In my years as a teacher and administrator, staff development meetings were unavoidable. They were often held in the afternoons or on Saturdays, and in too many cases were held for the purpose of meeting some arcane requirement or to put a check mark on some district to-do list. Agendas were rare, purpose was often vague, content was delivered by lecture or interminable powerpoint, questions were not encouraged and the primary purpose seemed to be for someone to make sure we put in our time. Most of the content in sessions like these could have been more effectively and far less painfully delivered in the form of an email, but I suppose that would have meant the end of a job for whatever “expert” was making the presentation and somebody somewhere would not have been able to document the hours teachers had spent in professional development. I remember a colleague that once noted “I hope my death comes during a professional development meeting, because the transition from life to death would be so subtle that it would hardly be noticed,” and more often than not found myself agreeing with her. There were those momentous occasions, far too infrequent, when a phrase or an example or a Great Truth was presented, where the audience raised their heads collectively from the mental stupor created by the anticipation of the stifling verbal assault we knew was coming, looked at the speaker and at each other and, caught off guard, almost as one thought “now that makes a heck of a lot of sense.” These moments usually came when the presenter was a practicing teacher, and they were almost worth the deadly boredom we had to endure to get to that one presenter out of every 50 or so that was knowledgeable, practical, experienced and mercifully brief.
One such moment came from a presenter whose name I have long since forgotten. He was the successful coach of a big time college football program, and made, in an almost offhand fashion, a reply to a question about discipline. “What you don’t correct,” he responded, “you are teaching.” Teachers know that to be true, but to hear it elegantly expressed by one familiar with the trials and tribulations of teaching was a momentous moment of shining inspiration. It doesn’t mean you have to correct a student harshly every time they make a mistake. Good teachers know there are better and more effective ways to make corrections without stinging words or tone that embarrass the recipient and almost ensure the result will be the opposite of the one intended. There are positive ways to say negative things, but the truth is that what we do not correct, we teach, and not usually with positive results. Failing to correct negative behaviors will always produce negative results.
Teachers have suffered long years of “reform” that usually goes with “we once again want you to do more with less.” Governor Deal recently stated he wants to “transform education in Georgia.” I maintain he has already done so. The Governor has led efforts that have imposed the junk science of VAM evaluation of teachers with no research that supports or recommends the method, yearly cuts to the education budget totalling billions of dollars, constant denigration of the teaching profession and teachers, the blaming of teachers for societal issues through calls for “more accountability,” massive layoffs and reductions in force to the teaching profession in spite of increases in student enrollment, significant increases in class sizes, the loss of art, PE and music classes statewide and for students at all levels, furloughs, reductions in the number of days of school for students and teachers and legislators that have in both effect and reality balanced the state budget on the backs of students, schools and teachers for the last six years. The Governor and the Legislatures’ collective efforts have demoralized teachers to the point that 44% leave teaching within the first 5 years of their careers, and the number of experienced teachers retiring early (those with 10-25 years experience - the heart of our teaching corps) has grown significantly during Governor Deal’s time in office. This is not a coincidence.
Teacher Retirements - 10-25 years experience
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
2483 2999 3559 3577 4107 3979 = 17,484
All Teacher Retirements
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
5564 6425 7168 7051 7929 7072 = 41,209
So what’s the Governor’s response to the coming shortage of teachers? First he proposes a 3% pay raise for all teachers. What he forgets to say is that there are still 40 or so systems that haven’t eliminated furloughs and most of the rest are still suffering from his exponential expansion of austerity cuts to school budgets, the continuing reduction of transportation money for students, the massive insurance increases passed on by the state to local systems for classified employee insurance, and the ever increasing financial burden for education placed on local districts by state abandonment of financial responsibilities. All those reasons mean that in spite of his threat to “hold districts accountable” for the raises he proposes, because of his prior cuts to education, they are not sustainable. He has also doubled down on his efforts to increase the use of public money for privatization and vouchers with the expansion of programs designed to further reduce funds for public schools. Add to that his desire to create a state run Opportunity School District with a Superintendent that reports only to him, his proposal to “change” (another word for reduce) the way teachers are paid and how money is allocated to schools and districts and it’s easy to see Governor Deal never met an ALEC initiative he didn’t like. Legislators seems not to have noticed the fiscal irresponsibility of adding another state run program to the budget, just as they didn’t seem to notice the austerity cuts that left schools and teachers - you know, the ones that need to be “accountable” - bearing the financial burden of those cuts. I remember one legislator from another state that remarked “money does not guarantee success, but the absence of money guarantees failure.” Would that he were from Georgia.
What has been the response of teachers to all this? Not much. We show some concerted opposition to isolated issues. The insurance scam a couple of years ago and the ideas about fiddling with TRS didn’t fly politically because of teacher opposition, and the recommendations to the way teachers are paid and systems funded have been delayed until after the election year, but what about evaluations and budget cuts and merit pay and a continued misguided emphasis on standardized testing? Teachers have managed to raise the grad rate in Georgia to 72.5% and struggled time and again to do more with less, and have been rewarded with the threat of more and more restrictions and reductions and restructuring. What you don’t correct, you teach. We keep electing the same people with the same anti-public education ideas to the same offices. What you don’t correct, you teach.
But wait a minute - look at all the success these ideas have had in other states. How about the state run school district in Tennessee…..oops. Not that one. What about the fantastic success of charters in New Orleans...no, maybe not that one either. What about the wonderful increases in school choice in Florida and their merit pay and increased academic success...OK, maybe not that one either. What about the studies that say that 83% of all charter schools perform equal to or worse than public schools? Well, maybe not that one either...How about all the studies that show that merit pay is a really great and cost effective idea that improves….nope, not that one either. What about the warnings that “VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model” and that “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” Well, maybe those groups just don’t understand real math. The American Statistical Association? What do THEY know about education and politics? What’s important to know here is that the goal of the folks that make the decisions about education in Georgia is not school improvement or student achievement. Their goal is privatization. Period. The use of public money for private educational enterprises and further crony capitalism.
So what can teachers do against these insurmountable obstacles? There are several options. First, if you are not of member of PAGE or GEA or GREA or BAT or GAEL or TRAGIC or all of the above, you are missing opportunities for information and support. This is not meant to be an all inclusive list, and there are other important groups also. Check Diane Ravitch’s blog or PAGE’s “Report from the Capitol” or GAEL’s monthly reports regularly for state and national information about topics concerning public education, and stay in touch with your local legislators. Be vigilant, be knowledgeable and be aware. Let your legislators know of your support for public education and your opposition to the efforts of lawmakers that support the privatization of education. Phone calls and emails have an effect on legislative votes. Make your voice heard. What you do not correct, you are teaching.
I would also suggest you join a local opt-out group. Standardized tests don’t measure what they purport to measure, they serve a political rather than an educational purpose and their real goal is the “gotcha” angle for legislators that want to privatize public education AND to make standardized testing companies and their lobbyists richer. Neither improves public education.Most importantly, be vocal be connected and vote. Many people hear the tired old “I support teachers” line from their local career politicians and far too often fall for it. Look at their voting records. If they voted for vouchers, the expansion of charter schools, the expansion of the special tax credit, the Governor’s austerity cuts or teacher evaluation using student test scores the “what they say” aspect doesn’t matter compared to “what they have done” angle. Ask your Legislators to sign the PAGE “I promise” pledge about not tying teacher pay to student test scores and to roll back standardized testing for Georgia students. That ought to give you a pretty good idea, if you didn’t already know, where they stand on public education. Most importantly, when you cast your vote, remember what you already know about teaching also applies to politicians; if you’re not correcting it, you’re teaching it. We’ve allowed it to continue long enough. It’s time for teachers to correct it. We are, after all, teachers. It's supposed to be what we do.