In the classroom 2015

I was shocked to learn recently that teachers in charter schools typically last only three years. Compare that statistic with my own: 34 years at Newton South High School. Once hired, I never considered moving on. Although declining enrollment almost cost me my job my first six years, South remained my professional home until I retired from the classroom. I still work at South, as girls’ tennis coach in the spring.

I had several advantages, to be sure, over most charter school teachers. Newton’s public schools provide a fine working environment, with reasonable class size, built-in preparation and meeting time, and lots of staff support. Furthermore, if serious conflicts arise with administrators (they didn’t for me), teachers have union representation at their disposal. My union, the Newton Teachers Association, negotiates fair contracts with a school committee whose heart is generally in the right place.

In contrast, most charter schools are not unionized, and teachers usually earn less income than their public school counterparts. Should an administrator take a dislike of them, they can be fired without much process. Consequently, their professional life is fundamentally insecure. With lower pay and fewer protections, many soon find work in public schools or in other professions.  

Not everyone, of course, is suited for teaching. Teachers must be patient as they spend their days hanging out with young people! They must also be well-organized and knowledgeable, especially in their subject area. And they must have common sense.

It may be necessary at times to remove teachers who fall short. Fortunately, the NTA and the school committee negotiated a process by which a struggling teacher gets evaluated out of sequence. Intervention may help the teacher get on the right path. If not, however, the teacher will be let go. That seems only fair, and it protects the profession by assuring a baseline quality.

I had another great advantage in Newton: teaching in a community committed to learning. At South, if I ran a lively, productive class, students responded with active participation and conscientious work. Not every class was exciting and not every student consistently committed…but most were. The students behaved well in class, and we discussed literature and life in ways that usually kept my enthusiasm at fever pitch.

Much of the credit belongs to Newton’s parents, who clearly convey the importance of learning to their children. Yes, the pursuit of grades and of admission to prestigious colleges has had a corrupting influence on high school culture in Newton. Overall, though, it remains possible for a skilled teacher and devoted class to transcend that reality and enjoy thinking and learning together.

Now teaching has its challenges, even in Newton. Evaluating students’ writing, an essential part of my job, became increasingly exhausting as I aged. In my later years, I came to feel that some approaches pushed by ed reformers were limiting teachers’ creativity. I also lost patience with meetings and staff days that seemed less than productive; I would have preferred to be with my classes. Overall, though, I was given the freedom to approach my work as I saw fit as long as my methods inspired my students and met our common goals. For that trust, I am grateful.

To be a teacher requires a healthy dose of idealism. Most Newton teachers cannot afford to live in this community. My income, even at the end, fell well short of Newton’s median income. My own children, both in their early 30s, already earn more in the private sector than I did when I retired. But unlike most charter school teachers, Newton’s educators are part of the Commonwealth’s pension system. Barring disaster, I should be financially secure in the days to come.

In brief, it was my good fortune to live in Newton and to teach at Newton South. I wonder how many charter schools could offer their teachers a career as gratifying.