Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Florida Senate Bill 6:
No respect for experience

Lucky me. During my introduction to the classroom, veteran teachers freely shared advice and knowledge. Experienced administrators coached me about student behavior. Experienced school librarians and literacy experts taught me about reading.

Seasoned school board members, union leaders, and district officials helped me see how education works, how to play devil’s advocate in a supportive way, using argument and debate for constructive, collegiate purposes.

Why did all these experienced people take me under wing? Simple. Old-timers like it when somebody new cares enough to listen. That’s how you get them to talk.

And when old-timers talk, I pay careful attention. Amazing what you can learn by finding the right people and keeping your mind open.

The process I describe has served mankind well since we climbed down from the trees. I expect almost everyone who reads this had a mentor or two along life’s way.

If the Florida legislature has its way, though, the whole idea of mentoring would no longer be welcome at school. Strange but true.

Senate Bill 6, now under consideration, would destroy tenure and institutionalize some gimmicks that are designed to dump experienced people. These experienced classroom vets, often the best educators at their schools, will get shoved out simply because some zealots in Florida government want to bust unions, cut wages, and privatize education for their corporate friends.

I think most parents would agree that students deserve to have some skilled, experienced teachers in their lives.

My parents were quite happy when I landed in Hazel Haley’s room. She taught until she was into her 80s. During her lifetime in the classroom, more than 13,500 students were blessed by her steady, consistent presence. I was lucky to be one of them. So glad I listened to her.

Yes, she was an old-timer even back when I went to high school. But that old-timer taught me to write, and she taught me that citizens have a duty to stand up to authority when authority is wrong or crooked. Her wisdom guided me into my successful first career as a writer and editor.

Eileen McClleland, another veteran English teacher who excels at turning students around, recently reminded me that all "education theory" is merely trends.

“It runs in cycles;” she said. “What is dumped today will be rediscovered and recycled later. Don't get excited about any of it.

“Differentiated instruction, learning styles, behavioral objectives, block scheduling - they come and go under different names. The only constants - kids, teachers, learning.”

When Eileen retired from my school, she was replaced by a promising young intellect, Kara Semento. Everytime I walk down the hallway past Kara’s room and see students engaged and learning, I get reminded of the value of experience. It was Eileen’s English class that convinced Kara to become a teacher, and now Kara teaches the class she once attended. Sweet.

The folks behind Senate Bill 6 show very little respect for the experience that creates success stories like these.

They want to replace experience with punishment schemes based on phony testing. It reminds me of a book I just started, Accountability Frankenstein, an eye-opening study of how a good idea – bettering the academic opportunities and achievements of students - went horribly wrong when politicians took over and created a “technocratic disaster.” More on that book, and others, will come another day.

For now I am left to wonder: How could Florida lawmakers get away with such casual disrespect for the value of experience?

Just look in any direction. You’ll see retired people who spent their working lives making this country better. You can’t hit a golf ball, throw a fishing plug or go to a ball game in this state without running into role models from the past generation. When these folks were still on the job, in their 50s and 60s, many of them were hitting peak performance.

Here’s a thought for Jeb Bush, John Thrasher, and the backers of Senate Bill 6: Don’t be so eager to throw out the experienced people. Try a little humility.

Don’t automatically disrespect educators who have experience just because they earn a couple more bucks and you’re hot to cut pay and privatize. That might not be very smart. You might be robbing students and new teachers of meaningful mentors.

Put away the weird gimmicks and listen to the voice of experience. Focus on kids, teachers, and learning. Find out what students really need. Learn how to provide it. Then get busy and do it right.

This is what an old-timer would do.


  1. Mike,
    You are a brilliant light in a very dark time. The lack of respect for teachers and the job they do is disheartening to all of us who have dedicated our live to teaching children. When I read your blog I know that there is at least one teacher who is not afraid to speak the truth...

  2. Of course, the most efficient plan would be to reduce the lawmakers' paychecks... and to leave the educational decisions to these same experienced teachers instead.

    (this is Phillip, by the way)