Thursday, February 17, 2011
Teachers as Targets Like most everyone, I suspect, I had a favorite teacher growing up. (Actually, I had a hopeless crush on my high school chemistry teacher, but that is another story and probably goes some distance to explain my very weak performance in her class.) My favorite was Mr. Parr, a history and social studies teacher and the 8th grade basketball coach. It's not an overstatement to say that John Thomas Parr changed my life. I was a pimply faced, shy, decidely underachieving, near teenager when I walked into his class. I was interested in history. He made me love it. I wanted to play basketball. He made me want to play for him. I lacked confidence. He gave it to me. I'll never forget making both ends of a one-and-one free throw opportunity in a game in Evanston, Wyoming. With 30 seconds left in the game, I couldn't even think of missing. I didn't want to disappoint Mr. Parr. I used to marvel at the way he used humor, a set of firm but fairly applied rules and his moral authority to handle anything that came up in class or during practice after school. Kids not only liked the guy, they wanted to do well - and do good - for him. He reflected his talents and personality back on us. What a great teacher he was. I've been thinking about Mr. Parr - he'll always be Mr. Parr to me - as I've read stories from Idaho to Wisconsin betraying an increasingly nasty undercurrent in the on-going debate over education budgets or, in the Idaho and Wisconsin cases, education "reform." Teachers as a class are getting hammered. Its both a shame and a major public policy mistake. In Wisconsin, new Gov. Scott Walker has proposed eliminating many teacher collective bargaining rights and in response thousands of teachers have descended on the state capitol to protest. Meanwhile Democratic legislators have walked out in their own protest. In Idaho, parts of the reform proposal focus on changing the way school districts handle contracts with teachers. I've yet to see a story that links improving classroom performance to changing contracts. In both states teachers complain about being left out of the "reform" discussions. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Arne Duncan seems to offer a more complicated, but perhaps ultimately better approach. At an education summit this week - collaboration, not confrontation was the theme - Duncan asked teacher unions, administrators and school board members "to take on tough issues such as teacher benefits, layoff policies, and the need for more evaluations of administrators and school boards, not just teachers. 'The truth is that educators and management cannot negotiate their way to higher [student] performance. The [labor] contract is just a framework. Working together is the path to success.'" I don't know if Mr. Parr was "ruled by a labor boss" over at the local teacher union. I never thought about what he got paid or the hours he worked. It was pretty obvious the guy loved what he did. Sure there are bad teachers out there. Gosh, I suspect there are even bad investment bankers, misbehaving members of Congress, even retired NFL quarterbacks who haven't quite measured up. There are lots more Mr. Parr's, too. Getting kids better educated and creating the workforce for the 21st Century may just require that we focus on the best teachers and finding ways to make good teachers great. I'd gladly swap all the educational experts for 30 minutes with John Thomas Parr. I'm betting the old teacher and coach would have some ideas. I'm betting he'd begin with the moral authority that goes with common sense.