Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pay Teachers More?

I received an e-mail from a friend today asking me what I thought about this op-ed from Nicholas Kristof in yesterday's Times. And on first blush, I wasn't sure what to say. So since I'm always telling my students that writing is, among other things, a way to sort out what your thinking on a subject actually is, I thought I'd try a blog post about it.

It should be pretty obvious to say that I believe in paying teachers more. Mr. Eyre and I are working on buying a house, and it's depressing to see what we can afford in NYC right now. Mr. Eyre works in the private sector and makes what I always considered to be good money, yet buying even something modest in District 26 or similar seems out of reach at the moment. If I could match his salary, we'd be in much better shape. Although he hasn't been in his career much longer than I've been in teaching, he makes more than twice what I do. So I agree with that part of Mr. Kristof's argument.

I also agree with more rigorous evaluation for teachers. Putting aside the thorny issue of test scores for money, I'd be comfortable with being evaluated on the full spectrum of what I do as a teacher with evaluation from peers as well as supervisors thrown in. No decent teacher should fear a multifaceted performance assessment, one that examines classroom management, school involvement, parent and student relationships, common planning, and other aspects of the job. Getting beyond "S" and "U" would not, in my opinion, be such a bad thing.

I do have two points of disagreement with Kristof, however. The first is on acquiescing to larger class size. While a large class size might be acceptable and even advisable for highly motivated, well-behaved high school students who can deal with lecture and whole-class discussion on a daily basis, keeping class sizes manageable is a must for teachers dealing with higher-needs students. Teachers who have good classroom control with 25 students do not necessarily have good classroom control with 35 or 40, and the kind of work necessary to develop the absolutely essential positive relationships with higher-need students to bring them on board with the classroom experience is less and less realistic as class sizes inch upwards. Large class sizes in Japan and South Korea are realistic when discipline in schools is paramount and most students are either intrinsically motivated or firmly under a cultural mindset of reverence for education and teachers. This is not the case here. Perhaps a one-size-fits-all approach to class size isn't the answer, but safeguards must be in place to protect and encourage teachers who take on (in manageable numbers) our neediest children.

The other is inflexibility on work rules. When I think of teacher work rules, I think of the rule specifying that the work day is 6 hours and 50 minutes long (HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!!), or the rule that teachers cannot teach more than three consecutive periods, or the rule that teachers must have a duty-free lunch period every day. These are things on which I think it is fine for teachers to be inflexible. Teachers who care about doing their jobs well by giving students meaningful feedback on a range of assignments, taking on extracurriculars, offering students extra help after school, and planning engaging lessons need limits on their time that many principals cannot be trusted to respect. I can tell you that teaching five periods a day is exhausting, and it is even more so when lunch is a sandwich choked down while grading papers or filling in roll sheets, and it is even more so when I spend an hour after school tutoring or running my club, and that after all those things are done, I still have work left to do. I will be flexible about my work rules when I have an assistant teacher and/or secretary.

So that's what I think of Mr. Kristof's suggestions: Sure, I'll take more money. I'll even take it with some strings attached in the form of more rigorous evaluations. But not for more students, or more planning, and certainly not for more busywork like potty patrol or lunchroom duty. I'm already not sure how it's possible to work harder than I'm working now. You can't get blood from a stone.

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