers’ work. That makes no sense. Do we really want teachers to have to close the classroom door and hope that no one catches them doing what they think is best for students? We should be unleashing teacher talents, not stifling them.”

“Top-down control trumps all else...The assumption should be that teachers, like other professionals, know what they are doing, Teachers should be able to be creative, take risks and let students run with an idea,” she said. 

She said research shows the most powerful learning often blossoms in electives and after-school activities where teachers have more freedom. “Why do we free teachers to run with their ideas after 3 p.m. and rein them in during the school day?”

Next week, the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education will hold a forum about the whether we have enough candidates in the teacher pipeline. It will feature University of Pennsylvania researcher Richard Ingersoll, whose work on teacher retention was cited by Weingarten in her speech. Also on the GPEE panel will be Susan Lynn, Chair, Division of Education, Thomas University, Ron Wade, Chief HR Officer, Fulton County Schools, and Judi Wilson, Dean of Education, Augusta University. I plan to attend and will post about the discussion.

To develop a culture of collaboration in our schools, Weingarten said: 

Build more teacher time into school schedules, in addition to individual prep periods, to observe colleagues’ lessons, to look at student work, and to plan collaboratively.

Trust teachers. Develop policies—from the school board to the principal’s office—with teachers, not to teachers

Develop policies—from the school board to the principal’s office—with teachers, not to teachers

To create and maintain proper teaching and learning conditions, she said:

Ask teachers what they need to do their jobs so their students succeed, use their answers as the basis of an audit of teaching and learning conditions, and then integrate the results into assessments of the district. Ask principals, parents and students as well. 

Act on those audit results—through legislation, lobbying, collective bargaining and, if necessary, school finance lawsuits.

To empower real teacher voice, she said: 

Give teachers the latitude, when they are asked—or told—to do something, to ask two fundamental questions: What is the purpose of what I am being told to do? And how does that contribute to teaching and learning?

Respect teachers by giving them the latitude to raise concerns and act in the best interests of their students without fear of retaliation.

Weingarten shared statistics on teacher attrition. There were 110,000 fewer teachers than needed last year; enrollment in teacher prep programs fell nearly 38 percent between 2008 and 2015; and nearly 300,000 teachers leave the profession every year, with attrition higher than in nursing, law, engineering or architecture, she said.

In her call for more freedom in public schools, Weingarten noted she had not referenced Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos “particularly because she invokes word freedom at every turn. What she calls freedom is rebranding her agenda of defunding and destabilizing public education.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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