Only a Teacher - classroom
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Only A Teacher
Teachers Today
Ann Cook
Linda Darling Hammond
Dean Eastman
Aurora Fleming
Terri Grasso
Carolyn Lawrence
Tsianina Lomawaima
Frank McCourt
Lorraine Monroe
Tom Mooney
Brian Sheehy
Gerry Speca
Sandy Warner
Alex White

Interview With Tom Mooney
Tom Mooney is a past president of the Cincinnati Teachers Federation and current president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

Q: Why have teachers needed or wanted to be part of unions?

That's a big question. Teachers organized unions for two reasons. One is because we were poor. I mean, we were the working poor. Professionally, we were in genteel poverty - that was the watch word. But I think equally as important a motivator was the fact that we were increasingly treated like peons by a growing bureaucracy that became more and more remote and arbitrary and made dumber and dumber decisions about what we had to do on the front line. And teachers, as professionals, really hunger for having a say in, you know, how this schoolhouse is run and how resources are utilized and what curriculum and what program models are put into place. And we've struggled for that just as hard as we have for better salaries over the last twenty-five years.

Q: Why has the union interested itself in teacher education in Cincinnati?

One reason why teacher preparation has been a big focus here is that there has always been a wide-spread critique among teachers themselves, but also among the public and policy makers, that traditional teacher education programs are almost a joke and teachers end up having to learn by doing, learn on the job, learn by sort of ad-hoc informal kinds of mentoring by veterans. And so you have in the last decade or so, especially in the various educational reform currents, you had people talking about testing teachers: "Let's find out if they know their subject matter," "Let's find out if they're even reasonably literate." We set how to cure the two main defects in the teacher preparation traditionally. One is to make sure that teachers have a solid grounding in the subject or subjects they're going to teach. And secondly, that they are prepared to teach, that they learn the art and science of teaching in a practical real world manner, similar to the types of clinical internships that doctors go through and the internships in clerking that lawyers in training go through. In partnership with the University of Cincinnati, I think we've done just that. We've created a program that guarantees a subject matter background; they must major in that subject area within in a dual major in education, but the pedagogical training being practical, being field-based, you know, happening in a real school setting, under a much more organized form of mentoring by veteran teachers.

Q: How does teaching relate to other professions?

We have to create a profession; our goal is nothing short of transforming this thing into a real profession. And collective bargaining was our most powerful leverage point or tool and so at least some of us and some locals around the country have consciously tried to use the union to create a profession, use the bargaining process to transform, you know, the environment that we work in as well as the structure of the teaching profession itself.

Q: What does the union think of the move towards standards-based education?

Well, in theory, nothing's wrong with that. The AFT has also advocated for a number of years: that we need to go to a standards-based system like a number of developed countries have had for a long time. We've argued that those standards ought to be national. The body politic has decided that for now standards are going to be devised state by state and at least that's progress.

Q: What obstacles stand in the way of kids' achieving well in schools?

The problems that our members face every day trying to move kids academically, motivate them, engage them, get them to do homework or study for tests so that they can pass tests are just enormous. I mean, a lot of these kids walk through the door with a lot of baggage, from mild problems associated with poverty to very severe family problems that have caused the child to be emotionally disturbed for all kinds of good reasons.

Q: What is the teachers' role in a school's administrative structure?

You sometimes get this, you know, backlash from business people or some school board members or some administrators and maybe even some of the parents. "Well, the teachers are getting too much power, the teachers are running things." Now, try going to Germany or France or Britain or virtually any other developed country and say, you know, "Well, the teachers are running the schools." People would look at you blank, you know, and say, "Well, as opposed to who? Who's supposed to run them?" because there isn't a teaching profession that's an integrated one and principals are part of it. Principals in almost all the developed countries teach, at least part time, because remember principal's an adjective and the rest of the phrase was "principal teacher." Principal became a noun somewhere along the way because it got separated from the teaching ranks. Not to mention, they do not have these district bureaucracies. They just do not exist anywhere else in the world.

Q: Why are bureaucracies a problem?

Professionalizing and getting rid of a lot of the bureaucracy and letting teachers practice, you know, their profession and do what's right for the kids and not be constantly looking over their shoulder -- what do the bureaucrats want me to do today? or what's today's order? what's the program of the month? what's the political fad of the year? -- that we would get a lot more teaching done. So, obviously, we believe that teachers should have, you know, a big role in shaping the reforms as well as implementing them.

Q: What factors most affect a kids' ability to achieve?

What research is telling us now more and more, a pile, growing pile of research is that teacher quality is the most important factor in student achievement gains. If you want to take a snapshot of where kids are and explain the disparities, it's going to be poverty and parents' level of education that explains where they are. But if you want to look at gain, what factors allow them to or cause them to gain ground wherever they started is teacher quality, it's the training, experience, skill, and educational level of the teacher.

Q: Describe the arc of a teacher's career in Cincinnati.

It makes no sense that a teacher has the same responsibilities year one and exact same duties basically year thirty, with, now, a masters and, you know, 15 more hours and all kinds of experience. So we try to differentiate through the career ladder -- based on their experience, their advanced education, their skill -- and allow them to take on different roles and responsibilities as they advance in their career. That has allowed us to develop a whole cadre of professional leaders within the profession, given teachers a chance to play leadership roles and an incentive to stay in the classroom, you know. Whereas traditionally, in order to move up either in salary or responsibility or become kind of a leader in the school, you had to leave the teaching profession altogether, in this country anyway, and become a full time administrator. And then, by the way, almost never did you come back. So we've tried to bridge that gap and create a leadership tier that remains part of the profession.

Q: What are the advantages of having a career ladder?

We think a career ladder is important for the same reasons that the Carnegie Report of 1986 suggested it. You need incentives to keep good people, skilled people, in the classroom and in your particular district. You need to capitalize on the knowledge and the skill of advanced practitioners, not just have them, you know, be in the same daily grind, the same, you know, five, six/periods a day that they were teaching in their second or third year: everybody in their own little box and nobody having any chance to share things. You need people that can support the beginners or veterans who are struggling. You need people who you can deploy to work with them and coach them and, if not improve them, then document their poor performance and help remove them. For both the differentiation of roles and for the sort of incentives to stick around, the career ladder has been very helpful.

Q: What is your recipe for improving public education?

We know what can improve substantially the performance of kids in public schools. It's high and specific academic standards, which we have mostly lacked in this country and are only now really developing. It is investing in teacher quality, setting high standards for getting in, ongoing professional development and training. It's small classes; you know, especially with kids who start out behind you need; more time and attention between that teacher and that kid.

Q: What is the role of teachers unions today?

Well, you know, I think teachers unions have to evolve and are evolving from primarily borrowing the industrial union model; that's really where we started. Why? Because we were same as the industrial unions in the thirties. You were looking for power, you were looking for leverage, you were looking for tactics that would give you power vis à vis that bureaucracy and force them to negotiate rules and parameters and guidelines, to limit their arbitrary abuses and capricious acts. And we were very successful, at least in a number of city and states, using that model to make significant gains and compensations, as well as rights, and improving the conditions for teachers is improving the conditions for kids. So those are all good things. Improving the salaries has helped attract at least a share of the best and brightest and keep, you know, some of them in teaching. But what we have to do now and what many of us are doing is evolving into a more professional model, where we have to realize that it's not good enough to be, you know, limiting the power of the bureaucracy; we have to transform it, we have to transform the system, because, you know, if they don't know how to run it and they're running into the ground, we have to take the responsibility or at least share the responsibility for transforming it, for getting better results or we'll be out of work. That's one very practical aspect of it is that public schools won't survive, at least in urban areas, unless we really make some radical changes. We have to be in the forefront of making those changes.

Q: What is the role of schools in our democracy?

This is a cornerstone of our whole belief system: that public education is the foundation of a democratic society and, generally speaking, that's been a broadly shared value and belief in this country, and I still think it is. I just think we have a very organized right wing that's trying to undermine that, that premise. But if you don't, you know, educate all citizens to a reasonably literate level, you cannot have a functioning democracy.

Q: What does the union think about the move to privatize education?

It's clear that the privatizers are on the side of "Who cares? You know, it's not our problem to worry about whether everybody gets educated. Let's let the best and the brightest and the most motivated escape the public schools and find a private school that will take their voucher or find a charter school for their kids." And it just isn't important to try to educate everybody. That is a very, very sharp turn for America if we go that way. There are huge consequences.

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