09/27/2010

Teachers Have Plenty To Say During Televised Town Hall

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Teachers were the special guests at a Sept. 26 town hall meeting that kicked off a three-day discussion of public education on NBC, titled Education Nation—and the educators used the opportunity to make their voices heard on issues ranging from tenure and teacher evaluation to the need to make sure that all children receive a high-quality education, regardless of their ZIP code.

More than 30 AFT members, as well as AFT president Randi Weingarten, were in the audience at Rockefeller Center in New York City during the session moderated by NBC's Brian Williams, and many more teachers were able to participate online. In his opening remarks, Williams said that teachers are "a key piece of this [education] puzzle."

"Classroom teachers are the true education professionals, and we are not really being listened to," North Babylon, N.Y., teacher and AFT member Selina Durio said prior to the town hall. "So it's important that we use this opportunity to be heard."

The meeting's opening panel included Philadelphia Federation of Teachers member Bonnie Breese and Steve Lazar, who teaches at Bronx Lab School. One of the issues not addressed in the movie "Waiting for 'Superman,' " Lazar noted, was the mentoring and other supports that most teachers want and need. "Teachers need to have a host of skills" to be effective, he said, from classroom management and pedagogy to learning how to work with parents and the school's administration. (The AFT's "Not Waiting for Superman" webpage has lots more information on the new documentary film.)

"People really don't understand what we do in the classroom on a daily basis," Lazar said.

One of the most hotly debated topics during the two-hour town hall, whose audience was evenly split between teachers who work in traditional public schools and those who work in charter schools, was the need for tenure. Teachers lined up at the microphones to have their say.

Jeff Rozran, an AFT member from Syosset, N.Y., took issue with suggestions that tenure was no longer needed. Tenure, he said, ensures that teachers receive the due process they are entitled to. "If [tenure] is flawed, let's fix it," said Rozran, adding that the real problem is that tenure is not understood by the public.

Randi Weingarten with teachers

If there was one issue on which the teachers all seemed to agree, it was the need to improve the way teachers are evaluated. Evaluation, several said, should be used to help teachers improve their skills––not as a way of punishing them. An educator from Fresno, Calif., called for an evaluation system that includes peer review, noting that the best advice and guidance she's received has come from fellow teachers––not from an administrator.

While teachers need to have high expectations for all of their students, several educators pointed out that some kids come to them woefully unprepared and with deep-seated problems, often stemming from living in poverty. "Try as we do, teachers can't fix every problem," one participant said.

Weingarten applauded NBC for hosting the town hall and giving teachers "an opportunity to add their voice to this very important discussion" of how we improve public education.

"What we heard most of all was teachers asking to be at the table when decisions that affect their profession are made," the AFT president said. "Teachers also want to be respected and supported, and they want an evaluation system that treats them fairly." [Roger Glass]