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Get teachers' input on new initiatives

The murder of 20 innocent schoolchildren and their six teachers in Newtown, Conn., last month launched the latest national debate about guns, violence, mental health, and the safety of students and teachers.

At front and center of this discussion is the role of our teachers and the suggestion by some that we ought to arm them.

We currently ask teachers to educate, socialize and serve as substitute parents for our children. Now we propose to have them police their schools and pack weapons to protect the children.

Whether you agree or disagree with this proposal, our society has come to rely on our teachers in extraordinary ways, even while many of us belittle them with the refrain "those that can't teach."

The profession used to command respect from the entire community. But in recent decades this once vaunted profession has lost political favor, and teachers are no longer valued like they once were.

How illogical is this contradiction? Quite absurd from our point of view.

Every day we ask schoolteachers to meet the needs of children in so many different ways that no educational or training program could adequately prepare them for the job. And yet when something goes wrong, it is not the parents or society that we blame. It is the teachers.

As the Florida Legislature begins committee meetings this month, there will invariably be substantive discussions about a batch of new requirements that should be placed on teachers. These legislative mandates originate in the premise that we cannot trust our teachers to do the right thing.

We think it would be wise and appropriate if policymakers started from a different place — one of trusting teachers. In our view, educational policy proposals should result with substantive input from teachers and principals.

Policymakers should start with the assumption that every person in Florida's classrooms is there with the intention of making a difference for the children. They should also understand that when teachers get the support they need and deserve — especially early in their career — they improve dramatically. And, yes, a system of assessment must be place so that, when a teacher doesn't improve after earnest attempts to do so, the teacher should be counseled into another line of work.

Some promising models for teacher engagement in the political process have existed in Florida. Former Gov. Jeb Bush added a teacher-in-residence in his office, for example, as a way to ensure he heard from someone on the front lines. Former Department of Education leaders established an ambassador teacher position to facilitate communication with teachers.

A recent study by the New Teacher Project revealed that two actions would go a long way to improve the retention of excellent teachers. These two proposals are fairly straightforward: one would recognize the accomplishments of top-flight teachers through salary increases and promotions; a second would be to remove ineffective teachers. The best teachers want a rigorous evaluation process, they want the removal of poor teachers, and they want a system that rewards the best of them.

As policy leaders begin to debate how to apply the lessons from Newtown, we need to pause and acknowledge the extraordinary burdens we place on teachers. And we need to value their contribution in the same way we do our first responders.

In the numerous incidents of school violence around this nation, one or more teachers stepped forward to protect the children and were often slain in the process. These examples of their love and devotion to our children cannot be cobbled into public policy. But we can begin to say to our teachers, thank you for all you do for our children, and we are grateful for your contribution to this nation.

David R. Colburn is the interim director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida. He can be reached at Brian Dassler is chief academic officer, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a public school serving students from across Louisiana. He can be reached at They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Get teachers' input on new initiatives 01/15/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 4:57pm]
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