A Reformed Ed-reformer

Once upon a time, I was that young, white, teacher that really believed that the problem with my local urban school and our mismanaged district was the teachers’ union and the teachers that just didn’t work or care hard enough.

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I remember going to see Waiting for Superman and crying in the theater. Yes, I pumped my naïve fists at the screen, it is the teachers’ union. Randi Weingarten and Diane Ravich were evil and brave groundbreakers like Michelle Rhee and Wendy Kopp where champions of our youth. I used to think that a teachers’ strike was selfish and irresponsible. I thought they were putting their needs first, and not thinking about the children they were charged with teaching. The term education reform made me giddy with excitement. Did I mention I was 22? And while I haven’t completely changed my mind about all things education reform, I watch the brave teachers striking in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and Colorado, and I applaud their efforts because I know it’s not just about them, but also their schools, their students, and the future of public education in this country.

What We Blame Teachers For

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Lately, it seems like no matter what is happening, teachers are easy targets. Movies like Waiting for Superman and anti-public school talking heads like Michelle Rhee (who only taught for 3 years BTW) have painted this picture of the curmudgeon public school teacher who doesn’t care about students and simply comes in for the paycheck. The average income for teachers in America is currently around 39,000 dollars a year. For context, that is the same salary as tree pruners, dental assistants, healthcare workers (secretaries and assistants), and constructions works. And this year, just for a sampling, these are things that my teacher friends have had said to them

  • “You’re removing me? Well, this class is an ass wipe anyway.” (from a student)
  • “I better not find out where you live.” (by a parent)
  • “If you don’t fix my sons attendance you’re not getting paid.” (by a parent)
  • “You’re a petty bitch.” (by a student).
  • “Parenting comes 90% from teachers and 10% from parents.” (by a parent)

It takes real money to fix a school system, but it’s completely free to blame teachers for not performing. So that’s what we’ve decided to do as a country: Blame teachers because it’s free. And if teachers were really in it for just the paycheck, they could probably just go and become one of these many other jobs (not that those jobs are easy!) and probably avoid being called a Wild Cunt (true story, it’s happened to me).

Teachers Matter, but I’m Going to Say it, They Don’t Matter that Much.

Study after study shows us that a good teacher is a wonderful thing for a classroom of kids. A good teacher can help students raise reading scores and provide a lifelong positive association with school and learning. Saying teachers are important is a no-brainer, but when did teachers become the only important factor, the all-powerful, the Oz behind the curtain? We all want the best doctor, but imagine, if while being prepped for surgery the doctor told us that his surgical instruments are 45 years old, and because of budget reasons, they actually had to let the anesthesiologist go this morning, but don’t worry, they’re just gonna get the x-ray tech to step in. Also, because the hospital is overcrowded, he is actually going to be performing your surgery and another surgery simultaneously. It doesn’t matter how good the doctor is if he’s set up for failure like that.

Similarly, what if you’ve been stuffing your face with Big Macs and Häagen-Dazs for your whole life and the best doctor in the world tells you that you need to lose some weight and change your lifestyle or else your obese ass is going to have a heart attack.

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If you keep pushing those burgers down your gullet, even though your trained and qualified and caring doctor prepared a great plan for you, is it the doctor’s fault when your heart explodes? Here’s the thing, we can’t simultaneously say that teachers single-handedly hold the key to turning around a failing system and then get mad when they asked to be paid like they are turning around a failing system.

The White Knight Reformer

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We have created an image in this country of the teacher as a Mother Teresa figure, and this is problematic in so many ways. For one, this savior is generally a white, privileged person who is really taking a risk and really putting themselves out to help the underprivileged inner-city community. i.e. Michelle Pfeiffer and her leather jacket, Hilary Swank and her pearls, Matthew Perry and his one million rules.  Don’t worry, Stephanie is here, and she’s 22 and got a degree in bio and despite what her parents said, she’s going to help poor black kids.

Teach for America has been extremely harmful to the professionalism of teachers. Teaching is a craft that takes years to develop. It requires training and practice and dedication, and to say that well-intentioned kids can learn that craft in one summer belittles the entire profession. I have met wonderful teachers who are Teach for America and they continue to dedicate their lives to the craft to teaching, but more often than not, they come in for a year or two, save all the black and brown kids they can get their hands on,  move back to the suburbs and apply for grad school. Can I just say this? Black and Hispanic people don’t need White people to save them. We all need help from one another at times, but if you go into a situation thinking you are going to save people, chances are your motivation isn’t coming from the right place.

The Only Thing I Know Now

  1. It’s complicated.

So what if teachers want better pay. It doesn’t make them monsters. They deserve it. And paying teachers more only translates to better workers and better outcomes for our children. These teachers across the country aren’t striking so they can afford a new BMW or a vacation to Bali, they are fighting for their students, supplies for their classrooms, adequate staffing, and dare I say it, a living wage that they have worked hard for. Recently, Chris Taylor, a Bridgeport Board of Education Member, the district I used to teach in, had this gem to say about the teachers in his district when discussing budget cuts. “News flash — we already have Bridgeport teachers that are underpaid. They are here because they love their job. They love their students … They should be paid $100,000. Unfortunately, we don’t have it. And if they are going to leave over 6 percent, we don’t want them here anyway. Good riddance to bad rubbish.” So first of all, this guy sucks, and second of all, it’s not just a 6% pay cut. Bridgeport, like many other inner cities across the country, has a serious qualified teacher shortage to the point where it isn’t uncommon to have a rotating door of substitutes for an entire year. Since when does knowing your worth and asking for it make you “bad rubbish”?

  1. Not all Ed Reform is bad.

I used to work for an education non-profit called Educators4Excellence. They were fighting to see policy change that was designed and written by teachers for teachers and their students. They believed in getting teachers more involved in their unions to strengthen their unified voice. We have gotten ourselves into a real pickle when it comes to American public education in this country. We are going to need all hands on deck to help turn this sinking ship around, but the voices at the forefront must belong to those in the classroom. Not politicians, not philanthropists, not non-profit leaders, but teachers. The first step is learning to trust our educators. Trust their professionalism, trust their good intentions, trust their expertise and stop seeing them as the enemy.

Just as a good rule of thumb before you try to tell a teacher how to do her job or assume that she isn’t working hard enough I want you to engage in this little activity: Think back to the time that a teacher came into your office, decided she was an expert at your job because she read a few articles about your job or saw a few movies, gave you new initiatives to follow, tried to change your pay based on how you performed at those initiatives, and then decided that you where lazy and heartless because according to her, you weren’t working hard enough. Oh, that never happened? That’s what I thought.

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One Comment

  1. My daughter had a couple rotten teachers back in her elementary school days. If you’ve had those experiences then it becomes easier to cast them as part of the problem. I’m a nurse, and it seems to me that if one really wants to, it is a lot easier for a consumer to lodge a complaint or concern with the licensing board for a nurse than it is for a teacher.
    Just like the healthcare system there are a lof weak links sometimes it is the individual practitioners and sometimes it is the system itself.
    In one situation, when my daughter was in second grade, the teacher had left the classroom and was in her car when the dismissal bell rang. This left the kids very confused and resulted in my daughter being missing for while, because the teacher had told them to leave through the classroom door to the outside, rather than leaving the building through the front door. This teacher is still employed in our district, makes more money than I do, and will likely be able to retire sooner than I do. Both she and her third grade teacher had this wacky idea that they weren’t going to teach as most people probably understand the word. It was okay for the second grade math prodigy to teach my daughter division, but her role was to facilitate my daughter “discovering” division.
    I think there is a lot of variation in education so we all come from different places in the discussion. My daughter’s band teacher in high school had a Phd and earned close to $90K a year. I thought he was worth it. I know this wouldn’t happen in every part of the country though.
    I found that most of the teachers, especially beyond elementary were happy to go above and beyond to present themselves as experts in the subject matter they taught.
    As for the rule of thumb in the last part of the article, that happens in other professions. I’ve worked in health care for almost 25 years. If it weren’t for me experiencing others advocating, criticizing or making other sorts of commentary, I’m not sure that I would have been in a place to advocate for my daughter years ago.
    I would agree that Black and Hispanic or really anyone from a disadvantaged background doesn’t need a white person to save them. What these people do need however, is to have the same sort of voice in the system that everyone else does.
    I live in a very Democratic, liberal college town. I was educated in the Catholic school system. I assumed that the public school system in a liberal college town meant equality of opportunity. I did not really see that to be true though. People had no problems making statements like “I won’t send my kids to xyz school because most of their parents don’t buy them books” . Our school district has spent years talking about where we should build new schools and who should be “allowed” to attend them, instead of what is actually going on in the classroom.
    Just like the the healthcare system there is a lot of weak links in the education system. In both systems it is those from the disadvantaged backgounds that suffer the most.

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