By Janice Strauss
The Cable News interview of SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher at the NYS fair has put her joint venture with State Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia in the news again. The TeachNY initiative, a combined effort between SUNY and NYSED is being billed as a “listening” tour around New York State. Chancellor Zimpher and Commissioner Elia claim to address the impending teacher shortage by going to the experts, teachers, and “listening” to us. Please note my quotation marks. There is a specific reason I have placed them here. I do not believe they are listening. I don’t even believe the questions they are asking have much, if anything, to do with a teacher shortage. In fact, I believe the entire tour is to promote the recommendations of the TeachNY Advisory Council, which was created by Race to the Top money meant to drive the reform movement.
On May 18, 2016, after the release of the Advisory Council’s recommendations, I received an invitation to attend the first stop on the “listening” tour. It was scheduled for May 25. To attend this important event we had only one week’s notice. It was being held at SUNY Cortland, where I now work as a student teacher supervisor and part time lecturer in the Modern Language Department. I am a retired (sort of) Spanish and ESL teacher. I had trouble freeing up my entire schedule and so had to arrive about an hour and a half late to this 4 hour event.
So I missed Chancellor Zimpher’s speech; Cmsr. Elia did not attend. I was told the Chancellor spoke for about 10 minutes and then left with no question and answer period. So very short notice, recommendations released before the tour, no Q & A --- I was starting to get the picture. It was time for discussion. My table’s assigned topic was “Excellent Teaching”. I suggested that teachers need to be allowed to be creative instead of having to follow scripted lessons. I was immediately stopped by our table’s SUNY representative, a member of the Chancellor’s cabinet and a Vice Provost for SUNY, and told that my information was inaccurate. In fact, she did this every time I started to speak. Listening? That did not happen at my table. Other tables had similar experiences. At no time did we, as a full group, have an open discussion, nor an opportunity to express how we felt overall or even to make suggestions. When our discussion time was up, the moderator asked us to have one person report for the table and to try to keep our comments to 90 seconds because we had 14 tables reporting and very little time.
I hope it is obvious why I did not feel we were being listened to. But in addition to that, I think the media have picked up on Zimpher’s comments about an impending teacher shortage and billed this tour as a way to address that. I disagree with that also. This is a link to a report authorized by the interim (between King and Elia) SED Commissioner, Elizabeth Berlin, back in February 2015, referencing the TeachNY Council and how it is supposed to advance the educational reform movement. It says in part, “TeachNY, an initiative to sustain the work of ensuring better prepared educators by putting in place policies for decades to come concerning the best preparation possible for teachers and school leaders in New York State." If you read it, I think you will see that this was never about a teacher shortage --- unless you would like to argue that it is about creating one.
Please understand, I do believe there is an impending shortage. Four years ago I had 20 students in my required Methods course; this past spring I had 5! If you are interested in reading a few ideas that my husband and I have for really solving this shortage, I invite you to read our Guest Viewpoint to the Binghamton newspaper. We were limited to 500 words, so we do have more ideas, but this would be a good start. I sure would like the Commissioner and Chancellor to “listen” to what we wrote!