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Speaking for teacher `professionalism'

After years of national school reform talk and action, it has become evident to many policymakers that teachers -- the most important players in the push for better schools -- need to be more effectively enlisted in the reform process. As leading reformer Gov. Thomas Keane of New Jersey puts it: ``You can't have real reform without listening to the teachers -- they are the one's closest to the action.'' It's a sentiment tailor-made for Martha Fiske.

For the past five years, Fiske stood by as the school she had taught at since 1971 underwent a slow change toward what she felt was the worst -- a decrease in academic standards, an increasingly bulky school bureaucracy, a tendency toward rudeness among students, parental ingratitude. The list is familiar. But the most disturbing change was an increasing lack of interest in the professional life of the teachers. ``We were treated like babysitters,'' Fiske says.

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Finally, like many frustrated teachers, she quit.

But Fiske was not just ``any teacher.'' She was one of the highest paid instructors in one of the best schools (Wellesley [Mass.] High School) in the country -- a ``Distinguished Teacher'' who visited the White House last year after being named by a student who won a presidential scholar award as his ``most influential teacher.''

Experts say Fiske's case is of interest since it offers a window on conditions in what are seen as ``better'' suburban schools.

Last January, before her decision to leave, Fiske wrote a letter detailing a typical day at the school to her principal. It was impossible to do an adequate job, she pointed out, in a day that included writing seven pages of college recommendations, counseling a student who had shown her slashed and burned wrists the week before, patroling the corridors, giving attention to 100 writing students, preparing exams, revising an article on Shakespeare's King Lear for a English teachers' professional journal, and dealing with constant thoughts about the hypocrisy of a ``superior'' school in which teachers are supposed to be the learning experts, but whose opinions on learning aren't sought, and who are worn to a frazzle.

By a kind of prophetic irony, Fiske's letter was ignored by the principal. Then it was ignored by the local town school committee.

By this time, Fiske had decided to quit. Not knowing if anyone would care, she took her case to the local press. The Boston Globe and other papers found in Fiske an example of what school districts must begin to face if they are going to retain top teachers. Letters poured in, thanking Fiske for speaking out, for not ``leaving quietly.''

Many of the conclusions Fiske reached on her own about teaching were echoed at the national level last spring by the Carnegie Forum report -- one of the most powerful and comprehensive teacher reform strategies. The report states that if America is to retain economic competitiveness, American schools, in the face of a projected teacher shortage, must attract a better kind of teacher than has ever worked in schools -- teachers adept at imparting learning and thinking skills. Teaching must become a more satisfying professional career for bright people who could opt for many other kinds of work, the report states.

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As Fiske put it in a recent interview, ``If you want me to be a professional and publish articles on `King Lear,' don't ask me to pick up litter in the girls' room, or catch potato puffs on lunch duty. Why not hire minimum-wage people? Isn't it counterproductive to pay someone $36,000 to supervise a bathroom?''

While teachers, through their unions, may have developed a reputation for themselves as shrewd collective bargainers, most teachers are still ``very naive,'' as one expert put it, about the politics of teacher professionalism. Until a month ago, Fiske, for example, had never even heard of ``Education Week,'' the standard source for all elementary and secondary school education news.

This is one reason Fiske has formed a group called ``Pro Teachers'' to discuss professional matters. A serious teacher with standards and conscience can't sit idly by, she says.

Problems with teaching in the schools are not just the result of administrative ignorance, Fiske says, but changes in societal attitudes as well. Many students today refuse to work for minimum wage, but at the same time feel they have ``rightful access to a stereo, for example.'' At dinner parties, adults ``may blanch when they hear you are a teacher.''

A prime example of the academic hypocrisy Fiske says good teachers can't abide is the proliferation of so-called ``gifted'' programs in suburban schools around the country.

``It's a yuppie thing,'' she says. Every parent feels his children are gifted, and parents like to have public schools offering honors programs to their ``gifted'' children.

Fiske asks: ``Are we doing people a favor by telling them they are something they are not?''

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