For some time, I’ve been pondering a series of articles/essays on public education—or more specifically, on being a teacher in today’s public education system. The idea congealed when the friend of a friend on a social network told teachers to quit whining. She suggested we look at our hours, our benefits, our stability—and though I’m sure she was ribbing her teacher friends, her words echoed the sentiment that seems to be sweeping through our country today: it’s the teacher’ fault.
Kids in jail? Teachers didn’t educate them. Communities, states, and the country bankrupt. Teachers have ridiculously high salaries, too much time off, and don’t give a damn about kids anyway. Cut the teachers loose, cut their salaries, and stuff more bodies in the classrooms of teachers who “perform.”
There are so many issues—pay for performance, those “a” words, “accountability” and “assessment,” violence, parental terrorism, political name-calling—and even Don Quixote would wonder why he bothers. But there are undoubtedly right-minded folks out there who aren’t aware of the labyrinth of horrors that public education has become. As parents, as community members, as members of the system itself, perhaps some of these thoughts will strike a chord or provoke discussion—or outrage. In my opinion, many of the problems facing us are the result of efforts to be “equal” in all things, or politically correct in all things. Join me in the snake pit for a brief overview of how some of these problems manifest themselves in today’s world.
Teachers have paid vacations. Must be nice to have three months of paid vacations. --Maestras están en la gloria. The last was from someone who insists that teachers live in Heaven. She, like many mothers in today’s socially diverse society, speaks only a language other than English. That isn’t an issue to me, but the whole idea that teachers have such wonderful pay drives me crazy. In my city, teachers have NO paid vacations. None. Zero. No Christmas bonuses, no stock-sharing plans—nothing but our salary for 180 days.
Yes, we get Christmas vacations, spring break—which we may lose soon—and isolated other days. Plus those wonderful summer days, which allow many of us to find second jobs to bring in needed income. But paid? Our checks for the summer are from the 180 days already worked. Our days off are not part of the 180 days we are paid for. In other words, the district earns interest by holding back three months of our salary until after the school year ends.
While it is true that most teachers, given a choice (as we once were) would opt to have 12 checks instead of 9—the money isn’t for a luxurious and exorbitant 3 month vacation. It’s for work we already did. So, tell me anything you want about how wonderful a teacher’s job is, but quit with the paid vacation stuff.
In college, our professors invariably reminded us that we were there to help kids, not make money. Fair enough, we were warned. And the huge majority of us still in the field really do want to help kids. Question is, as the system collapses around us—how do we do that?
“Assessment” and “accountability” are the current rage in discussions of the education system and its failures. (No one points out successes in the process, just failures.) I will never be able to use those words without quotation marks again, because their use has become so twisted. Students and teachers should meet standards—I believe that and support many of the efforts to improve the level of learning that public schools offer. Teaching to a test is not assessment, nor is it learning. And no matter how the test-pushing companies, sales representatives, and politicians spout other rhetoric, standardized testing is replacing the whole idea of actually learning.
Students now see their whole job during their school years as passing “the test.” Teachers see their only job as insuring that students pass “the test.” To do that, objectives and questions take up every surface in a classroom, there are rallies and tutoring and benchmarking—but where is the teaching? Where is the ability to seize a moment of time and make it an important part of life, a living bit of history?
Every school will deny that testing is its be-all. Every single one. And many schools are probably less guilty than others of caring only about assessment. But careers of students, teachers, and administrators all revolve around standardized “assessments.”
Why not bring back real learning and let assessment be real, instead of artificial? Testing companies would suffer, but school districts would save millions of dollars. Teachers’ jobs could be saved—and children could be educated. Educated children could pass tests when they did come, and plan for more in their futures than more tests.
Accountability? Okay. We’ll deal in detail with that later—how children are not assembly line products, how on one hand the system wants differentiation and how on the other it wants uniform success—but let’s look at another angle of accountability: parental accountability.
There are pre-K kids coming to school in diapers. Some don’t know there names. (Luckily, in our part of the world, that problem is being resolved—pre-K’s being down-sized, so the problem is immediately cut in half.) There are kids who move from place to place and are never registered in school. Take a little girl whose mother took her out of school for two to three weeks several times in pre-K and K. She did the same thing when the little girl went to first because of age—had her in school about two months. In the child’s second year in first, a teacher started bitc—um, complaining—about the truancy. Teacher got on enough nerves that the child was referred, given a warning, and came to school regularly—for maybe two weeks.
Want to know something funny? The child was moved from the whiny teacher to another teacher, and the absences have begun again. Yet the teacher will be held “accountable” for the child’s performance, but the mother will escape any accountability at all.
Am I the world’s grumpiest, whiniest, most ungrateful teacher. Maybe. There are days I’m actually okay with my job. Like when one of “those” kids—the ones who walk across the ceiling when they get bored climbing walls—reads an entire book with such concentration that the other 21 kids are enthralled. Or like when the young man who hated writing comes back to tell me his life’s goal is to be a write.
Then I go home and turn on the news. And it’s all there again: the collapse of the world, courtesy of the country's teachers. I pick up my phone, or go online. Ask a friend or two if they've heard. And we vent, which was once the word for what teachers do after a hard day. In today's jargon, though, yes--we whine. Why not?