Is It Ethical for Teachers to Refuse to Teach in High-Poverty Schools?

The whole issue of just how much choice teachers have in where they teach -- and how they tend to choose when given unfettered choice -- is one that many educators struggle with (or should). Some thought-provoking comments from the Pinellas County FL Learning Cooperative February newsletter [LINK HERE] cast the issue in particularly vivid moral terms:

After listing the familiar factors that made the current distribution of teachers so problematic, the newsletter presents the following fictional conversation between a local union president and superintendent:

"Local Union President -- Teachers are professionals and they deserve the right to choose where they teach. If they don't feel comfortable teaching in high-poverty schools they shouldn't be required to.

Superintendent -- Teachers are public servants, just like firefighters, police officers, and public hospital doctors. Do we allow firefighters to pick which fires they fight, or police officers to choose which neighborhoods they patrol, or public hospital doctors to only treat affluent patients? Of course not, and teachers are no different. We should be able to assign teachers in ways that best serve the public good.

L.U.P. -- These comparisons don't work because of the unique relationship that exists between teachers and students. Teachers and students are together five-days a week, often for ten months. If a teacher doesn't feel comfortable with these students, or doesn't think she can relate, then their relationship won't work. We need to trust teachers to make the professional judgment about which students they are most capable of teaching.

Supt -- The reality is that we do assign teachers to work in high-poverty schools, but in most cases these are inexperienced teachers who are the least well prepared to teach these children. So what you're saying is that it's OK to assign inexperienced teachers, but not experienced teachers. Seems like your primary consideration is not what's best for the students but what's most politically expedient inside your union.

L.U.P. -- That's not true, but we are tired of teachers being blamed for society's failures. The real problem is the lack of resources in these schools. Without adequate funding and community support teachers can't succeed in these schools. This lack of funding is what's unethical. Why should we cooperate with a system that refuses to properly fund these schools?

Supt -- I agree that these schools are under funded and need more community support, but I don't understand how assigning our least experienced teachers will help. A child is only nine-years old once, why shouldn't we do all we can to help that child while we are working on these larger resource issues. You're making your political stand on the back of our most needy children.

L.U.P. -- The bottom line is that we are not going to abandon our seniority provisions. Veteran teachers have earned the right to choose where they teach. They have personal issues to consider, such as childcare, transportation, and often second jobs. If veteran teachers were making more money they might have more flexibility, but they don't and frankly many will just leave if we force them to choose between work and family.

Supt -- So the least powerful children, living in the least powerful communities, get assigned the least powerful teachers. This is wrong. It may be good internal union politics, but it's wrong. These practices are not serving the public good.

L.U.P. -- We are not the ones under funding public education. We aren't the ones starving these schools, and yet we get blamed for not fixing this achievement gap. That's not fair and we resent it.

Supt -- No one is asking teachers or teacher unions to fix all these problems, but you do have an obligation to do all you can, and you're not doing that. By forcing districts to place inexperienced teachers in the most challenging schools you are undermining the public good. Police officers and firefighters are also underpaid but they don't refuse to fight crime or fires in high-poverty neighborhoods.

L.U.P. -- As I said, that's not a fair comparison.

Supt -- Is it ethical for teachers to refuse to teach in high-poverty schools? The answer is clearly no. The seniority provisions in your contract may be good union politics, but they're wrong and the public knows it.

L.U.P. -- You're wrong, and the public agrees with us.

Supt -- We'll see."


Blogger carpeicthus said...

By that logic, it's really unethical for someone not to be a teacher at all.

9:15 AM  

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