Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thinking about Last In, First Out (LIFO)

Appreciating experience when instant everything is so valued is a challenge.  Just think how often quickness is foolishly equated with success or progress.   I have been thinking a lot about experience lately as I never imagined public schools sans experienced teachers and frankly that possibility has me worried, and I hope it worries you too.  As a district administrator, consultant, and teacher for the last 25+ years I have learned with and from experienced teachers and administrators.  They are often the center to any progressive practice as they are not faddist but rather the leaders who ask the tough questions about an initiative, who challenge the status quo by teaching and leading well, who quietly tutor students and mentor colleagues, and who consistently deepen their own knowledge.

So what worries me about ending Last In, First Out (LIFO) is that I think permission to get rid of "difficult" teachers will happen. In every school system where I have worked, I have witnessed deeply talented teachers with experience be misunderstood or unappreciated by building or central office administrators because the administrators were ill suited for the power they held and viewed these teachers as threatening.  Quieting these important voices who question will likely inform dismissal decisions. Remove the talent and experience from schools and children will be harmed.

A second concern I have with ending LIFO is that experience cannot be had on the cheap.  Experience costs money and in this time of severe budget caps of 1-and-2%,  I think it is probable that even the most well intentioned superintendent and board of education may look to settle accounts by letting more expensive educators go and replacing them with new hires.  Already we are seeing signs of this happening in Kansas City, MO and Tulsa, OK where more experienced teachers are being let go and replaced by Teach for America (TFA) who are expected to commit for only 2 years.

Replacing experience with inexperience or no experience will lessen quality. I have met and worked with hundreds of beginning teachers who after a year or two gain control over the management issues and a sense of confidence develops. Alongside that confidence, these teachers often mistake their tacit knowledge for theoretical truths. Whereas they have learned much in those first years they are usually focused on teaching, and less so on how their students are learning. It is through their work with more knowledgeable others, that a shift from thinking mostly about their teaching to wondering and theorizing about their learners starts to take place. This shift is critical and cannot easily be seen by people with little teaching or no teaching experience. Without experienced teachers the critical learning for young teachers will be stilted.

Professional learning happens among teachers and administrators in the informal conversations they have before, during, and after school.  Wendell Berry talks about this process. In The Unsettling of America (1977), he describes the technical farmer and the good farmer. The technical farmer, Berry says can be made by training, while the good farmer "is a cultural product; he is made by a sort of training, certainly in what his time imposes or demands, but also he is made by generations of experience" (p. 45). The essential experiences of the good farmer, Berry explains are "tested, preserved, handed down in settled households, friendships, and communities that are deliberately and carefully native to their own ground" (p.45).

I imagine that it is easy to think of teaching as a technical act, especially by those with limited or no actual experience working alongside other teachers. As an outsider, it is easy to not know about schools as settled households.  From this vantage point one teacher looks about the same as the next. We cannot improve public education by exercising such poor judgment.  Ending LIFO will lessen quality of teaching and learning and does nothing to resolve the issue as to why very ineffective teachers are allowed to remain in their jobs. Consider this: The same administrators who keep ineffective teachers in place often because they fail to recognize ineffectiveness (like liking like) will be charged with recommending dismissals. Just who do you think they'll recommend?

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