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An appeal to Idaho teachers

An appeal to Idaho teachers

Mitch Coffman
March 8, 2011

In private, Idaho’s teachers will admit they're stifled at work. They live with the bureaucracy, lack of monetary reward and the “we’ve always done it this way” culture in exchange for being with their own children when they’re not at school and making a difference in the lives of many other children. Now teachers are afraid they won’t have even those things anymore because, they’ve been told, life after Superintendent Tom Luna’s “Students Come First” education reform plan will put their jobs at risk. I think teachers have been misinformed. The flexibility and freedom in the Students Come First education reform plan will improve teaching and learning in Idaho.

It is true Senate Bills 1108, 1110 and 1113 will fundamentally change the teaching profession. However, isn’t it about time? It’s a bit silly, but imagine what it would be like if Rip Van Winkle were to wake up today. It’s easy to picture his utter bewilderment at changes in medicine, travel, entertainment, communication, and so forth. Then, imagine him walking into an American classroom and breathing a sigh of relief at his familiar surroundings. What does it say about teaching and learning that the institutions and the processes are so similar to the way they were a hundred years ago? Whatever it may mean, it's not a sign of progress.

Senate Bill 1108 is "The Buck Stops Here" bill with "here" being elected school boards. In the same way an elected sheriff is the highest-ranking law enforcement official in a county, authority in a school district flows from the elected school board trustees because they are accountable to the public who can un-elect them if needed. Superintendents, principals and teachers are not meant to be free agents. Trustees are the bosses who are supposed to be in charge.

Elected school boards have ceded their authority, little by little, to teachers’ unions. It's taken forty years to get here with lots of volunteer, elected school board officials coming and going while paid, unelected union officials have stayed year after year. The end result has been self-perpetuating board-union master agreements that hamstring school boards and take away employee freedom. This upside-down world has been enshrined in Idaho code:

“Except as otherwise provided, (a teacher who has reached the third year of continuous employment) shall have the right to automatic renewal of contract by giving notice, in writing, of acceptance of renewal.” (I.C. 33-515(2))

“Shall have the right to automatic renewal”? How is that fair or even remotely reasonable? Why do we bother to elect school boards when we don’t let them run their districts? Once a teacher gets to year three of employment, for all practical purposes he'll be there forever. How many not-so-great teachers are just marking time because they know, short of truly scandalous behavior, they can’t get fired? Working with motivated people would have to be a workplace improvement for an excellent teacher.

The two-year rolling contract proposed in S1108 puts power back where it belongs and is a stop on the way to a public education system where teachers have flexibility and freedom. For example, many teachers would like to work and be paid for three-quarters time. But individualism isn't possible in public school teaching because teachers, whether they’re union members or not, are bound by their master agreements. If allowances for working three-quarter time, or permission to reduce benefits in exchange for cash, or other flexible work rules other college graduates enjoy aren't in master agreements, there's no way teachers can have them.

Many master agreements even have negotiated away the ability to negotiate, specifying only two or three terms can be negotiated each year. Limiting master agreements to salaries and benefits and allowing flexibility for other employment terms would mean teachers would be treated like professionals who are able to control their destinies.

Professionals know they are protected by law. A recent legislative testifier justified the teachers’ union's present existence by recounting that in the 1950s, her mother was paid less for being an elementary school teacher and then downsized because she was a woman. News flash: that happened not just in teaching, but in every profession – and it’s been illegal for more than a generation. In 1965 my mother was a professional pilot for a large airplane manufacturer. She had exactly one female peer whom I'll call Betty. One day Betty's boss told her to clean out her desk and go home because it was her wifely duty to work on her faltering marriage. (They divorced and Betty went to work for the competition, FYI.) Nonsense like that wasn’t fun for the people who had to live through it, but we now have laws protecting us all from employment decisions being made on the basis of race, sex, creed, religion, disability and other personal factors. It is ludicrous to claim teachers need a union to protect them from arbitrary firings.

Given the protections existing in law, it is reasonable to expect if one does a good job, one will continue to have a job. S1110, the pay for performance bill, goes a step further and provides if teachers do a better job, they'll be recognized for it with more than just a pat on the back and their principal’s eternal gratitude. If a school building’s performance improves, the team gets a bonus. Right now, that’s illegal. Why? I can’t think of a good reason.

S1113 is the technology part of Students Come First and ought to be called the "Why I Became a Teacher" bill. There is a myth that online learning disconnects teachers and students. In reality, teachers willing to embrace the technology become better mentors and guides as Idaho’s Pioneer of Teaching Award-winner Erica Haynes of the Idaho Virtual Academy has testified. She personalizes teaching through methods both synchronous (online real-time classrooms and chat) and asynchronous (customized learning software and email.) She watches her students interact in the online classroom before class. When she speaks with them on the phone or chats online one-on-one, she answers questions they may have been reluctant to ask in front of others. Most students already use technology to communicate with friends and entertain themselves, but S1113 democratizes technology for students whose families can’t afford the latest gadgets. Regardless of their background or the jobs they will have, today’s students will have to work with technology and not just play with it. Why not teach them how to be productive with technology while they’re still in school?

To my friends who are teachers: you may feel you’re being asked to step out into the unknown. However, nothing is being asked of you that isn’t already required of other professionals. You should be able to enjoy your workplace free of soul-numbing bureaucracy. You should be monetarily rewarded for your good work. You should use technology to be more productive, especially now when funding is going down and the legislature isn’t going to raise taxes. Yours is not the only profession being asked to do more with less. However, you directly affect the most vulnerable among us who don’t get a second shot at childhood. Have faith in yourselves and your ability to get the job done under real-world conditions. Idaho’s children are counting on it.

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