This is prudent advice, I know. In all professions: ‘Don’t talk about your co-workers on Facebook.’ ‘Don’t Tweet about your boss.’ ‘Don’t discuss your professional circumstances on social media.’ And in my “profession”, where there is supposed to be some semblance of compassion, dignity, and never, ever, ever any sort of conversation that could suggest less than a full throttle, over-drive obsession with caring and support of our clientele, the situation is even more punctuated. [I may get to why I think this is so in this post – but it may deserve its own discussion, mostly explaining that there is a huge, percentage of people in my profession (primarily at the “top”) who simply lack any real understanding of the world of social media and even the internet in general… Remember when that one principal called me into his office because he was stalking my personal – now private – Twitter account, and accused me of talking shit about a pregnant coworker because he did not know how Twitter worked and was unable to understand that he was reading one side of a conversation I was having with a friend who taught kindergarten in Hong Kong? Yeah, well this same principle sent out a letter to the entire school telling them they could now address him as “Doctor” rather than “Mister” on finishing his EdD.] Recently, there was even an article in the freaking Atlantic for goodness sakes, talking about how teachers shouldn’t talk about their students on Facebook… because they could get “hurt.” Forget about the Tumblr site, Shit My Students Write. Or hilarious collections of absurd and delightfully clever “test answers” – apparently the posting of which could crush a student’s self-esteem to the point of total academic humiliation and shut-down. Sadly, much of this kid-gloves approach towards students showing up on social media demonstrates the most fundamental misunderstanding of both the students and our modern culture in which any attention is good attention. Not that I am condoning this, but I understand its reality and therefore when I see friendly and humorous ways to point out student successes and slip-ups, I think it is a great way to get to educate them… But as usual, I digress. The point of considering the wisdom in writing about one’s profession – or perhaps specific job – on line is simply because I really want to talk about my job. In public. Out loud. And honestly. And frankly, it might get me in a lot of trouble.
I am just not sure I care anymore.
I work in a huge (really, HUGE) comprehensive high school in the East Bay. That should be about enough for anyone with a clue to work out exactly what school I am taking about. And if it is not, there is enough of an internet footprint linking me and my work together already – my students complete their weekly current events via KQED, using Twitter, and their major senior project is produced on-line, this year, even using WordPress. So, anonymity and secrecy are both out of the question. Therefore, in speaking about my professional opinions and such, it seems important to explicitly state that “these views are mine” and are most certainly not approved of or sanctioned by my employer – though I hold out hope that there could be some agreement in ideology…. And anyhow, I am thinking, right this minute, about much more global issues than site-specific issues (though there are many.) And so it begins. I want to talk about my “profession” – my job that somehow turned into a 20-year career, and I want to talk about what seems wrong with it and what might be salvageable. I want to talk about working in public education, providing a service that we all (to some degree) believe is a basic human right, and working in a system absent any sort of direct personal incentive, and fighting to prove to a society that long ago began to decry, diminish, devalue, and defame intellectual activity that education for the precise purpose of being educated is important… And to have a chance to suggest that we might not be totally screwed.
Though it sure feels like that a lot of the time.
I have always been a square peg trying to cram myself into any number of ridiculously round holes – and not just professionally, maybe in every way. Through some retrospective views, it almost seems like I somehow have sought this fight out. But anyhow, here I am again. Square peg. I am the oldest, and somehow most conservative member of my current teaching cohort. For some context, I was born in 1970 to hippie parents and raised in Northern California among some of the most liberal (though not radically insane) grass-roots I can imagine. So this is a strange environment to be sure, although one that many would assume embraces all the best of educational values, pedagogy, and alternatives. Yet, here I am, wondering what the fuck is going on at every turn as I reach middle age.
- I do not believe every kid should get a trophy. End of.
- I do believe that kids should experience failure – it will happen in some way, shape, or form someday, so protecting them from it at all costs as part of the educational plan seems like a strikingly poor plan.
- I do not believe I am supposed to be “friends” with my students, or even the kids I coached. That is confusing for them, and weird.
- I do not believe that social promotion is a good strategy – if a kid flunks there is probably a reason, because our society hates losers, right? So how is moving them along addressing any part of the actual problem?
- I believe in fair consequences, sometimes – often – regardless of personal circumstance; you could not get two teachers to sign a permission slip in a week and you think you should still be able to come on the field trip? I heartily disagree.
- I believe that teachers are trained to deal with things and understand things that people outside of the profession will never understand, even if they have sired multitudes of children.
- I believe in unions and fair labor practices – but I also understand that in a profession where our experience and talents are never used as a way to bargain individually for our salaries and benefits, we are going to be reduced to, and assessed as, our lowest common denominator because the union must protect us “all”.
- I believe that grade inflation is a serious problem – though I place the blame for it outside of the public schools.
- I believe that there are far too many similarities between schools and prisons. And the related correlations make me sick.
- I do not believe that teenagers should determine their curriculum – in spite of many spirited debates on this subject with my students – because when you are 15, 16, 17, 18… you have no idea of all the possibilities that are out there; your preferences are most often aligned with your comforts. That will get boring eventually. Trust me, I’m old, remember?
- I do believe our society has devalued education to the point that students demand to know why they need to learn anything that will not directly prepare them for a paying job. So we have created a system that is meant to provide vocational skills (like prison work programs) within a system that was originally designed to allow students to learn how to THINK. Because back in the day someone knew that by thinking first you can DO all sorts of unexpected things later…
- I believe our society is dying a slow, and disgusting death as a direct consequence of self-interest and the resulting entitlement it has bred. It is not like we were not warned of this (thank you every ancient philosopher ever) but a symptom of intense self-interest is a corresponding myopia.
- I believe there is little to no real respect for my “profession” in America because of how the educational system is structured and wired, and regardless of the fact that in surveys teachers always rank as a respected field, we are vilified from all angles (if those who disparage teachers ever work out the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ strategy we are really cooked) – and we are one of the remaining fields where everyone thinks they know how to do our job with no training. And hell, in a system where non-teachers, or teachers who couldn’t deal with it wind up in administration judging those who teach, it is pretty easy to see why the public would hold this view.
- I want to believe, as Taylor Mali says, I make a difference.
And I have been thinking about all this stuff so much this year, another year in which my experience is reviled (“she has been teaching so long she refuses to try new things”), my skill sets maligned (“she is clearly knowledgable about the subject area, but this is not the point in teaching”), my techniques described as asides (“she is very organized, but…”), and most recently my favorite complisult: “she may be better suited to teach at the college level”). SIGH.
Sometimes I look around and I think, ‘Man, we could totally fix this…’ and then I realize the powerful irony that the systems put in place to protect teachers – from the all sorts of historical craziness – are the same ones that are preventing any of the changes that we need.
Then last night I watched this movie. Frankly, it is rather a piece of shit, (did I mention that my most recent evaluator believes that I cannot effectively teach high school students if they hear me swear?) and also really hits some of my deepest nerves – like that a group of parents know how to educate an entire school better than the teachers there in the trenches… but it certainly made me think about the systemic obstacles to improving my profession that would never stand in any other. The way the union is depicted in this film is exactly the way people have been trying to show unions – especially teachers unions – in America for a while now, and the idea that these parents are the knowledgable champions of how to educate children is the manifestation of one of my worst nightmares. Still, the movie forces me to look at some real issues, and I suppose those that rankle me most are the ones I need to look at most closely.
But the thing is – education is not a field like any other. And it is not supposed to be. It is not supposed to be for [immediate] profit. It is supposed to be for long-term societal & social gain [profit]. It is supposed to be what makes us all better – not just a few. It is not a business and should not be run like one.
But it should not be run like a prison either.
My school is trying all sorts of things to deal with the achievement gap. (That is the PC parlance for kids of color performing worse than their white counterparts in school. I think it is far more of an economic issue than a race issue, but I acknowledge that they are inextricably linked.) In their efforts to deal with this issue (not a new problem) they have applied a single strategy that all most adopt. To be fair, it is not a bad strategy, but teachers are not one-size-fits-all, and a single strategy rolled out by all the teachers is starting to ring a little false in the students’ eyes; students who have long appreciated the diversity in their days at such a diverse and comprehensive school. Not to mention that if the strategy is not demonstrated in a very precise way, it goes unrecognized by those in a position to evaluate its demonstration by the teachers employing it- and further not to mention the fact that many of those evaluating this strategy have never actually used it themselves. And so, with the best intentions, the institutional nature of education kicks its own ass again.
It is just so damn frustrating.
I wish we could give young people the one, brief luxury of having some time to sit and think about things they had not thought about before. About the universe, or history, or language, or art. And not to think about it in a monetized way, because we all know, these kids have their entire lives to hustle for the almighty dollar. But just to think for a few, open-minded years, about the possibilities they did not know were out there. That should be the job of education – because anyone and everyone knows that those who have heralded great changes, inventions, and paradigm shifts, somehow had the luxury of being able to carve out time to think about it, and somewhere along the line the process of thought they were (we are) all born with was cultivated and encouraged by someone in a meaningful way. School performance and grades and college attended have no real correlation to the great successes we all recall with such fanfare: Einstein, Gates, Jobs… But the luxury of time and encouragement to think certainly did.
My school is judged on student performance and college acceptance rates and such, and so the students hustle for the grades, because they are competing against all the other grades, and so the grades are all inflated, and so the colleges remediate, and none of it matters as long as you got into the right school, because it is not about what you learn but who you meet, and if you meet the right people, they just might, if you get lucky, give you an opportunity to sit and think and get creative.
What if we did it all the other way around – sit and think, get creative, get into a good school, get the grades, do the hustle.
It is worth a thought.
Or maybe I just need a new profession.