Trust Teachers

Trust teachers.

This simple idea can revolutionize American education, save millions if not billions of dollars, improve morale within the education profession, inspire innovation in schools, and provide teachers and students with resources that are currently prohibited or prevented. And it’s free.

Some of the noblest people I’ve ever known are educators. Every day I talk to teachers who are intelligent, dedicated, and selfless. These are people you can trust. But I see these same people slogging through a senseless, demoralizing maze of bureaucratic nonsense, all in the name of providing accountability to some ubiquitous “they,” as in “This is how they want it done,” and “They are requiring this now.”

In the current “accountability culture,” how much time, energy, and money do local and state bureaucracies spend in forcing teachers to prove that they are competent, honest, and productive? How many policies and practices exist that force teachers to prove their students are learning? How many policies and practices exist that prevent teachers from misusing their positions of trust? How many policies and practices are in place so that teachers can prove their subject matter expertise?

Agencies or entities spend time and your dollars crafting those policies, and other agencies and entities exist to supervise the execution of those policies. This would be a wise expenditure of resources if most teachers were stupid, lazy, and dishonest. Now consider that most teachers are, in fact, intelligent, industrious, and ethical, and it’s easy to see that a lot of time, energy, and money is being wasted to police a profession that is actually pretty clean.

Here is an example. This year we have been required to watch a series of mandated video presentations dealing with a variety of ethical issues. Most of the information in those videos is good and valuable, but it’s not new. The mandates are new but the information is not. So this year I’ve spent a few hours watching information that I already know because some entity at the state level demanded it, and some entity at the district level developed a structure to provide the information that I already know and verify that I spent time watching it. Is it a productive use of time, energy, and resources to require a teacher to spend hours watching information that is relevant but not necessary? Did my students benefit from me spending time watching these videos? No. I already knew the information. Would my students have benefited from the various other things I could have been doing on their behalf during the time I was watching the videos? Yes.

Another example: As part of the No Child Left Behind act, students are entitled to a classroom led by a teacher who is “highly competent.” This is a very good idea. Highly competent teachers should be the foundation of the American education system. I’m proud to say that the Illinois state government has declared me “highly competent” in teaching language arts, and I proudly accept that label. However, the Illinois state government has also declared that I am “highly competent” in teaching English as a Second Language. I’m here to tell you that I am not competent at all in teaching ESL, let alone “highly competent.”

That’s your tax dollars at work, folks! Somebody designed a deeply flawed measurement system in order to declare that I’m “highly competent” in an area where I have absolutely no expertise. Someone oversees that system at the state, regional, and local levels, and it’s fraudulent on a daily basis. Whoever declared me “highly competent” to teach language arts got it right. Whoever declared me as “highly competent” to teach ESL got it wrong and spent your tax dollars to get it wrong. My language arts competence is, hopefully, clear and observable in other ways. The bureaucratic system that officially declared my competence actually cheapens that language arts expertise by declaring it equal in quality to my non-existent ESL expertise.

I’ve never been assigned to teach ESL, thankfully, but somewhere there is undoubtedly a teacher assigned to teach something based on non-existent-but-officially-declared competence. How does it benefit students to have a “highly competent” teacher who doesn’t actually know anything?

Another example: Teachers from around the country frequently report frustration that they are unable to access various Internet resources that would help them do their jobs better. Why? The most common answer is that they are not trusted to access only school-appropriate sites. (For the record, this is not an issue at my school.) Do students benefit when teachers are prevented from accessing web sites that they could use to design instructional material and approaches?

It all comes back to trust. What if the starting point was trust rather than mistrust? What if we trust teachers to do the right thing for their students, schools, and communities? What if we trust that teachers are competent, ethical, motivated professionals? What if we do away with the labyrinthine layers that exist to monitor and supervise employees who really don’t need that much monitoring and supervising? How could the time, energy, and money that we invest in mistrusting teachers be redirected for the benefit of our students?

This idea has a corollary: When teachers violate trust, they must be held accountable. When a teacher is not able to deliver quality instruction, the teacher needs to be remediated or removed from the classroom. When a teacher behaves unethically, the teacher needs to remediated or removed. When a teacher is lazy or unproductive, the teacher needs to be remediated or removed.

But when a teacher is competent, honest, and productive, the teacher should be trusted.

Unions are frequently tied to the whipping post for protecting bad teachers. I’ve been both a union leader and a teacher supervisor, and I can tell you that teachers are not interested in protecting those who do their jobs badly. When one of our colleagues is ineffective with students and makes the rest of us look bad, we want that person gone. We want his or her rights protected and due process followed, but we want the person gone.

Imagine a school where teachers are free to access resources and then decide how best to implement them. Imagine a school where teachers spend time developing ways to enhance their expertise and productivity for the benefit of student learning. Imagine a school where teachers are assumed to not take advantage of students. All it takes it trust.

Trust is a powerful tool in a school community. And it’s free. Thank you for reading this.

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7 Responses to Trust Teachers

  1. glenda says:

    Excellent commentary, Gary. It’s ironic that teachers are expected to trust so many who refuse to trust us.


  2. Cindy says:

    “Unions are frequently tied to the whipping post for protecting bad teachers. I’ve been both a union leader and a teacher supervisor, and I can tell you that teachers are not interested in protecting those who do their jobs badly. When one of our colleagues is ineffective with students and makes the rest of us look bad, we want that person gone. We want his or her rights protected and due process followed, but we want the person gone.”

    This is a POWERFUL statement, and all excellent teachers agree with this. Even in schools of education we attempt to work with people who desire to become teachers, helping them hone their skills, build their knowledge base, and develop the disposition of an excellent educator. BUT, it is also our job to serve as gatekeepers and recognize teacher candidates who don’t meet the criteria (or even make the attempt). The question we always ask ourselves is: Would I want this person teaching my child/niece/nephew/grandchild?

    Excellent and important post. The vast majority of teachers are trustworthy. So, trust us.


  3. CBethM says:

    Right on so many levels I can’t decide where to begin. It’s just easier to thank you for writing this post. I’m off to share it.


  4. steveshann says:

    You are the voice of grounded reason, Gary. As CBethM says, right on so many levels.


  5. Uh, oh. I have not completed my March mandated training yet. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    Thank you for this post. Definitely something that needs to be said, and you always say it best. Quite an appropriate Sunday to post it as well.


  6. Russ Anderson says:

    Thanks for your insights, Gary. It is demoralizing to be treated without any trust from those in our own profession, those who are supposed to support and provide authentic opportunities for teachers to improve. There is an assumption that we cannot be trusted rather than the opposite, which is unfortunate. The word “professional” when applied to teachers doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as it does in other occupations.


  7. Jimmy Wyman says:

    At an English composition meeting last week at Dominican University (which I HAD to attend), the professor in charge of frosh comp. started talking about “assessment instruments” that were going to be used next year. I looked longingly at the door. “Oh, no, not again!” I thought to myself.
    Most assessment instruments I’ve seen test the lowest level of achievement, and the ACT, which is used to evaluate schools, was never designed to be an assessment instrument. It was designed to predict a student’s success in college.
    Administrators and politicians need something to do; that’s why you are being subjected to all that worthless crapola. The administrators have to come up with something to justify their existence. It’s as simple as that. I’ll bet you could eliminate all of the administrators and put teachers in their roles on a rotating basis. The schools would be better!
    Hey, Gary, thanks for the comments on my blog. I traced you through your comment. Hope to see you soon!


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