A Conversation with a Croatian Teacher about Teacher Power

Teachers: Please join the conversation in the comments section at the end of the page and share so that others can get involved.

Below is a conversation I had with Irena (last name left out) earlier this week.

Irena has an MA in History and in English Language & Literature. She is a translator & proofreader, a “travel addict” and a book, music & nature lover. She lives in Zagreb, Croatia.


Irena: Hi! I saw the story about the fifth grade teacher from California who got suspended for reading a passage from Huck Finn. Being a teacher in Croatia for almost 17 years, I can safely say that it’s impossible to happen here. How come the school boards are so powerful in the USA? In Croatia, they don’t meddle with the curriculum at all, it’s not their prerogative.

Gary: The teachers in the good old USA have very little power. Why? Power has been given away to parents and students who – the latter often presume – know more about teaching than teachers. Divide and conquer thing, I guess. In the old days, teachers were probably more respected and supported by administrators. Now the school boards and education departments dictate to superintendents who dictate to principals who dictate to teachers who dictate to no-one. Teacher autonomy is a thing of the past and so conformity – a sort of anti-educational thing in itself – has crept into the American public school system in a big way. We need someone in the White House who can undo all the bullshit. Trump maybe.

Gary: I mean, sure, the corporate quick fix literacy programs like Ramp-Up with their minions in the school systems are, on some level no doubt, trying to be of public service. However, cookie-cutter programs like this are not going to enhance the quality of education in the USA. The educational abyss in the USA is much more profound and deeper than that. Few want to look at the real causes of a mediocre public school system. For one thing, that would involve tampering with the profit system in ways that would be anathema. Give them an expensive ramp up program instead. Few, if any, politicians want to tamper with the welfare system, for instance. Not only would that anger welfare recipients – many of whom do genuinely need help – but it would incur the wrath of corporate America. Take away the social giveaways and hundreds of companies – like Coca Cola – would see sales plummet. In NYC, the  “Ramp Up Program” was introduced into dozens of schools around 2004. It was so unbelievably scripted to the extent that teachers were really forced to say stupid things that are in the script – which is the inane lesson plan.
Gary: A superintendent in Manhattan once tried to make our school a “model” ramp-up school for the district with me as the lead teacher — I studied it for about two weeks and came to the conclusion that the ramp-up program was designed for automatons. I refused to go along and was running a video (I found videos to be enormously helpful – we used documentary films like “Welcome to Sarajeveo” and I had a human rights curriculum which hardly fit in with ramp up books) – when the superintendent observed my class one day to see how “ramp-up” was going. Well, it wasn’t going the way she wanted it to go. She began seeing me, apparently, as an obstacle to her ramp-up dream that might grow throughout Manhattan and beyond. So she complained to my principal who complained to me that the super didn’t want me to use videos as an instructional tool? Can you believe it? I asked my then girlfriend – an expert NYC elementary teacher – what I should do. I didn’t want to lose my job.
Gary: Well, she consulted with some other expert teachers and suggested that I ask a “critical question” – “What is the educational reason for not using videos as an instructional tool?” I had a feeling that this “critical question” would not fly that well. Anyway I ‘threw caution to the wind’ and asked my principal to ask that question of the superintendent. I got my answer the next day. The superintendent no longer wanted me to head up her pet project and our school never became the ramp up “model” for the district. Later that year it was announced that our school would close down over two or three years. Anyway the corporate invasion into the public school system with programs like ramp up means that someone is making a lot of money – not the teachers of course.
That’s how far downward education has gone – undermine teacher autonomy and shove a ramp-up-like program down English teachers’ throats. It makes for lots of control from above. Every teacher I knew hated ramp-up and students hated the program even more, rejecting many of the books. These kids are into books that reflect what is going on in their lives and communities – not books about white pioneers going off to steal huge tracks of land that the Native Americans had lived on for centuries. I’m not saying teachers should have total autonomy but the erosion of their independence has to stop somewhere. It’s bad for education. New York State has rigorous standards for people to become teachers. Teachers in New York must have Masters Degrees unlike many other states. That in itself, in my opinion, entitles them to a certain amount of autonomy and to run the classroom as they see fit. There are strong reasons why American education is considered by too many to be second rate. It’s not due to the quality of teachers.

Irena: I must confess I am terrified! We are encouraged to use as many tools as we can, and are always fighting to get some new equipment.
There are numerous problems in the Croatian educational system, but not the kind you are talking about. We would all like to be given the autonomy Finnish teachers have; however, it seems that one has to be happy with what one has got, since things could become infinitely worse! In Croatia, to teach in either primary or secondary school (high school), you also must have a Master’s Degree. It has been so for 20+ years. Before, primary school teachers could work with BA degrees, but high school teachers had to have an equivalent of an MA degree.
Irena: I have been a high school teacher for almost 17 years, all in the same school. I teach gymnasium classes and vocational classes (the system is different from yours). I have advanced into ‘mentor’ which means a bit higher salary, tentative appreciation of your peers (or it should mean that), and an obligation to help young (English) teachers (in my case). Along with teaching, I translate information from English and proofread English texts – mostly scientific papers related to public policy, public administration, history, etc. I have translated Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley under ground into Croatian.

Categories: Education, teacher interviews, Teaching

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1 reply »

  1. To continue the discussion a bit: A) Should teachers have more autonomy in their classrooms assuming they have certain credentials such as a Masters Degree in their subjects? B) Also, do you agree that teacher quality is not the major root problem related to students being unprepared to do well at the college level? C) What are the root problems? D) “No Child Left Behind” and Social Promotion: Is there a link?


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