Gamal Sherif is a teacher at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA., a member of the Teacher Leader Network, and a Teacher Fellow at the U.S. Dept. of Education.

Once again, the print edition of The New York Times includes the “Building a Better Teacher” theme for the Schools For Tomorrow conference (Mon, Jul 2, 2012; A16). Please consider modifying the “Building a Better Teacher” theme.

“Building a Better Teacher” is an ideologically-loaded theme that 1) advances the notion that schools are failing because of bad teachers and 2) alienates over 3 million teachers in the US. And not one of the 14 featured guest speakers is a teacher.

Of course teachers can get better at their craft; we are life-long learners. Yet Secretary Duncan estimates that 10% of California’s teachers don’t belong in the classroom. Dan Goldhaber, a research professor with the Center on Reinventing Public Education, estimates that nationally, the number of unqualified teachers is closer to 7%. So what are we doing for the other 90-93%?

If we want teachers to be better at their jobs, we can first cultivate effective working conditions. Yet the idea of “Building a Better Teacher” is aligned with the notion of human capital; “If we only had good teachers, then education would improve.” A more worthwhile approach to supporting education is to consider teachers’ working conditions and their social capital; “If teachers have the support to collaborate and then influence curriculum, instruction, assessment and policy, then education will improve.” Better working conditions translates into deeper teacher and student engagement.

We can also consider the importance of children’s “school readiness.” Children will learn better if they are well-rested and well-fed, feel safe and are curious. Children’s proximity to poverty diminishes their school readiness. Families in or near poverty are less able to provide the stability necessary for children’s healthy development. This suggests that we might consider “Building a Better Economy” as one means to better engage students in their own learning.

The idea that print media are failing because of weak journalists is as preposterous as the idea that public education is failing because we have weak teachers.  Please modify the “Building a Better Teacher” theme from this year’s Schools for Tomorrow conference. This theme is mis-guided and actually obfuscates the real issues we face in our classrooms, schools and districts.

Gamal Sherif,

P.S. What if teachers decided to hold a conference called “Newspapers for Tomorrow” with “Building a Better Journalist” as a theme (The New York Times Schools For Tomorrow Conference, Mon, Jun 25, 2012, p. A 18)?  The Guest Speakers would feature everyone BUT journalists.

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