Opinion: NYC Teachers Want Excellence Too

Education is my thing. I read everything I see about it. But I’m weary of seeing the same message over and over. Billionaire-funded education groups that aim to "reform" our schools seem to sneer at teachers’ experience, and support firing teachers using methods that are not supported by scientific research. They talk about us like we champion mediocrity.

That is far from the truth. 

I am the UFT chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School in Queens and, as such, teachers bring me their concerns. They email me, they call me, they stop me in the hall, and I answer their questions as best I can. From what I read, you’d think their queries were like these:

How can I be evaluated based on formulas and rubrics no one understands? 

Why can’t I be paid and fired based on student test scores?

Could you please get rid of tenure?

But I never hear such things.

Instead, teachers ask me when we’re going to get a contract. Having gone without a raise for five years, they ask me why we haven’t gotten the 8 percent raise given to virtually all other city workers between the years of 2008 and 2010. They ask me why the UFT agreed to have teachers judged by unproven value-added measures.

You might view such questions as selfish. I suppose I’m selfish too. I’ve got a teenage daughter I have to put through college and a raise would help a lot. But they also speak to the demoralizing climate teachers find themselves in. Facing the very real prospect of being denied tenure, or fired based on bad science, is not encouraging to teachers.

We hear a lot about putting “children first,” or being “4 excellence.” The implication is that teachers who want raises, decent working conditions or reasonable evaluations somehow don’t value their students or oppose excellence.

If you really place children first, you shouldn’t degrade working conditions for the adults educating them. Caring parents crave better opportunities for their kids. For my child, and for my students, I want job security. I want them to feel proud of their work, supported rather than attacked by the system that employs them.

All of my students are recent immigrants. Many have parents who work insane hours and multiple jobs. They too want better lives for their kids, or they wouldn’t have sacrificed so much to bring them here. I used to be thrilled when kids told me they wanted to be teachers. This job, I thought, could be a route to middle class, one they could reach via affordable city or state colleges.

Now I worry when kids tell me they aspire to be educators. I worry that not only will they barely make ends meet but that they’ll also be pressured to adopt teaching methods that don’t benefit anyone, not them and not the students. At least, based on what I’m reading, those are my concerns.

I hope the next mayor of NYC looks at what works, rather than the druthers of corporate reformers. I know a lot of great teachers, and it’s their voices that will inspire our children. It’s time we started treating them with respect, just as we want them to treat our children

Let’s create vibrant neighborhood schools. Let’s field-test standards before presuming to use them on public school students. Let’s use our schools to address vital community issues, like the health of our students and their families. Let’s staff our schools with smart teachers, led by experienced educators who believe in science.

And please, let’s once and for all dispense with the myth that billionaires fiddling with education love our children more than we do.