There are concerns that teachers are not from the communities in which they teach, particularly in urban areas, where differences in race and social class between teachers and students are magnified. Housing costs are often named as a culprit. One solution to this problem has been to build new “teacher villages.” These are typically lower cost residential apartment units built around or near charter schools, available to teachers working at these schools. One is now being considered for Washington, DC, to be built from funds provided specifically for charter school growth.

At first, I can appreciate this as an innovative strategy to revitalize neighborhood schools. But then you find that these villages are not typically available around traditional public schools, so this is clearly one way to attract more growth for the charter sector. Nevertheless, I can see teacher villages as a way to redevelop blighted communities, to provide convenience for teachers so they don’t have to commute long distances, and encourage educators to interact with the communities they serve. Given that teacher salaries are relatively low in most communities, lower cost housing diminishes one burden that is foisted on those who choose to teach.

When I think about this more deeply, I start to realize that teacher villages are a less than ideal solution. I have some questions:

  • Who is paying for this subsidized housing? Is this truly low-cost housing or is this actually a form of deferred compensation, which doesn’t really make this a deal for teachers after all?
  • Does lower cost apartment living actually serve as a form of bias against more veteran educators? I can imagine that these villages would be suitable for recent graduates in their early to mid-20s and not necessarily for “older” teachers, potentially with families.
  • Particularly in urban areas, why the association with charter schools? Additionally, if we were to map out potential teacher villages, are they most visible in low-income communities of color? With that, is this just another form of gentrification?
  • Will a teacher’s living conditions, or conduct in their private home, have any bearing on their employment?

The whole concept of teacher villages also reminds me of the early history of public schooling, when the profession of teaching didn’t really exist. Scores of young women, unable to find alternative work, were exploited to teach, so to speak, and bound by strict rules and codes of conduct. There is historical record of teacher villages in the mid to late 19th century, into the 20th century as well. Have you heard of the Boarding Round?

In the latter half of the 1800s, local communities designed schools to provide basic academic skills and moral education for children. Teacher compensation consisted primarily of room and board provided by the local community. The “Boarding Round” pay system was a strong incentive for teachers to maintain positive relations with community members and to maintain a high moral character. It also reflected the barter economy of the time.

This sounds almost exactly the same as the contemporary motive for teacher villages. To value teachers as professionals, there should be some respect for the individual to live where they want to live, to freely move about as they see fit. The motives of the community must not necessarily supersede the individual liberties of the teacher. Teachers, as they were in the past, are not owned by the company. They are not owned by the community. This may have been a convenient development for the early days of schooling, when teachers were young, educated women with very little in terms of actual rights or autonomy. They were so desperate to receive an education and leave their small towns to find work, despite very limited employment options.

Teachers still tend to be overwhelmingly white, middle-class women. Teaching is still written as a profession most suitable to women. It makes sense that traditional codes of sex and gender still permeate teaching and education. While the intentions might be noble, I think the whole concept of teacher villages still ascribes to a very traditional and restrictive view of teaching as a profession.

Education that values metrics over meaning is toxic.

I’m being cute with “metrics over meaning.” What am I getting at here?

Success as a student and a teacher is reduced annually to numbers. Each school year, as new metrics are invented and policies are aligned to value numbers, the power and control of quantitative values increases. Teachers will then, and with administrative approval, prioritize the kinds of methods to increase numerical scores at the expense of what isn’t measured, or perhaps what doesn’t count for evaluation purposes.

As NPR has written, this dramatic shift in culture is most evident in the early grades, where obvious play has been replaced by more seat-based and drill activities. Prior to a few years ago, I never taught Kindergarten. My first inclination was to think about dramatic play and other sensory activities. I asked early childhood educators what a Kindergarten classroom should have. Since I had nothing, I built, for instance, my own sand and water tables. I built easels and invested in costumes and other play materials.

It takes a significant amount of advocacy and risk to implement play-based activities in early childhood classrooms. Most administrators, especially building level principals, don’t seem to understand the level of “rigor” possible in hands-on, student-driven activities. I hate use of the word “rigor,” but I can play that game. And I can demonstrate the level of potential “rigor” in play-based curricula.

The kinds of teaching, however, prioritized by current teacher evaluation obviously values what produces greater quantitative growth than anything else. It values direct instruction, but not even meaningful direct instruction, which is possible. Evaluation, even in Kindergarten, values teachers lobbing meaningless questions at students just to say they were covered. Administrative review values a checklist of “things” that must be ticked off in a certain time frame, regardless if they’re relevant or not.

Beyond method, a test driven culture in early childhood creates a tremendous amount of anxiety. It narrows all conversations to numerical data. And it, as painfully as this might sound, encourages teachers to “cheat.” I can name dozens of ways that teachers cheat their data, some more obvious than others. This is a terrible foundation on which to build a school, and I don’t necessarily blame teachers for it.

Not all teachers cheat. Most probably don’t. I certainly don’t, but teachers that don’t are punished significantly for their honesty. Their growth is not as huge. They underscore flaws in the system. Those teachers are blamed by the higher grades for not sending them students that “know anything.”

All of this promotes a toxic culture of self-preservation, a CYA mentality that serves the adults more than the children.

 

 

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