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Without Professionalism, It Could Always Be Worse

Voice of ExperienceIn this week's Voice of Experience essay, 30-year educator Max Fischer reflects on these trying times in education. When he gets to grousing, he tries to remember that things could always be worse...


Max W. Fischer
A Yiddish folk tale tells of a man who visits his rabbi to complain about his wife and seek pity about his household's condition. The wise rabbi counsels the man to take a goat, some chickens, and a cow into his home. Upon seeing the rabbi a day or two later, the man is distraught about the mess and commotion the animals have made. The rabbi advises the man to remove the animals, whereupon the man views his home life as absolute bliss.


As I look back on my 30 years in teaching, I find myself a bit like that overwrought Jewish man. I find it extremely easy to view the current state of teaching much as the man viewed his home life before visiting the rabbi.

  • Prompted by the "No Child Left Behind" Act, proficiency demands rule the schoolhouse.
  • Hard economic times and anti-tax sentiment have forced layoffs and resulted in larger class sizes. "Leaner and meaner" is now being used to describe school district business practices.
  • In the legal arena, school systems are held hostage by irrational parents wielding the threat of lawsuits.
  • Charter and other private schools are becoming politically correct, often at the expense of public education.

My school district faces all those difficulties. During the past year, we grappled with a major plant closing, which eliminated 3 percent of the town's tax base. A failed school levy, and subsequent cuts totaling ten percent of the district's budget, resulted in the loss of 40 teaching positions. I'm looking at 30 or more students in each of my classes next fall -- for the first time since the late 1970s.

On top of that, my state legislators boast that there's never been more money spent on education. I'm unconvinced. I know hundreds of millions have been siphoned from public school funds to fund charter schools that, in their fourth year of existence, are scoring far below their public counterparts on proficiency tests.


It's not easy to be optimistic, but I certainly can remain professional. As an educator, much of my professionalism stems from my experience. It comes from having "been-there, done-that." Professionalism is also a quality that can give educators like me solace in trying times such as these.

With that old Yiddish tale in the back of my mind, my experience has taught me a few things about how to respond during trying times:

More Voices

Have you seen these Voice of Experience columns by Max Fischer?
* Teamwork Counts (A Lot!)
* Is Differentiation the Answer to the Tracking Debate?
* Another Look at No Child Left Behind (Year Two)
* Gaga Over Google: Photo Images Bring Lessons to Life
* Poetry Writing: A Comprehension Tool Across the Curriculum

The political winds have always dictated the course of public education. Instead of harping about my experience and how "conditions have never been worse," I must draw upon my years of experience to give my students the best classroom experience possible. If specific objectives are mandated within my discipline, then I must direct my arsenal of instructional methods to meet the indicator de jour.

Keep out of the rumor mill before you're ground up. Human nature loves to play the "What if?" game. The trouble with that sort of entertainment is that it takes my focus off my most important responsibilities.

Lead, follow, or get out of the way. I cannot be an obstacle to legitimate change in my building. That's not to say I should just roll over with every administrative whim; but it does mean that I -- especially me, as a veteran faculty member -- should take an active role in my building's special committees, where my voice can be heard and where my experience might carry some weight. Carping about the direction things are headed without getting involved is as lame as critiquing the government without having taken time to vote.

If necessary, I must even question administrative decisions -- for the sake of clarity, not confrontation. As I question those decisions, I do so with the full awareness that everyone is on edge today -- and no one person has more of a right to be on edge than my principal has. His job is specifically targeted by the "No Child Left Behind" Act. The noose of that legislation joins others swung over his head by board members, the superintendent, and irrational parents. While I don't support administrative carte blanche, sabotaging building leadership is counterproductive. Teachers and administrators must be able to honestly collaborate with each other for the building to function properly, for students to learn and achieve.

Don't whine, at least not to the public. From time to time, everyone needs a safe place to vent. A trusted colleague should do just fine. Complaining in public does not do much to further the cause. When I walk into a business for service, I don't want to be confronted by disgruntled employees. In the school setting, I try to keep that in mind; a parent or community member doesn't come to school to listen to my manifesto of grievances.

Be active politically -- and vote. When determining which candidates for political office offer the best hope for education, I consider the perspectives of my local and state education associations and my own experiences. Then I vote.

In a 1999 Gallup Poll, teachers were rated in the top five professions for honesty, respect, and ethical values. A 2002 Harris Poll showed teaching the third most prestigious profession -- after scientists and medical doctors. So things could always be worse. And they would be if a teacher, or a staff as a whole, loses that sense of professionalism that serves us so well in trying times. No outside force can remove our professional sense. Only we can freely release that -- to our own detriment.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient and medieval history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max Fischer
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