Deborah Lynch, a veteran of the classroom and union offices in both Chicago and Washington, D.C., voices firm opinions on pedagogy and the place of teachers in the educational universe. Listen to some of her views, culled from a July conversation.
The present reality:
“You’re in an overcrowded school, with a large class size and unfilled vacancies, so you never get a preparation period. You feel stressed-out, and nobody cares about your concerns—with no time to talk with your colleagues, with no say over what happens in the building, except how to use the annual $100 you get from the Board of Education for supplies. You hold no decision-making power. You have a system that says your test scores better go up, or they’ll put you on intervention. In those circumstances, it’s rough being a teacher.
“There’s this perception that bad teachers are what’s wrong with the public schools. That’s scapegoating. The implication that comes with reconstitution and intervention, reforms of the past board administration, is that if we sweep out the old faculty and bring in new improved faculty, we’re going to see results. That’s the wrong answer. The answer isn’t getting rid of bad teachers.
“In struggling schools, it’s much more complex. There are a host of issues with the schools on the reconstitution and intervention list. These schools are in the most impoverished areas of the city. They have social issues, and often a history of mismanagement. If you want to change these schools, don’t impose programs, but involve the faculty and aim for ownership and buy-in as to the solution.
“We need to be looking at the vast majority of teachers who are committed and dedicated. New teachers coming in and those who don’t know their subject well need support, but traditionally there has been none in this system.”
“Some local school councils are effective, and some are not. I don’t know how many might be under the thumb of the principals, but there have been
plenty of patronage-type situations. Basically, when you look at the 11-member LSCs, you’re talking about two teachers and the effective head of that body is their boss, and so it’s hard for the teachers to object to things.
“Many teachers view the PPAC [the teacher-advisory body to the LSC] as going through the motions. We must find a mechanism to give teachers greater impact.
“It is impossible, as well as impractical, to think that a principal with 100 faculty members … dealing with all different subject areas, could be as effective an instructional leader as many of our schools require.
“The role of teacher leadership should be boosted in the schools. I would like to see teachers gain roles around issues of professional development and school improvement. Actually, many of them are playing roles like that now, but whether their recommendations are heeded is often discretionary on the part of the administration.
“If we as teachers want to be part of the decision-making process, we should be held accountable, too. The problem is that now we’re being held accountable with no authority over decision making. That’s what teachers think is unfair. I’d like to see some kind of school-level cabinet where teachers could make key decisions.”
“There is absolutely too much testing. It’s on our agenda as a union to influence not only the amount of testing but the reliance on one indicator as to whether a student or a school succeeds. In my experience this last year [as an 8th-grade teacher at Marquette], the whole fourth quarter was almost lost to test-prep, the ISATs, test-prep again, the Iowas and then waiting for the results. The kids sweated it out big time because they knew their numbers would determine whether they would pass or not. All that concern and focus on one test score to the exclusion of so many other indicators of student learning skews the educational process.
“A lot of research on social promotion questions the board policy on retention, [in which low-performers are retained]. Kids shouldn’t be passed on when they can’t handle the material, but it’s not necessarily best to hold them back. I had 8th-graders in my class with
reading levels ranging from 4.7 to 9.0—that’s thirty-some kids with a four-year reading range. It’s tough to customize the instruction that each of them needs.
“I would like to see a much more flexible system, similar to Success for All [used at Marquette], where students can be grouped according to their instructional level and moved along as quickly as possible. That way, we could catch up many of our kids, in elementary school most of all.
“Having taught for the last six years in a 2,000-plus-kid elementary school, I know that large schools aren’t the solution. The depersonalization. The lack of teachers’ knowing the names of kids. Large schools don’t allow for a faculty to create a culture of supportive learning. A more personalized learning experience enables teachers to keep an eye on kids, especially in high schools, where it’s so anonymous.
“Everywhere we went during the campaign, people mentioned class size as a critical factor in low achievement. … How much of a reduction to make? Ideally, we’d like to see 20 or 22 kids in our primary grades, especially in the early grades and in poor areas. But even at the high school level, we’d like to see the levels down.
“I’m not saying that poverty is an excuse for low achievement, but it is a reason for investing in what kids must have to be successful. Because lowering class size will cost money, we want to take a very detailed look at the board budget. By front-loading our resources to the neediest kids, we’re going to save a lot at the remedial end.”
“A strike is the last thing on our mind at this point. You have a continuum of strategies that you use in negotiations, and the first step is to talk, create a rapport and open a dialogue. We want to get in there and begin a series of at least monthly meetings with the board team to discuss issues and develop an ongoing relationship, to catch problems when they are small. A strike is certainly off the radar screen now, yet you would not say you would never use the most powerful tool at your disposal.
“Coming from a school where we had seven vacancies until Christmas last year, the teacher shortage has hit home personally. It’s here, and it’s only going to get worse. We’re at a crisis stage. Half of the people coming out of Chicago universities can’t even come to teach in the city because they have suburban addresses. Changing the city-residency rule is one factor we may have to look at as we tackle the shortage. Obviously there need to be tradeoffs, but our first priority has to be to get a qualified teacher in every classroom.
The arbitrary powers of the principal would make it questionable for teachers to evaluate teachers—consider the harm the administration could use the information for. There is now a process where teachers do have input on the evaluation of principals through the local school council, but we’re going to explore ways to deal with administrative abuse of that. Merit pay hasn’t worked because it goes counter to the notion of professional community in schools. …Now, too many teachers are at the mercy of principals who misuse their power. The level of trust in this system is not where it should be to put these things at the top of our priority list.