Teaching: Where Hard Work — and Success — Can Get You Fired?
Imagine a teacher who spends her Saturdays preparing her students for state tests, runs her school’s science department, has 72% of her inner-city students passing state science exams (compared to her school district at-large which had 32% passing) and is slated to lose her job in the fall.
Something there just doesn’t sound right. Unfortunately that is the case for Samantha Sherwood, a Teach for America Corps member who teaches 8th grade science at Mott Hall V in the South Bronx.
Mott Hall V is in a tough neighborhood — I know, because I work at a neighboring school in the South Bronx. The district demands determined, bright, and motivated teachers, given all the challenges their students face outside of the classroom.
Virtually all of Mott Hall V’s students are black or Hispanic; 87 percent are poor enough to qualify for the free lunch program. Nearly 1 in 5 do not speak English at home, and about the same number require special education services.
Despite these challenges, Ms. Sherwood (and a cohort of other talented teachers) has seen success at Mott Hall V. This should be rewarded and cherished. Instead she is one of the 4,100 teachers faced with the possibility of losing her job under the budget Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg unveiled on Friday.
A New York Times article on Tuesday highlighted Ms. Sherwood’s story to show the detrimental effects of the New York state law which dictates that the last teachers hired must be the first let go. According to the Times, “Under this law, many of those who will be laid off if the budget is approved by the City Council are young idealists like Ms. Sherwood, whom the mayor and like-minded reformers had rallied to some of the city’s most challenging classrooms.”
In fact, a model the city prepared in February dictates that all but a few hundred of those slated for layoff will have taught fewer than five years. Teachers who come to the city through special programs like Teach for America or the New York City Teaching Fellows are equally susceptible to layoffs.
Teaching is an extremely difficult and honorable profession. Having spent some time in the classroom teaching an afterschool program at my school in the Bronx, I know that my Duke education does not provide the skills I need to succeed. Those skills are acquired from sheer experience (and a teaching degree). Tenured teachers often get a bad rap from education reformers who think that just because they are settled in their jobs, they aren’t motivated or successful. This is hardly true. However, I do believe that all teachers should be judged on performance, not just time on the job.
Ms. Sherwood says she has “gotten nothing but satisfactory reviews” from her school’s administration. She has certainly demonstrated effectiveness in the classroom. She works weekends, started the school’s first newspaper and has one-third of her school’s eighth graders taking the science Regents exam, a requirement only in the ninth grade. In class, she is innovative, pushing her students to take ownership of the material. Consequently her students are involved and interested in their assignments. For example, a group turned a presentation on how the planets influence the seasons into a newscast; another made it a music video.
“Any step up they can take, any leg up we can give them, it’s worth the extra effort,” Sherwood told the Times. “Their peers in the public schools in Chappaqua are getting all of those opportunities, and there’s no reason my kids in the Bronx shouldn’t.”
A dedicated teacher like Ms. Sherwood should not be facing a layoff, no matter how many years he or she has spent on the job. It is widely accepted that one key to education reform is to have a good teacher in every classroom. How will this happen with this “First in, first out” rule? Further, these layoffs set the tone for the future of the teaching profession. Why would a smart, go-getting young person want to enter into a career and a system where their hard work, dedication, passion and performance get them (and their potential students) nowhere?
What do you think — and what should be done about this? Please comment here; maybe we can find a way to pass your comments on.
Photo credit: Flickr Travelin' John