Teaching is to Serve Stubbornly (Part II)

In Part I I describe my general intent to stubbornly share about teaching. Certainly non-teachers looking to criticize have much to say about the job, and unfortunately it’s often crazy stuff: blaming teachers for everything from cultural disconnect to poverty to crime and incarceration… But with all of that muddying the tone, intent and potential of “reform”, it’s good idea for everyone to connect with what teachers actually do (instead of create a tiny box for the results to fit in for a non-teacher’s approval). If there’s more understanding of the limitations of the actual job as it is, and some agreement on what others could/should do, we can have some shared accountability for better outcomes for children.

Teachers aren’t entertainers, delivery workers, or just visitors

Teachers can’t just pop-in at lunch time with some Subway food , visit, give lessons in lunchroom etiquette, play “cool dad” for the kids and then leave.

“I will keep visiting and modeling lunchtime behavior for my kids, and for their classmates who can’t get enough of me (I’m the cool Dad, sorry if you’re not) when I join them.” (Chris Stewart, writing about his kids’ school lunch program)

I am not “cool dad” (no apologies necessary, not my aspiration). But one thing Chris Stewart does, in this article, is echo the concerns my wife, I and my daughters have had have about school lunches. It wasn’t that many years ago that Marguerite (Mrs. Lincoln) was the one making the delicious homemade mac-n-cheese-the kind that gets crusty on top and a little burnt around the edges; or those big breasts and thighs of that crispy-skinned chicken; or the moist chocolate cake with the peanut-butter frosting. Sure, the mashed potades were instant, but a butter pat and some warm gravy and blamma-lamma, baby! Mrs. Lincoln is still around, helps out when needed and at special events even though “retired”, and other cafeteria ladies have come and gone. One of her twin grandsons was in my third-grade homeroom and he’s since graduated.

But our pots and pans are also gathering dust, just like the ones Stewart saw in his dismal tour of some “central nutrition center” (how “big brother” is that?). Rarely graced by the purpose of culinary style or allowed the privilege of being put to real use by those who know better, the facilities have been essentially “reformed”. An outside entity tracking and judging food consumption, sales, credits and debts- in real time via nutrition and cost VAM formula type technology. Those pots and pans and spoons and spatulas, dusty or not,  are all present and accounted for- assigned a specific value. The food itself? Doled out in accordance to specific metrics to meet standards, and regulations. So many carbs, this many grains, that many proteins… all defined by gritty and rigorous high expectations.

All that effort and regulation and data…and yet still somehow having absolutely no freakin’ soul, and appearing like cheap, crappy, institutional food meant to meet some minimal standard while making it appear that people above the people who care enough to do the job are doing right by our kids. Way back in that mac-n-cheese when, lunch had real quality and a purpose, and our girls had to be given a limit on buying lunch. Once a week, unless something really special popped onto the menu.

But cafeteria reform sucked the soul out of what the lunch once was, so my kids have “opted out” of school lunch since…well, since about the time it was “reformed”.

That’s “reform” and “accountability”.

Real issues are ignored in the attempt of those atop to push a “proficiency” narrative, a testocracy, on those below. And teachers are being made to comply. So they can’t just drop in with the popular stuff and then leave, you know: r-u-n-n-o-f-t. 

And we shouldn’t want them to.

Good teachers don’t stop, judge, sort and leave. They stay and serve, and we need them to. What teachers do and what we need them for goes way beyond all the test stuff. As much as they want to deny it or sidestep it, the champions of reform admit it when they cry “cultural disconnect!” (regarding teacher perceptions of student behavior in the classroom, hallway…cafeteria?) and “prison pipeline!“. Clearly (and I agree) teachers need to welcome students, nurture students, connect with them on a personal level in order to get them to engage with the academics…and apparently teachers need to keep them out of jail.

I don’t think that means driving the getaway car, and I don’t know the internal mechanisms of the classroom vs criminal choice that happens in the mind, but could community, home and family figure into the formula? In Stewart’s article, there is a brief side-trip to judge the the failures of parents, the unseemly behavior of school children and the intolerable adults they’ll someday be.

“I’ve visited schools where the lunch period was an extension of other learning periods. It wasn’t a free-for-all. Some parents might fight me on this one, I know. I can hear the protests about how kids need to be kids, and how they need free-time to be wild, loud, and childish.Wherever you are working today, look at the co-worker who gets on your last nerve. That person had parents like the ones I just described.

I have waited years for this glimmer of understanding from warriors of reform that parents have power to actively raise children, just as they have a passive right to wait for a “school choice” to be offered.

And yet I feel no pleasure.

Because imagine far worse than some unseemly table manners (My stars, I do indeed believe I shall come down with the vapours!), or having some fun in the cafeteria at lunchtime. Lets talk parents who come into conference reeking of weed and asking how they can get to volunteer to help and come in sometime, because they “might get some learnin'”. Imagine thinking that it really would do them good, but there is absolutely no way you can add two stoned adults to your roster. Their child, whom we were conferencing on (back when lunches were still good) left their home when he got the chance, a few years ago (at 12 or 13, I think). He’s turning out to be a fine young man determined to make good choices.

He says I’m his favorite teacher (a label I’ll take over “cool dad” any day), but I care less about that than him being one of my tentative shared-success stories. “Shared” because many others besides me (teachers, staff members and students) have been there for him and cared, and I’m sure he feels it. But I wouldn’t say he’s out of the woods- I worry about some students as if they were my own kids and in some danger zone or something. Maybe I’ll stop worrying once I know he’s safely reached thirty years old. His older sister who remained in the home just got busted for another parole violation. She’s looking at some serious time.

Teachers never stop caring, and parents make all sorts of choices, every day.

It’s teachers, there in school, dealing with the repercussions of parent choices right along with the students. Now maybe I am disconnected in my low SES, white, rural, tiny district. It could be that poverty, drugs, crime and instability in family and residency are more of a country white thing. You know, not so much an urban issue. It could be that in the big cities (the original target of education reforms) bad teachers and their unions are the biggest problems children face.

I don’t know, and I know that I don’t know. That’s why I reach out and communicate. With school leaders, with teachers, with parents who thought they had “choice” until they were un-chosen, others involved… Anything I learn helps.

“You’re not an authority on my children, my community, or my history. You are an agent of the state and you’re employed by the single greatest threat to free thought and black liberation.” 

The first part is right on. The last part is a bit much but I respect him for the times when he actually comes out with his convictions and willingness to say things others in the reform camp will not:

“I care about the successful education of 8 million black students. Whether or not charter schools are “public” is immaterial.”

Like acknowledging of the influence of parents, there’s some pure honesty in this message. And it identifies the mission. I know that teaching and teachers can improve. I know that I can improve. I know that my union can do far more to activate the troops and press for positive change. I’d bet I’m not the only educator that would admit those things. Tap dancing around, engaging in pretending “choice” is a public construct just makes some reform advocates look silly, and I’ll take Stewart’s honesty over the dance.

 

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Evaluations That Make Sense

Did I actually get an email from NYSUT asking for money for the “No NY Convention Fund”, or is it scam email? I know shady people are out there pulling email scam stuff like that. Anyways, I know my union leadership would be motivated to advocate for more respect of my colleagues and inclusion of them in the process of education and constructing/collaborating on a new and more sensible evaluation. That’s why when I saw the “give us more money” I thought it was for a campaign to raise awareness of efforts like Assembly Bill A04016, submitted in January. I hadn’t gotten any emails about it, but it looks promising.

Here is the justification text:

“This bill repeals the current teacher and principal evaluation system.The current method needs to be overhauled as it ties much of a teacher and principal’s evaluation to an admittedly flawed curriculum and high stakes testing regime. This bill empowers the Board of Regents to create a new method for evaluating our state’s teachers and principals and makes sure that they will do so in a manner that takes into account all tried-and-true methods of evaluating an individual’s success. Continue to link our children’s educational future to a flawed system is wrong.”

Go to the NY Assembly page and check it out. Here’s the first ten lines. I’ll donate to get this passed and I believe that many, many teachers that would get behind this.

1 Section 1. Section 3012-d of the education law is REPEALED and a new
2 section 3012-d is added to read as follows:
3 § 3012-d. Teacher and principal evaluation system. 1. The board of
4 regents shall establish a new annual teacher and principal evaluation
5 system.
6 2. The new evaluation system shall be established with requisite input
7 from education experts, school administrators, parents, and teachers.
8 3. The new evaluation system shall be presented to the commissioner,
9 legislature, and governor as a report by no later than January thirty-
10 first, two thousand nineteen.

I’ll be raising awareness to oppose the convention, and I’m assuming dues are already partially spent in that direction. What about this legislation that could make a huge difference and inspire collaboration among all stakeholders?

When will that better conversation begin?

Granted, I cannot be allowed to tell anyone what parents of color trapped in under-served, under-resourced urban neighborhoods and schools should choose for their children. My country-white ass can’t cash that check if I try to write it because my account comes up pretty empty in that area.

Also, as I have said time and time again: I am one-hundred-percent behind parent choice.That means parents have the power, and are the first line of defense, and offense. I respect  and expect that power.

But that also means those shouting along with me about parents and their rights can’t suddenly shrivel and flip-flop and/or wail when parents who know better resist “reform” based on high-stakes tests; or when someone points out the downsides to test obsession. The pressure felt in a system that reduces human value to numbers is not something made up. Suicides really have happened because of that pressure. It isn’t “fake news”, and if anyone is disrespecting and demeaning the loss families and friends have felt it’s you if  to try and pull a “switcheroo” and pretend that protecting children from that type of emotional and intellectual assault is an attack on standards, or expectations, or is promoting “lousy education”, or is “dodging accountability”…?

That’s you protecting the pressure cooker, not children.

If you cannot even honestly address a point of view that doesn’t align with your agenda, then you don’t even have a high horse to be scolded off of. You’re not having any “better conversation”, you’re just stomping through that smelly stuff your horse left behind. I am more than willing to admit that there are bad teachers out there. I have known some, and am even willing to admit that I am not as good as I want to be, because my goal is to get better every day. I am more than willing to admit my union comes up short, at times, in effectively making education better for children-but you probably wouldn’t like my version of making my union better. It would me a little less political coffee klatsch and a little more teamsters.

But ask “Do charter schools benefit from their selective enrollment practices?”, or point out that test obsession can come with consequences?

Wow…is that the sound of the sky falling, or just some people crying as if it is?

In the same way that I am not going to tell other parents what to choose and how, or even try to pretend to know their situations and motivations, as a parent and someone who chose teaching as a career, (not a stepping-stone box to check on a resume aimed at business, consultancy and/or politics)  I also am not going to:

  • let entrepreneurs or “seed investors” or non-educators define what people need to know about education and/or teaching.
  • let a school board member with an ax to grind and eager to spout their view that teachers and unions are responsible for a “prison pipeline” go unchallenged.
  • let public relations and communications wrap an evasive horseshit sandwich in a pretty wrapper without pulling some of that paper away to deal with what’s really inside.

So please: I come ready to openly address the downsides of education as is, and if you come willing to address what’s really inside that smelly thing all wrapped up pretty that you’ve been hired to sell? Well then we’ll be ready for that better conversation.