Sunday, May 15, 2011

Caroline Lewis speaks out on the teaching profession ... by gimleteye

Caroline Lewis is the inspirational teacher and leader who created the Fairchild Environmental Challenge. Her capricious termination by an insular garden president, Bruce Greer, and a cosseted, oblivious board provoked community outrage in 2009. Fairchild sits on an endowment of more than $20 million, but it was the nexus of environmental education and the industrial and polluting agricultural practices of some board members that triggered her termination (see our archive, under Fairchild, for details and my post, yesterday, on "Money is Truth" for another facet of the same issue.)

I owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Lewis. When she was a teacher in middle school, Ms. Lewis single-handedly saved my son who, as a dyslexic, would otherwise have slipped through the cracks of an educational institution that made no accommodation for his skills. You can't measure the perception or combination of traits that create teaching excellence. When Ms. Lewis writes about the teaching profession, she writes from the authority of significant understanding and personal achievements. Good for the Miami Herald, for printing her OPED.

Unleash the Superman, Superwoman in teaching


I saw a young protester’s sign recently that read: “Don’t make me regret becoming a teacher!” and my heart broke into smithereens.
If you are tuned into the economic, social and political debates swirling around education and the teaching profession, it should be alarmingly clear that we are losing ground, a lot of ground.

I know the education reform movement has committed people at the table and that public, private and philanthropic leaders are invested in improving education, and, at the very least, are asking the right questions. But there is tremendous damage being done in the current public demoralization of the teaching profession. Federal and state budget cuts are rapidly approaching worst-case scenarios, with no easy solutions, and the political, economic and social assault on the teaching profession intensifies.
Alas, the quality of the American teaching pool will diminish — rapidly. It’s not just harder to attract the brightest and the best; it is also that, understandably, the good ones, the effective ones are prematurely leaving or considering leaving the profession.
We are witnessing the demise of a profession that wooed me significantly. Becoming a teacher, despite a brief coup attempt by family to divert me to the medical profession, is the best decision I ever made. Teaching gave me a sense of pride, purpose and meaning throughout my 30-year career in education.
For 22 years I was a teacher and principal at excellent schools in Trinidad, New York and Miami. Then, for eight years, I directed education programs at a botanic garden, creating opportunities, like the Fairchild Challenge, to engage tens of thousands of urban youth and their teachers in current environmental issues. That program’s design provoked and inspired engagement, and celebrated participants, and I watched in awe as interest in learning and pride in the teaching profession grew before my very eyes.
Teachers, across disciplines and by the hundreds, many overworked, exhausted, denied raises, and demoralized, clung to the program and seized opportunity after opportunity to engage their students in meaningful, creative, open-ended learning. This response taught me a great deal about the power and importance of inspiration, motivation and celebration in promoting effective teaching and empowering teachers.
I believe we need to inject a major dose of respect, inspiration and appreciation in the current debate. Budget decisions will get tougher, but we must extol, not vilify, the teaching profession. To that end, I appeal to leaders to:
• Respect the profession. Criticism about teachers’ salaries cannot be focused on the poorest performers. Give principals and administrators power and training to use due process to terminate ineffective teachers. Accept what constitutes a livable wage for a professional, and do not play the alarm game with benefits. According to a McClatchy News Service report, state and local pension contributions approximate the burden shouldered by the private sector. The bottom line is, whatever we are paying our effective teachers is not enough. I argue that most teachers are effective or can be effective, if motivation and talent are not constantly compromised.
• Do not over-measure the profession. In the era of quantifiable outcomes, we are starting to appreciate only what we can measure. Effective teaching is very nuanced, and its reality is not readily captured in snapshots. There is an abundance of misdiagnoses when everything is quantified. Like it or not, some degree of subjectivity is involved. It is common to informally (and quite accurately) determine effective teaching by what kids say about their teachers anecdotally, not by how students perform in classes. Rather than focusing only on measuring performance, let’s focus on motivating and inspiring teachers to be effective. It helps reset the clock in selfless teachers, arguably a majority trait in this profession.
• Define the profession. Attracting and retaining more effective teachers will require us to re-market the profession, paying close attention to the first two appeals. We need leaders to speak up, especially those who are earnestly seeking to improve education, identifying problems and promoting working solutions. We need you to silence the political, economic and social assault on the teaching profession, and champion teachers, the majority of whom are wonderfully dedicated, good-to-great professionals. Let’s extol, not vilify.
Let’s unleash the superman/superwoman in those who are mediocre teachers to make them good teachers, in the good teachers to make them great teachers, and in the great teachers to keep them motivated and validated. Let’s make every good teacher want to stay in the profession, forever.
Caroline Lewis is an education consultant in Miami.

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TerreG said...

My grandson has always wanted to be an elementary school teacher and is now majoring in elementary education. I hope that when he graduates the status of his chosen career will have been elevated substantially. Remember the phrase: If you can read this, thank a teacher!

Anonymous said...

My daughter was identified for having learning disabilities as a result of a pre-K teacher. The disabilities were so subtle, they could not even detect them for several years. My children have had some amazing teachers in their lives. Those teachers have a great deal to do with the success my children have today. However, I will tell you that my kids achievements and growth came in in spurts. Measurement can be a tricky thing - even in well-to-do middle class neighborhood schools.

Anonymous said...

Caroline Lewis knows teaching and education. She has been positively impacting teachers and students locally, nationally and internationally for many years. Mrs. Lewis is a superwoman, wonderful article. She was too good for Fairchild..