Firing teachers won't fix woes in city schools

July 07, 1999|By Marietta English

RECENTLY, readers of The Sun found a bold front-page headline proclaiming: "Baltimore fires 278 teachers." The city's chief academic officer was quoted as saying, "We are not fooling around here. We really expect the best." Problem solved? Not likely. This dramatic action exposes a problem, but it doesn't solve it.

A teacher mentoring program and an adequate professional development program are necessary to ensure the success of our teachers.

A year ago, Baltimore schools hired more than 1,000 new teachers, most of whom lacked proper teaching credentials. These fledgling teachers were given a "sink-or-swim" initiation into teaching -- you're on your own, there is no support if you founder, and, if it doesn't work out, we'll fire you.

Now several hundred teachers are to be hired before school begins in the fall. Will this year's mass firing be repeated a year from now?

If you truly "expect the best," you must invest in the best. Teaching is hard work and the first years in the classroom can be difficult beyond most people's comprehension. Many teachers whose careers get off to a shaky start receive help and go on to successful teaching careers.

Even a struggling new teacher can't help but improve his or her skills under the guidance of a more experienced colleague. And veteran teachers agree that mastering their craft takes years and that continuing, high-quality professional development is invaluable for all teachers. But such offerings are rare in Baltimore's schools.

New city teachers generally are left to their own devices, perhaps evaluated once or twice during the course of the school year (or not at all).

Veteran teachers don't fare much better. Professional development frequently is not related to their actual classroom experience or the real needs of their students. Rarely is there time in the school day reserved for teachers to plan or consult with their colleagues, an aspect of work that is standard in most professions.

Failure to address the professional needs of teachers ultimately hurts students. How can we prevent the cycle of bad hiring decisions, inadequate support for teachers and mass firings from continuing? This is the subject of negotiations concerning a new teachers' contract, a prime opportunity to take even bolder steps.

The Baltimore Teachers Union offers a support service that provides advice and practical assistance to new teachers. While such support is valuable and appreciated by those who receive it, BTU can't reach all the teachers who could benefit from such guidance.

Help for new teachers should be provided in a systematic, comprehensive manner by the school system.

Already we have proposed a comprehensive mentoring program for new teachers in contract negotiations. Regretfully, the city school system has rebuffed our efforts to ensure that all new teachers are paired with master teachers.

If school administrators would turn their attention to strengthening teachers' skills and staying the course of academic reforms, we would see very different headlines at the close of the next school year.

Marietta English is president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

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