Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Matter of Principals

A lot of talk has gone back and forth about how to improve teacher quality, empty the rubber rooms, and solve the ATR problem. Unfortunately, almost all of the solutions involve firing 'bad' teachers.

Of course, 'bad' is hard to define and harder to measure. To me, 90% of being a good teacher is the ability to maintain discipline. You can write, or buy, the best lesson plans in the world but if students are dancing the rhumba on their desks and launching paper projectiles at you, good plans won't help.

Once you get the discipline down (no small feat, believe me), then the next step to teacher greatness is delivering those lessons. A lot of teachers with good discipline stink on ice when it comes to content. I pulled my own daughter from public school because she was going to be saddled with a teacher who had no discipline problems but also had no desire to teach the curriculum. This teacher was a diva, as I discussed here---a principal's pet who could teach whatever nonsense she wanted as long as it was flashy and reflected well on the school in terms of elaborate plays and multi-dimensional bulletin boards.

The third, and IMO, least piece of the puzzle is being engaging. It's wonderful if your students like you, but in truth, your job is to teach, not to be liked. Generally, if you have good discipline and you teach good lessons, your students will like you and be interested in what you have to say.

It's insane to believe that individual teachers have control over all these things all by themselves. Discipline, for example, depends to a great extent on the school. Teach at Stuyvesant, like our friend Matt Polazzo, where the kids are top notch and motivated, and the discipline is so easy that you have time to call for the firing your fellow teachers who aren't as blessed as you. I'd like to drop Mr. Polazzo into a school like the one I used to teach in--a school consumed by poverty and where gangs owned the neighborhood--and see how good he really is.

What gets lost in these discussions is how much principals can affect teacher quality. If we want to make schools better, we have to hold principals accountable in a number of ways:

  • Discipline starts at the top. It's ridiculous to claim that a teacher is incompetent when the school is out of control.
  • Principals should stop allowing Divas to infect their schools. Make them teach like everyone else does.
  • Since principals can hire whoever they want, they should have their feet held to the fire when they grant tenure to someone who turns out to be a dud. Principals have three years to evaluate teachers before granting them tenure or firing them. Teachers can be fired for any reason in that time frame.
  • Penalties should be instituted for principals who grant tenure to teachers who later are brought up on incompetence charges. It is extremely rare for a good teacher to turn into a lousy one just because they were granted tenure. What really happens is that teachers with tenure begin making more money as they get their master's and climb the salary steps. They become more involved in union activities and become more vocal--not the puppets they were in their probationary years. Principals often file incompetence charges against teachers who make too much or talk too much to suit them.
  • Principals should be forced to tell the truth at 3020a hearings. As the law now stands, principals can flat out lie at a hearing and there is no penalty. What kind of fair hearing is it when one side can lie with impunity? Principals who lie at 3020 hearings should be charged with perjury and subject to civil penalties for slander.
  • When it's found that rubber room charges were unfounded, principals should be penalized. Read the story of Daniel Smith and you'll know what I'm talking about. If it turns out these are trumped up charges, the administrators involved should be fired and hit with massive civil penalties.
  • Principals should not be allowed to flaunt the contract by refusing to hire ATRs in their schools. There are many--mostly--high quality teachers in that pool, despite the outlandish claims of newbie teachers like Ariel Sacks. Yet principals refuse to hire them, preferring instead to skirt the rules and costing the city millions of dollars and priceless teaching talent.
I don't want to make more of this than what it is. Some principals are a part of the problem, as are some teachers, as is the mayor, the chancellor, and {{{gasp}}} some parents. Unfortunately, teachers, as the most visible face of education, are the sole scapegoats when things go wrong.


NYC Educator said...

You address one of my pet peeves here--the myth that a good lesson plan is the best prescription for classroom control. I've long believed that a good lesson plan is the thing you need most after you establish control. Sure, it's possible without one you could lose control--but the best lesson plan in the world won't save you if you've got kids throwing desks out the window.

Anonymous said...

AT, Kudos again to you for your veracity in highlighting what are pervasive problems within the schools. People cannot continue to point at teachers only. Yes, I agree with you that we do have some divas or divos(male teachers) who feel that they can do anything because he fixed the principal's computer, or created these elaborate bulletin boards for showy-display purposes and passed as many students possible to please the principal. By making the principal happy the divos are guaranteed very, very few informals and a stellar formal observations. Tit for Tat! I want to state for the record that a majority of the teaching force are honest, hard-working, competent, know-their-curriculm and know-how-to-teach-it educators whose classroom management skills are evident. Nonetheless, there's a teacher at the school where I'm at with a degree from a super prestigeous university (can't mention it here) but the students are off the wall. Albeit, they're S.E. students, but another S.E. teacher with a CUNY degree has the best classroom management and his students are attentive, respectful and they are LEARNING! My point: hiring a person with degrees from these prestigeous universities (TFA, TFs) does not guarantee success in the classroom. Another issue that I take very, very personally is the fact that principals who have NO teaching experience have the power to grant tenure to teachers who truly might be incompetence but the principals wouldn't recognize what is best practice if they don't have the teaching experience. Hold principals accountable for granting tenure. Better yet, hire principals with over 15 years of teaching experience! Presently, the school system has CEOs running the schools not expereienced educators. However, I want to emphasize that there are newbies that are truly excellent and they deserve to be granted tenure, but principals (especially those that vindictive and insecure) who want the very high passing rates, or see the newbies as active members in the union, or these newbies are outspoken with respect to teaching and learning will become victims.

When perjury is used, is it only punitive towards the teacher? Why are principals allowed to flagrantly, with evidence of it, lie, lie, lie. Perjury clearly means the "willful giving of false testimony under oath". If Daniel Smith's case wins (I hope he has the best lawyer.), this will set precedence where principals will be prosecuted, fined, and terminated(hopefully)! Bloom/Klein have given this unchecked absolute power to principals and for some reason they think that means lie, lie, lie and no punitive actions will be taken against them.

AT, thank you for bringing forth truth so that many of us (long-time educators) can bring attention to the travesty in the public systems. It is time for everyone to be accountable even {}{gasp}}} parents.

Chaz said...

Mr. Talk:

I totally agree with you and I did post the issue about Principal quality on my blog previously.

However, the media seems to just want to blame the teachers,

Miss Eyre said...

Nothing but applause, as usual, Mr. Talk!