Grade Expectations: The Biggest Challenge Facing Public Schools Is A Lack Of Trust In Teachers

bad teacherGrade Expectations is a weekly look at education from a parent’s perspective. We’ll talk special needs, gifted & talented, and everything in between. 

Parents and politicians alike spent plenty of time diagnosing the myriad of problems with public schools. We talk about the lack of funding, the crumbling facilities, and the difficult task of measuring effectiveness. I think all of those discussions are important. But as I was reading about a man who helped teachers cheat on their board exams, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that there’s an underlying problem wreaking havoc on schools. It’s the lack of trust that parents have in their children’s teachers.

 Clarence Mumford, Sr. was a former assistance principal and guidance counselor. He ran a cheating ring in three states for over 15 years, helping prospective teachers cheat to pass their Praxis exams. That’s hundreds of potentially unqualified teachers, who were both unable to pass the necessary tests and immoral enough to cheat, now working with students. Like lots of other parents, I hear stories about people like Mumford and think, “Maybe it’s time to homeschool my kids.”

It’s not just Clarence Mumford. I hear parents say something about it being “time to homeschool” pretty frequently. We’ve said it here on our site. It’s this common refrain from parents as every news cycle brings a new story of student mistreatment, extreme bullying gone unchecked, and more inappropriate behavior than I care to remember. With all of that disturbing news, it’s easy to assume that the majority of teachers are inept, inappropriate, or just plain crazy.

Obviously, in the back of our minds, we all realize that these are just extreme circumstances. We know that only the bizarre and corrupt teachers make the news, while thousands work tirelessly to help their students without any recognition whatsoever. But that media narrative of out-of-control classrooms clouds our judgment. We start to doubt the very people we’re letting educate our children.

The mistrust parents have in their schools and educators tears away at the very basics of education. Children can sense their parents’ feelings, and they put less faith in their teachers and administrators. Wary parents don’t feel like getting involved at the school, choosing to work with their kids at home or pile up on extra curriculars to make up the difference. Instead of investing where our kids need us most, that doubt pulls parents away from teachers, when the two should be working together.

My daughter used to attend an at-home daycare with an amazing woman who had been taking care of kids for decades. To parents who wanted to drop in unexpected to check up on things or who had lists of additional rules and regulations for their children while at daycare, Annie always had the same response. “If you really don’t trust me to take care of your child, why on earth are you sending them here everyday?”

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    • CW

      Every profession has competent and incompetent members. However, in most professions, the incompetent ones don’t have guaranteed protection from being fired. Parents would have a lot more trust in teachers if the unions would agree to get rid of lifetime tenure and just have 5 year contracts for teachers with renewals based on adequately meeting performance goals.

      • Justme

        Not all states have active teacher unions that wield much power (if any) over the hiring and firing of incompetent teachers.

      • CW

        Which states have abolished lifetime tenure for teachers? I’m not aware of any that has. Once a teacher has gotten tenure, it is almost impossible to fire him/her even for the most egregious incompetence. Pretty much so long as the teacher doesn’t commit a crime, he/she is protected from being fired. If his/her position is eliminated, he/she can “bump” a less-senior teacher, even if that teacher is far more competent.

      • Justme

        I am in Texas. I have never met a teacher with tenure and quite frankly, my district is trying to get rid of older teachers because they cost a lot to keep employed. Our “union” isn’t a union as much as it is an organization. They don’t have the ability to bargain with the districts and if the teachers went on strike, we would be replaced.

      • Tori B.

        Thank you so much for saying this! In Missouri, we do have tenure, but all it means is you can’t be fired without some legitimate reasons and paperwork…it has to be justified. Basically like any other job anywhere….without tenure you can just be fired for any random reason whatsoever. Also, at least in all the districts around here (maybe all of MO) you HAVE to be in a union to be employed. (And like you’re describing in Texas, the 2 unions in MO are more like organizations…they’re not that powerful). The reason we HAVE to belong to one to be employed is that the union is responsible for paying if we are personally sued for something that happens in our classroom. This way the district can back out and take no responsibility for us. So…in short, in my district: union required…union basically powerless…union=insurance in case of emergency. District=not responsible.

      • Justme

        We typically have a three year probationary contract when initially hired into my district BUT due to budget restraints, lately the only contract a new teacher will receive is for one year because the district cannot promise that the position will be available for the next school year. I have never heard the word “tenure” uttered from any teacher’s mouth – we just come to work and do the job that is expected of us.

        Being part of a union is merely a suggestion (due to the legal reasons you mentioned) but by no means a requirement and MOST Texas teachers are not affiliated with any sort of organization.

      • Nikki

        You obviously aren’t from the south. I’ve lived in Louisiana and Texas (and my sister is a teacher in Texas) and I’ve never heard of this so-called “lifetime tenure.” Now, my dad is a university professor and he has tenure, but even a lot of academics aren’t being offered that anymore. So if every public teacher in the country is, I’m pretty amazed.

      • Lawcat

        I think part of the problem is that “incompetence” in teaching could be somewhat subjective. If someone clearly isn’t doing their job, that is one thing, but I’ve seen parents who complain about a teacher being “incompetent” when the problem is either (i) themselves or (ii) their child or (iii) a combination of factors.

        Some of the time it seems parents don’t want to put the after hours work in themselves. They want the teacher to have the sole responsibility of teaching without at home reinforcement. Other times I’ve seen parents call for the head of a teacher over the slightest perceived infraction. My friend got called in to her principal’s office because a parent called to complain that she (gasp!) *assigned homework*. The worst part is, the principal backed the parent. There was a levy on the ballot and the parent was someone vocal in the community that could swing the vote.

        Some people see their children as an extension of themselves and therefore take criticism of something their child did or did not do as personal criticism. I think emotions run high when your child is involved and mama bear tendencies – rather than rational thought – can come out in some. In that respect, I’m glad the unions are there.

      • LindsayCross

        I think both of you guys make really good points. And I think these points are exactly why parents need to get more involved in their schools in general.

        Unions are necessary, because as Lawcat correctly pointed out, it is extremely difficult to judge a good teacher. Different learning styles, different attitudes, different parenting styles, they all play a part in how well parents and teachers get along. Also, I have to admit that I’ve seen more inept administrators than I have inept teachers in my time. I shudder to think about the state of our schools if we gave them unilateral control.

        That being said, I do believe that when unions protect bad teachers, they make it more difficult for any parent to trust them. They feed that mistrust when they don’t champion accountability. Of course, some unions have more power than others.

        The more parents get to know their teachers and get involved in their schools, the more active they can be in helping to shape the school in a positive way. If there really is a teacher that you find to be failing, you can let a principal know. You can lodge complaints. But also, you can offer support and gratitude to great teachers. You can show your kids how important it is to respect teachers. I feel like the more active parents get, the better our schools will be.

      • Justme

        Great points.

    • chickadee

      In many states, I’d say the biggest challenge is insufficient funding. When school funds are tied to property taxes, children in poorer neighborhoods often lack resources and well-paid teachers. In Texas it’s a given that the wealthier districts tend to offer better educations. Maybe we should address that before worrying about unions.