A weekend interview with Michelle Henry, Hillsborough County fourth-grade teacher
Witter Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Michelle Henry won attention from Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education back in 2009 as one of the state's most effective teachers when it comes to helping poor students make gains on their FCAT results. Since then, she's been talking about ways to transform the teaching profession so that more students can benefit. This weekend, she heads to New York City to sit down with U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan and to participate in NBC's Education Summit, including a nationally televised teacher town hall.
Henry said her message is a simple one: All students deserve the best teachers, and teachers need to help push schools in that direction by supporting policies that might be tough to swallow at first, but in the end will bring them respect.
"The most important factor, I believe, is to put the most effective teacher in front of the students that need them the most," Henry said.
That means getting rid of the common last in, first out (LIFO) policies protecting teachers based on seniority rather than performance, she suggested. Years of service does not necessarily make someone a better teacher, she added.
Performance pay, along with incentives to lure teachers to low-performing schools, also must play in the mix, Henry continued.
"To be honest, teachers in high poverty schools do a lot more than we would probably do in a suburban school," she explained. Things like home visits, providing meals, added discipline. "Bonuses could keep them in the classroom. ... If you're going to have to do a lot more work for the same pay, people will choose not to do that."
Performance pay could come in many forms, Henry suggested, such as a sliding scale or a growth model, or maybe even a higher starting rate of pay that teachers have to maintain through consistently high results.
"There's always going to be, just as with any profession, those people who stand out," she said. "Our goal is always to keep bringing everyone up higher."
To get there, teachers need to hold each other accountable, Henry said, deciding they must do better and then working together to make it happen. That might mean helping to root out poor performers. And using test score results over time is one way to determine success, she said.
"If you have taught nothing, then you are not a teacher," Henry said. "Those people do not deserve the title of teacher if they are not effective."
Excuses are not an option, she insisted. Schools must take whatever children they receive and educate them: "You are being paid to teach them." So the only issue must be, "Are they learning?"
It boils down to ethics in Henry's view. "Is it ethical for a teacher to be in front of students for year after year if those students are still falling behind and not making gains? If it's not ethical, what do we do?"
She's met with Duncan before, and said she has found him receptive to teacher input, and finds the Obama administration willing to adopt programs based on teacher values as much as it can. She was particularly fond of the move to Common Core standards, which they along with most states have embraced.
Henry also was encouraged by Florida Gov. Rick Scott's recent attempts to reach out to teachers and parents, as he focuses more attention on education.
"I beleive that Florida is moving in the right direction, especially with starting to listen to teachers' voices, and to eliminate some of the bureaucratic red tape," she said. "This is always going to be an evolving conversation. Right now, we're off to a good start. There's definitely always more than can be done."