Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Response to Angelo Persichilli

As a former teacher now enjoying his fifth year of retirement, there are several contentions in Angelo Persichilli's column, 'Public sector unions serving up a juicy issue' (January 9) with which I must take issue.

Persichilli's general thesis, hardly fresh, is that those working in the public sector are both coddled and protected by their unions. More specifically, he endorses the idea, recently resurrected by B.C. Liberal leadership hopeful Kevin Falcon, that teacher salary increases should be tied to student performance. The columnist readily dismisses B.C. Teachers President Susan Lambert's criticism of the notion as “a destructive idea that doesn't bode well for public education” and asks, 'Why can every profession be evaluated but teaching?”

Both his dismissal and his question deserve to be addressed. First, his implied equation that good teaching=good student performance is flawed. While I never regarded myself as an extraordinary teacher, 30 years of experience in the classroom taught me several truths, perhaps the most important one being that no matter what learning environment I provided, it was still ultimately the students' choice to either accept or reject what I offered. While that would seem to be a self-evident truth, it frequently gets lost when the discussion of remuneration for results is raised.

There will always be, as we used to sardonically describe them, 'difficult to serve clients,' students who have no interest in school and are there only due to parental pressure, provincial legislation, or the fact that they have nothing better to do during the cold winter months. While this may appear cynical and counter to the current orthodoxy which asserts that every student can achieve, it is a truth that few experienced educators would deny. How could I ever convince Jason, for example, whose main interest seemed to be drugs and girls, that education was his key to a successful future, and that what schools offer have real value? Or what about Janine, who, owing to an abusive family background, saw adult authority figures as untrustworthy and not to be respected? Indeed, were salaries tied to student performance, how many teachers would want to face the challenges presented by a class of such students, knowing that their ability to make a living was tied to the academic results they obtained?

Conversely, there are always those classes with students whose motivation, focus, and ready engagement with the subject matter ensure a vital atmosphere that is a joy to work within. What teachers, knowing that their livelihoods would be enhanced, would be reluctant to instruct such self-directed learners? Because such an academic environment almost guarantees good results, would that really be a good method by which to gauge a teacher's effectiveness and salary?

Persichilli's second question, “Why can every profession be evaluated but teaching?” deserves to be addressed as well. Implied in the question, indeed, in the entire article, is that teacher unions are somehow defenders of the incompetent and that educators are not bound by the rules constraining mere mortals. While there is some truth in his observation that “less qualified and ineffective teachers are shuffled around the board and thrown into class after class where their students learn nothing,” readers may be interested to know one of the key reasons for such unethical practices.

First, under provincial legislation, teachers are required to be evaluated on a regular basis, usually by senior administration, i.e., principals and vice-principals. The reality of administering schools today inevitably means that many assessments are either rushed or not conducted at all, owing to time constraints. While few would argue that having first-rate teachers should be the highest priority for a school, administrative politics and career ambitions that require networking, keeping current with the pedagogical 'flavour of the month,' meetings with disgruntled but influential parents, etc. etc. often take precedence, leaving principals little time to be the 'principal teachers' the term once meant.

My friend Dom, also a retired teacher, long ago summed up a large part of the problem when he said, “Lorne, administrators just don't want to do their jobs.” He was alluding to the hard work involved in rooting out bad or incompetent teachers. Rightly, federations have contractual procedures in place to prevent the arbitrary dismissal of teachers; a detailed series of steps must be completed, including offering opportunities for remediation, before a teacher can be dismissed for incompetence. Given the above-mentioned constraints, few administrators are willing to invest the time needed to complete those steps, which can hardly be deemed the fault of teacher federations.

Therefore, to base teacher remuneration on student achievement, while for some a beguilingly attractive expedient, is a shortsighted notion that ignores the complexities and dynamics of today's classroom. If implemented, it will not be the panacea that vote-seeking politicians would have the public believe it to be.

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