How 'Bout A Little Respect?

Learning, Organizational Change, Teacher Quality

I realize the only work-related issue in K-12 education that anyone wants to talk about today is the rumored jobs bill making its way through Congress — a bill that could, depending on whom you ask, either save thousands of essential teacher jobs or simply delay the need to trim excess positions out of a bloated bunch of state budgets — but I can’t stop thinking about a conversation I had last night with my brother-in-law, a recent graduate of the NYC Teaching Fellows program and a prospective Special Education teacher in a city that sorely needs them.
Now, without bragging, I can objectively say that my brother-in-law is an ideal candidate for someone so new to the profession — he’s smart, dedicated, talented, well-schooled, astute, and also well-aware of the reality of the situation he’s entering. He’d make a great hire, and it sounds like plenty of NYC principals agree — except they can’t hire him yet, and they may not be able to until the last week of this month, just a few days before the start of the school year. That’s because a huge slew of jobs won’t technically become available until then, resulting in a now-annual mad dash at the end of the summer, and a rather disorienting (and stressful) point of entry into an already-challenging gig.
I remember that feeling of disorientation well. Over a decade ago, I began one school year as an 11th grade English teacher in Manhattan. Then, over a month into the school year, I was given my walking papers when another teacher with more experience who had been let go from somewhere else in the city was “assigned” to my school — leaving my department chair with no choice but to tearfully let me go, moments after the final bell on a Friday afternoon.
I was stunned. I had just started to establish meaningful connections with my kids. Now I would never even have an opportunity to tell them what had happened. I would simply disappear.
I spent the weekend frantically calling around to see if other opportunities existed at such a late date. Amazingly (and disconcertingly), they did, and by Sunday evening I was on the verge of accepting a new position. Then my department chair called to say there was an opening in the History department. I could stay at my old school as long as I switched the students, grade and subject I taught. And so, over the course of two days, I swapped out a complete set of kids and lesson plans for another classroom and subject — five full weeks into the school year.
My point in all this?
As I’ve written before, we will not have meaningful change in this country until we invest deeply and over the long-term in the establishment of a true long-term teaching profession, and not a short-term teaching force. There are a number of key policy levers that need to be pulled for this to happen — and a few ideas we must avoid at all costs. But how about we get started right away by ensuring that teachers don’t have to wait until a week before the school year to find out where they’ll be working?
Teaching is the most difficult and rewarding job a person can do. Under the sorts of conditions I just described, it becomes almost impossible. Deep and sustained investments in teacher preparation will take a generation to truly develop. But letting teachers know ahead of time where they’ll work is an easy, and important, self-correction that needs to be made ASAP.