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Monday, November 26, 2007

When Bad Teachers Happen to Good Students: Communication Is the Key to Change

With appropriate methods of communication and a collective voice,
students do have the power to make a change.
by Bernice Fedestin
published 2/8/2005
I'm sure teachers dream of the perfect student, but we students rarely
demand straight A's of our teachers. For us, the notion of perfection
doesn't exist. Some teachers are outstanding and obviously love their
work. They motivate us, and through them we learn to not only master the
material they present but also to love learning. These are the people
who make school fun and with whom we may stay in touch for the rest of
our lives.
Then there are the others. A painful few educators regularly appear
bored with their subject material, lecture constantly instead of
engaging students in intellectual conversation, or even seem to
specialize in classroom put-downs. A friend of mine at another school,
for instance, spends part of each day with a teacher who constantly
shouts "Shut up!" at the class. The teachers at this end of the spectrum
can be a huge problem, since even hardworking students who face
ineffective instruction can end up unhappy in school and incapable of
getting much out of their relatively short time in the classroom. True,
some students are hard for even the best teachers to reach, but for kids
who are serious about their education, dealing with a mediocre teacher
is nothing short of a survival skill.
We students actually have the power to overcome ineffective teaching.
Trouble is, most of us don't realize it. Even when we understand that we
can and should make a bad teaching situation better, we are usually
afraid to try. We may be worried about compromising a teacher's position
or being seen as a snitch.
When I find myself stuck with a problematic teacher, I first try to
communicate my frustration directly to him or her. Given all the
pressures of our day, both teachers and students can lose sight of the
importance of effective communication. There isn't anything wrong with a
student talking to a teacher about problems in the classroom, but a lot
depends on how you approach the matter. For example, talking with a
teacher about classroom manner or methods while other students are
present can make matters worse. It may seem like a public challenge to
the teacher's intelligence and authority.
But sometimes communicating about a problem is not enough to solve it.
No matter how tactful a student is, getting a teacher to change his or
her style may not work. In that case, it's time for school
administrators and families to get involved. Students have to get past
the idea that they are being a snitch. If we tune out the material in a
course because we hate the way it's delivered, we can miss out on
information that may affect our future. To facilitate discussion, both
administrators and families ought to privately ask students regularly
how their classes are going. Ask us for specifics rather than
generalities. Query us about specific topics and instructors instead of
asking an open-ended "How's it going?" This lets us know we have the
support of other adults with the power to influence change.
It's incredibly frustrating to feel that nothing is being done, or will
be done, to put an end to bleak teaching, and that we students are
powerless to make change happen. But that doesn't have to be the case.
When it comes down to it, there are many more students than teachers in
any school. Our collective voice can be loud, so we should be listened
to. We can influence change. After all, where would teachers be without
Bernice Fedestin, a senior at Brighton High School in Boston, was
featured as one of "The Daring Dozen" in our November/December issue.
She received a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to produce a
documentary about the curriculum disparity between suburban and
inner-city schools. Write to

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The Right Way to Oust the Wrong Teachers
'Peer Review' Addresses The Trouble With Tenure
Sunday, November 11, 2007; B08
The District's public schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee
mline> , recently made news [front page, Oct. 13] for suggesting that
she wants the authority to fire ineffective teachers. Of course,
students deserve good teachers, but any plan to rid the system of bad
teachers must be fair or it will be blocked by the teachers union or
further demoralize public school teachers in the District.
"We have to be able to remove ineffective teachers from their
positions," Rhee has said. The key question, however, is who "we" are.
For many years, particularly before collective bargaining,
administrators had the power to fire teachers for any number of reasons.
Parents who did not like the failing grade a child received would push
for a teacher's dismissal. Teachers who didn't toe the line of the
principal or who challenged his faddish educational theories could lose
their jobs.
Those who didn't vote for the right politician or who weren't of the
right race or who became pregnant could be let go. And in lean times,
more highly paid veteran teachers were fired and replaced with younger,
cheaper ones.
Over time, to address these abuses, states passed tenure laws for
teachers, and unions bargained for "due process" rights: the right to
have charges laid out when dismissal was sought and the opportunity to
defend oneself against the allegations. This right is at the heart of
unionism, and in 1968 teachers in New York City
mline> , led by the late Albert Shanker, went on strike for 36 days
after a school board in the ghetto of Ocean Hill-Brownsville summarily
terminated the employment of several white teachers without due process.
By the 1980s, however, Shanker and other leaders of teachers unions came
to acknowledge that in some school districts the right to due process
had been taken to an extreme, making it very difficult to fire
incompetent teachers. Shanker was willing to admit that there were some
lousy teachers, and he backed a compromise plan to weed out the
incompetent while preserving the basic idea of tenure: "peer review."
Under peer review, which is used in Toledo
, Ohio
<> ,
and other communities, master teachers try to help struggling teachers.
But if that doesn't work, the master teachers can recommend dismissal.
In practice, in Toledo and elsewhere, it turns out that teachers are
even harder on colleagues than principals are, because a fourth-grade
teacher doesn't want to get stuck with kids who haven't learned anything
in third grade.
Peer review would not be a cure-all in D.C. schools, where a large
number of teachers are seen as lacking. For such a system to work well,
only exemplary teachers should be placed on review committees, and peer
review programs to rid the District of the very worst teachers must be
supplemented by innovative programs to replace them with the very best.
But Rhee and Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker should
take a close look at the peer review model. Tenure should be mended, not
-- Richard D. Kahlenberg

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