A Conservative in the System

Whenever I hear rumblings about the crumbling, worthless, liberal, failing education system in our country, my dander goes up just a bit. I happen to be a member of that community as a professional, and while the system historically (hysterically?) supports the liberal agenda and the leaders of such, I do not. Am I a member of my local union? Absolutely, but for only one reason: if I need a lawyer, I can’t afford one on my own because I get paid peanuts for performing one of the most difficult and stressful jobs on the planet. I recently received a request in the mail asking that I allow my local to donate a portion of my dues to support democratic candidates in the next election. My answer was “no,” and I was assured that it would not effect my standing within the union or put my job in jeopardy. We’ll see at contract renewal time next year.

I am not a teacher of history, but of English and literature (hence my name). During the last election most of my 15 and 16-year-old-students were completely enamored with then candidate Obama. Big surprise. He’s “cool,” right? I had to keep reminding myself that at their age most kids don’t really have their own opinions on issues such as welfare, foreign policy, or health care (and the prevailing opinion regarding education is that it should be abolished). They were reflecting mom and dad’s opinion and I knew long before the results came in who would win. Did I allow them to watch the inauguration? Yes. Regardless of how I felt personally about the new president, this was an historical event and I was moved as I saw many of my African American students hold tears in their eyes as they watched the new president stand before the nation.

I admit I did struggle with how I was going to deal with the “Who did you vote for?” questions. I’m braver on paper than in person and the thought of being confronted by angry parents made me a little nervous considering I probably wouldn’t have any support from my liberal administration. I might even be ushered out like Tim Latham from Kansas.

So, what did I do? I encouraged my students to educate themselves. I pointed out that many of the up and coming policies will directly affect them and their futures. I encouraged them to watch news stations beyond the Big Three. And, yes, I encouraged them to read. Ha! (It’s a sad thing to be a teacher of words.) In the end, they knew for whom I voted and it was okay. My goal was not to make them feel as I do, but to get them to think for themselves about what’s important now, and what will be important to them in the future; after all, most of them will be voting in the next big election.

I just finished my 5th year in the classroom and I can honestly say that I love teaching and I love kids. (This is a second career for me.) As an English and Literature teacher I am able to get students thinking and talking about issues. They love to debate and it does my heart good to hear them working things out for themselves. I know that the big push is for highly qualified math, science, and technology teachers, but let’s not forget that if they can’t read, they can’t be successful in math, science, or technology. There are problems in the public school system, I’ll not deny that, but most are caused by two things: NCLB and the break-down of the American family.

NCLB is a real headache for most teachers. While teachers as a whole want students to be successful, the system is broken. We are buried in paperwork that has nothing to do with instruction and feel pressure to teach to the test. This year I had 11 ESOL students (English Speakers of Other Languages) whose primary language is Spanish. They spoke Spanish when they were with their friends and Spanish is the only language spoken at home. Now, I ask you, how can these kids ever pass a standardized state test, written only in English using test language? The answer…they can’t. Their failing scores are included in the school’s grade, which brings down the overall performance report for that school. It also brought down my performance scores because 12% of my kids had no chance of passing. Things like this are what make a teacher feel hopeless. And it’s one reason that merit pay is a complicated issue. I must say that Obama has some good ideas; however, we must be careful when laying out the criteria for teacher recognition. For instance, rather than basing a teacher’s worthiness of receiving merit pay on student state test scores alone, professional development activities and coursework should be recognized. We are required, and rightly so, to participate in continuing education classes in order to retain our license. Why not include the fact that I shell out $4,500 of my own money a year so that I can be a better teacher in the assessment of my performance? How about teachers working in the inner city? I think they might appreciate combat pay in some cases! (I knew a teacher once who had a panic closet in his classroom so that he’d have a safe place to go when the riots broke out.) It’s a very complicated issue. And as far as leaving kids behind, well…

You know the expression, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Well, teachers can teach their students all day long but they can’t force them to learn. We can’t force them to care. We can’t force them to think about their futures, especially when so many of them don’t believe they have one. Last year I had 140 students and I was shocked by the number of them who were in the foster care system or being raised by a grandparent because they had no parents. For some, mom or dad had died and the remaining parent just couldn’t “deal” with their kids. For others, mom was in jail, or dad was in jail, or dad beat the crap out of Billy and he was removed from the home. Or maybe, just maybe, Susie is simply rotten. There really are those kids out there. They might have the best parents in the world, but something is missing inside. Try teaching that kid to understand literature or write an essay, or give a flip about the state test, I dare you. Then be judged on how well you are doing your job. The fact of the matter is we (teachers) need parents to stay on top of their kids, make sure the homework is done, bother to look at the reports cards, teach them manners, and for crying out loud be parents, not buddies with their children!

Are there lazy teachers? Of course. Are most teachers lazy? Not in my experience. Some people think that because we have summers off we get paid for doing nothing. Again, most teachers I know spend a lot of time over the summer getting things ready for next year. I, along with many of my colleagues, will teach different classes next year. That means that I have to work now on lesson plans for the beginning of the new academic year. In addition to that, I will begin working on my Masters in Education in September, and in December, for about 9 weeks, I will take a state required ESOL class, paid for by myself and completed on my own time. Furthermore, during the year I will be required to take one or two day mini-classes on a regular basis and attend weekly department meetings after work, along with meetings during the regular school day (interrupting my teaching time) to develop education plans for kids with special needs. Are you breathless yet? And I bring home less than five and a quarter a week. Yeah…it’s the money.

I found this interesting fact on the NEA website:

“Nationally, the average turnover for all teachers is 17 percent, and in urban school districts specifically, the number jumps to 20 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future proffers starker numbers, estimating that one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46 percent are gone within five years [emphasis added].

Teaching is not for weaklings or the faint of heart. In August, because of budget cuts, I can look forward to at least 30 students in my classes six periods a day. That’s a minimum of 180 9th and 10th graders. Before I was a teacher I thought that it must be a pretty cushy job. Lots of holidays and the summers off; what more could you ask for? Since I’ve been in the “game” I’ve learned that if not for the down time we would never last. I’ve only been at it for five years and it is the most rewarding, exhausting, and devastating (because of the heartache) job I could have ever imagined having. How many more years will I last? Time will tell.