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The New Kansas Education Czars

By Diane Wahto
Opinion | July 27, 2015

Recently, Gov. Sam Brownback and Kansas Board of Education member sent an opinion column, "New Teacher Policy Benefits Students." to state newspapers justifying their move to allow Kansas public schools to hire uncertified teachers for the six schools that applied for innovative school district status. The uncertified teachers would come from the ranks of "industry professionals."

I started teaching in 1965 in a Michigan country school. By then, I had enough credits to make me a college sophomore. I did not have enough credits to be certified as a teacher. Even so, the school, run by a few farm parents and uncertified by the state, hired me. I lasted one year. That's all it took for me to realize that that those students deserved a teacher who knew what she was doing.

The students ranged from first to eighth grade. Half of the sixteen students came from one farm family, a family that lived in a house in which the farm animals seemed to roam in and out of at will. The two little boys in the family came to school with dirty hands and faces, so before lessons started, I had to clean them up. The older boy in the family came only in winter because their house had no heat.

I tried to teach the little ones to read. I had no idea how to teach first graders to read. My own kids had learned at school from a certified teacher. Their dad and I read to them at home, as well. I'm quite sure these kids never saw a book at home.

The two eighth grade students were supposed to be doing beginning algebra. I flunked college algebra, but made a passable grade in high school algebra. However, I had no idea how to teach the mathematical concepts of algebra.

Even with all the problems, I liked the kids. At the end of the year, though, I knew I had to resign. The school stayed open one more year, then the parents decided it was time to send their children to the public school in Decatur, the village where we lived.

Now I see Brownback, the right wing members of the state legislature, and a majority of the Kansas Board of Education have no qualms about hiring uncertified teachers to teach Kansas students.

I won't go out on a limb and say that a CPA or a Spirit engineer can't teach high schools accounting or physics. I will say this, though. When a couple of non-teacher relatives spent a semester teaching in a field related to their profession, they found themselves more and more frustrated every day. And they were teaching at the college level. I can't imagine their frustration if they had taught at the high school level, as I did for ten years.

When I taught journalism at Winfield High School from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, I once asked a reporter friend to speak to my classes. She got there just before my 9 a.m. class and she taught to the students until 12:20 p.m., when we broke for our twenty minute lunch. Just before the 10 a.m. class, she asked me when we got a coffee break. I laughed and said we didn't get one. The journalism classroom was at one end of the school, far from the teachers lounge and coffee and there was no time between classes to get a cup of coffee.

This is not to say that all uncertified teachers would find teaching frustrating. However, what no one seems to understand is that a typical classroom is filled with students coming from all backgrounds. Very few students are on automatic pilot when it comes to respecting a teacher. An engineer or a CPA cannot expect to walk into a high school classroom and have his or her position earn respect from day one.

This is not even taking into account the behavior problems teachers deal with on a daily basis. It's one thing to stand in front of a class full of students and dispense your wisdom to an enthralled crowd. It's quite another to deal with several kids who are throwing things, sending notes, texting, calling each other names, nodding off to sleep, and doing in general what kids do. A person might know the subject matter. Knowing what teenage minds and bodies are like is another matter altogether.

I know little about the engineering profession, even though one of my brothers worked as an engineer for IBM for years. I know even less about being a CPA. What I do is how to teach, something I learned through taking teacher ed classes at Pittsburg State University and doing student teaching. I also knew my life would be infinitely better as a teacher if I joined KNEA, which I did as a student. Kansas National Education Association is the main bargaining unit for teachers in Kansas, as NEA is throughout the United States.

As a public employee association, KNEA is not really a union. KNEA members don't have the same rights as union members do. For instance, members of public employee unions in Kansas don't have the right to strike. We do have the right to negotiate contracts, with the terms for negotiations spelled out by state law. During the last legislative session, those terms were drastically narrowed.

Until recently, public school teachers had to right to due process after they had completed three years at one school. Some call that tenure, but it's not. Under tenure a worker can't be fired. Under the continuing contract law, now defunct, an administrator has to give cause after doing classroom evaluations of a teacher as to why the teacher should be fired.

Brownback and Willard make pretty statements in their column--"local board flexibility," "We value our Kansas teachers and have worked hard to promote stable funding...," "professionals can teach specialized subjects...."

What is left unsaid by these two is that this is one more nail in the coffin of the KNEA and other teacher unions in the state. Kansas is already a right to work state, so while public school teachers don't have to join the KNEA or any other public employee union, all public school teachers have benefited from negotiated pay raises and improved working conditions that the KNEA has worked for through the years.

My father was a Teamster. I saw the benefits of union membership in my family. I had no hesitation when it came to joining KNEA and I'm still a member of KNEA-Retired. I spent the years I taught, at Winfield High School, Udall High School, and Butler Community College as KNEA n and local association activist. I am angry now that Gov. Brownback and Ken Willard give lip service to supporting teachers and public education when it's obvious that their main educational goal is to make life more and more precarious for public school teachers. It's no wonder that so many Kansas teachers are bailing. I would.

I say bring on those industry professionals, if any can be found. See how long they put up with the frustrations and the hours--yes, the hours--that teaching requires. Teachers come to school early and leave late. They often have to work at the concession stand during games and do lunch duty during their already short lunch breaks. Fun times for the industr


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