Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Paying Your Dues

This is the season for ludicrous! No, not the rap artist, but the beginning of the school year. All across America this week, last week, or next week, teachers will begin the hustle and bustle of getting back with students. “Sit and git” meetings for hours accompanied by committee meetings scheduled around tasty high carb “breakfasts” along with “lunch provided by ____,” will fill their hours. Maybe one of the days or maybe two of the days will be unimpeded for unpacking, putting away, writing lesson plans, getting material to the printer or Xerox, collaborating or not, department meetings for directions and instructional focus, and meeting with a mentor or mentee. Then comes open house where we distribute syllabi we will never get to teach and attend freshmen orientation for those ninth graders who probably don’t need the information we give them about discipline and expectations because one of our expectations is that they show up for orientation. See how that works?

I know that many of you reading this are not teachers. I know that many of you just simply don’t understand what the fuss is about. After all, this is a profession that requires a lot of preparation, application and assessment. We must spend time doing this before we see our first class on opening day. We must. But something you are probably not aware of (unless you were in one of my classes) is that between the last exam in the spring and the advent of fresh faces in the fall, we continue to work. We do. We always have and we always will. If you believe we go home and put our feet up and watch the world go by, you have been given very dubious information by a politician, probably a school board person or your local city council member, or someone who has never in his or her life been back to a classroom since they sat there and did as little work as possible. Because the real line in the sand gets drawn at negotiations time. It seems that all of you from the mayor down to the dog catcher would never have whatever you have were it not for the cadre of teachers you faced year after year until you either succeeded and graduated,or failed and dropped out. So this particular message is for all of you. Every last one of you.

In America every one of us gets an education. We make a very special effort to educate every child—no matter his or her creed or color, national status, or political affiliation. We teach anyone sitting in front of us and sometimes those not sitting in front of us. This is what happens in our democracy. Our founders believed in this principal without any consideration of an alternative. Our first schools were in the kitchen of a local wife who taught the very basics to village children. Then the boys went off to advanced education and the girls became wives. Then we discovered women knew something too, so they joined the young men and went off to advanced educations. Today they go off in droves every spring, hopefully more literate than when they first arrived in the classroom. And what becomes of the teachers they have left behind? We pack up for summer with multi-page “to do” lists for the classroom or the subject and hope to get that done before August.

We stay behind while our students move on. And that means all of you. You have moved on, but we are still here. We are still in that classroom—some of us years later—attempting to repeat our past successes and avoid the failures because we know the new faces need the education. In fact, we know better than almost anyone how much more important the education has become. We have seen first hand the changes, enormous changes, in the way America works, banks, lives, votes and thinks. We realize more than ever the importance of critical thinking skills, vocational skills, computer literacy, math skills and reading skills. We recognize the value of an educated electorate, which Jefferson warned us was the only way to preserve a democracy. So we labor on into the late afternoon, still at our desks, attempting to find a myriad of ways to reach each and every student sitting in front of us tomorrow.

Noble, huh? Passionate? Dedicated? Determined? Deliberate? Tragic? What? Tragic. How so? Because for every hour we sit there piecing together a valid learning moment, we receive less remuneration than most people with far less education and responsibility. Now before you kill your screen, think back to my opening. How did you get where you are? How did you obtain those skills? Who labored over much to get you to remember to complete an assignment, much less turn it in on time? Who called you on your recalcitrant behavior? Who didn’t write you up for your behavior, but instead kept you back for a few minutes at the end of class and spoke from the heart about better things from you and for you? Who got you into that vocational class or school? Who helped you with your college essay? Who? She or he sits today in that classroom long after you’ve been gone and long after her or his current classes are gone doing their best to bring their best to students on what might be their worst day. Who taught you and focused your teenage brain on the concept of negative numbers or explained and relentlessly pushed you to look words up in a dictionary when you couldn’t spell them? Who helped with extra study sessions for AP exams or IB exams? Who wrote that letter of recommendation that got you into that school or into that summer job? Who?

Many Americans right now are having trouble paying their mortgages, for their cars, for their children’s college tuitions, for food. Teachers are among them. And of all the people in trouble, I will argue that teachers should not be among them—ever! Our way of life in this democracy depends entirely on the lessons of the classroom. Nothing, and I am serious, nothing works without education. If you as a member of your community, wherever you are, imagine that you can get us to continue to “be there for the students,” you better think harder (remember we taught how to do that better). Education is withering on the vine because newer teachers see the changes and are not as certain as they once were about entering the profession. Older teachers are leaving at the bell and working “to contract” because they simply have no more to give to a situation that repeatedly treats them shabbily. And this is a universal truth across America.

You have forgotten us. When tax issues are discussed, no one wants to part with more money. No one wants to investigate where the tax dollars go. You can’t depend on local newspapers or television coverage. They don’t want to know any more than you do. But for all the advantages you had from our classrooms, for better or worse, you will begin to see more and more of the problems surface in education that have to do with teacher workloads and salaries. It’s coming to a school near you, if it isn’t there now. So do your homework. Go to board meetings. Visit schools. Get a sense of what is being asked and how teachers are being paid and treated. We are your greatest investment and we are your greatest obligation because, in the end, we have the greatest obligation of all—to educate you and yours.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Going Back and Leaving All This Behind

Summer has been wonderful! I have a new son-in-law and my step-daughter had a wonderful, beautiful wedding. As her first hospitality event (her major), she did wonderfully and her dad and I are very proud of her!! We spent too little time with our children in St. Louis, but they have busy lives and we were lucky to spend any time with them.

Now I turn myself in a new direction. School starts for teachers on Monday. What a blast! To sit and get for hours on end and hear all the best we have done and all the best we can do and try to believe some of it. I've been thinking lately that those of you who read this must think I am a very negative person and probably wonder why I don't get out of teaching. Well, I am not negative about students; it's the others that make my day endless. It's the state people who have no clues and the tax payers who think we have nothing to do all summer and leave school at three and spend our weekends on our boat.

I like teaching. This is my 43rd year and I still haven't worked out all the kinks. I want to do right by my students. I want to be prepared and I want to accept the challenges they present and take them past the place they call comfortable now. But the hurdles are many and the day is not long enough to make everyone happy. Nonetheless, I am back at it on Monday.

I am leaving behind a summer filled with reading. May I recommend Sarah's Key and Little Bee and any Lee Child you can find? Also lunch and dinner sometimes at the Cottage Grill here in Port St. Lucie? And may I recommend any black and white movie after 1934 and before 1955? There are also evenings sitting outside in the ocean breezes (no bugs) and enjoying a glass of something cold. It was enjoyable to sleep late, eat breakfast, have lunch and then dinner without rushing through any of those meals. I enjoyed emails and texting with friends and family. We took pictures and looked at beautiful plants and sunsets and children and laughed at funny moments--all without the weight of Monday morning on our shoulders.

I've had lots of time this summer to think. I think about Nicholas Kristof and the columns he writes in the NY Times; I think about my friend Renee who gives so much of herself to her profession; I think of my friend Mary who still wants to make a difference for students at Affton High School (somebody please thank her) and my friend Karen who solves all my math queries and always calls with the most interesting issues. I wonder at banks and their greed. I wonder at oil people and their insensitivity to the environment. I wonder about the two students who argued about global warming with me in a pub in England one night last spring. I wonder how they view the world now or if they still buy Glenn Beck's spin on things. I wonder at the wild west of Florida law and ethics. And I come to the conclusion sometimes that we simply must put one foot in front of the other and keep moving like Cormac McCarthy's protagonist in The Road, looking for sanctuary in an inhospitable and hostile environment in the hope that even if we don't make, our children will.

I am promising to you, dear reader, to be more timely this year. I may not always have something to say about teaching, but the broader picture is a classroom in a much more important educational program. I hope we can all learn something this year--something that makes the dark lighter, the burden easier and our love for each other and ourselves more significant.