Tuesday, June 28, 2011


The school year has finally ended, and I can safely say I made the right decision to leave public school. This year I sat on the sidelines as I watched my former colleagues receive seniority-based RIF (Reduction in Force) notices, better known as “pink slips,” furlough days, and other veiled threats to their well-being in the wake of deep public-school budget cuts. As usual, much of what was threatened was restored by some last minute “windfall”: pink slips were rescinded, the number of furlough days reduced, health care untouched (even though the providers themselves continue to diminish the benefit of “benefits”).  All this sturm and drang has taught teachers that there must be large and powerful conspiracies at work, so they should simply continue to keep their heads down and toil in isolation in a system that doesn’t really count them as much. 

The sad fact is the yearly budget cuts are the only aspect of the system that puts teachers first--they are the first to face untenable class sizes, reduced supplies, or the ever-popular job-on-the-chopping-block. Teachers no longer unite to gain ground, instead they silently lose ground. Workable class sizes, a genuine voice in school policies, sabbaticals, a guaranteed, comfortable retirement have become or are fast becoming things of the past. Teachers now must be grateful simply to have a job. 

This reduction of expectations is the best way to keep a work force cowed and manageable, and that’s the district’s real success. Now it can force its idiot ideas about testing down teachers’ throats without rebellion or even complaint; it can continue to hold teachers accountable for forces beyond any teachers’ control (a students’ family life and value system, for example); and it can continue to expect teachers to take the abuse of students, parents, and administrators without any real protection. As far as teachers are concerned, expect everything, give nothing is the district’s motto.
Then there are the school-wide effects: what had been a highly functioning and unparalleled performing arts magnet in my district has seen its performance budget severely cut; shows, conferences, and trips canceled; its best music teachers cut and not adequately replaced; its general ed. classes doled out to teachers with more seniority but less skill in the larger school; its unique class offerings decimated. The program has effectively been destroyed little by little over the last few years so that what had been a performing arts mecca is struggling not to become a footnote in the annals of what public school could have been. The age-old “if it’s not broken, break it” mentality of the district rules the day. And once again, teachers can either sit by and avert their eyes as the crushing wheels continue to turn or leave of their own free will. 
As I have mentioned in these entries, that’s why I left. After a second 10-year stint in the district, I “graduated” with my kids last year and moved to a private religious school. The year had its challenges to be sure, in that every new teacher must be tested, even if her reputation precedes her, and tested I was. Students who were asked to work harder than they had ever worked before and parents whose shame or guilt overrode their good judgment tried hard to erode the standards I had set in my classes, standards I have always set, standards which have always helped students. But I fought back by being as determined, consistent, and fair as possible. Naturally, once the students saw that they had learned something, that they were (and I really hate this word) “empowered” by what we did in class, their fear eroded, their hearts and minds opened, and the year ended well. 
Now when I go to a faculty meeting, instead of being in a room full of teachers who keep their heads down so as not to engage, who snipe just to have a voice, and who are in many cases embarrassingly unqualified to do the job they were hired to do--all the results of the district's erosion of the profession--I get to work with an astounding, award-winning faculty who really understand the idea of collegiality. I am asked to be at school only to teach, and no one really wastes my time otherwise. I work with an administration who share and support my goals. 
Despite my having landed somewhere safe for now, I still have to ask the question I have always asked: Why are these such impractical goals? 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Recently I was nominated by a former student for a distinguished teaching award offered by a prestigious American university. This is the second award for which I was nominated by a student in as many years, and for both awards, I have placed in the top 10. For last year’s award, though this was not stated outright, I did not make the final cut because, while my former students still loved me and said they learned more than they had learned in any other class in their high-school careers (an exaggeration all good teachers hear, I know), the students did not really represent the disenfranchised urban population, and I did not seem to be performing the kind of miracles one can perform with such a population. The committee did award us runners-up a decent sum of money for the first time in their history because they felt we were such strong teachers nonetheless. And that was lovely. 
This year I have not yet heard whether or not I have placed as one of the the top four winners, but I did, once again, get to speak my mind about this profession, this time to a large panel of people who presumably care about education. Because several on this panel were graduating seniors, I would be speaking my mind to future policy makers, and I felt that voicing the issues was more important to me than being politic and aiming for the win.
As I have said, just the nomination was an immense honor and placing as a finalist is still very moving to me, but what had to be said had to be said. One of the questions posed was a question that lies at the heart of why teachers are often mistreated and always underpaid.
The last interviewer, a wide-eyed senior, asked me this question: “We all know you are a good teacher, but what do you do for your school community?” Yes, she meant besides teach.
As anyone in this profession knows, the implication of such a question is dangerous. First, let's not forget what this profession really entails: prepping, which means closely reading literature and criticism and attending classes and conferences; teaching, which means harnessing the attention of students who often lack impulse control and have no idea what it really means to LEARN until you have unlocked the gates of understanding for them; grading, which means closely reading and writing detailed responses on reams and reams of paper; attending faculty, committee, and professional development meetings. This student's question implies that these essential duties of teaching are somehow not enough, that teachers who want to be seen as serious professionals need to be doing more than "just" their "jobs." 
Ironically, the implication of the question is that only by extending oneself beyond the profession can one be considered a true professional. Yet, would someone ask a true professional like a doctor or lawyer what they do for no pay, as if volunteering time outside their professional duties was a significant part of their professional responsibilities?  
This notion of "professional volunteerism" is lethal because it is the core reason teachers earn salaries that are in no way commensurate with other "professional" salaries.  Stipends for extra work, if offered, are rarely worth the effort and never serve as a true motivation. I have never received a stipend for advising the interdisciplinary journal (which I advised for 15 years at three different schools and for which we won prestigious awards each year), nor do I receive one for the newspaper that I am currently advising, and the tiny stipend I received as a department chair at my former school did not even remotely cover the amount of time and effort I put into the work. It's just expected that teachers will want to do more than what we are actually paid to do, so that's what we do. 
We all know that teachers do all the extra work because we are “passionate” about what we do, but more important we know what needs to be done beyond what our schools and districts are willing to support. 
Unfortunately, the interviewer's question plays into the wide-spread cultural expectation that teachers be martyrs for the cause instead of respectable and well-paid professionals doing what all the lip-service says is “the MOST important and NOBLE work there is!”
The real question here is why teachers face this unspoken expectation. I remember several years ago when I taught the incorrigible son of a formerly famous actor, I phoned him with my concern about his son's lack of progress in my class. The actor responded, in no uncertain terms and in a very husky and profound voice, “He needs to fall in love with you. If he falls in love with you, only then will he learn from you.”
The truth of this answer never left me: Of course, on one level, the actor notes that there is a fine line between pederasty and pedagogy (hence why so many of my colleagues have, over the years, ended up in “rubber rooms” or "on ice" or "paid vacation" until the level of the inappropriate behavior was somehow officially determined). But what he said is true on a deeper level because, let's face it, teachers are idealized parents. 
Everyone remembers the teachers they loved when they were in school, and current students always say, “I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Ms. ______!” or “Mr. _________ROCKS. He’s the BEST!” or “The only class I get out of bed for is Ms.______’s!” It’s clear that beloved teachers, like ideal parents, awaken their students’ better selves. Or as the actor maintained, teachers awaken, just as lovers awaken in all of us, our better selves. 
Either way it’s all about the love, and that’s why it’s NOT all about the money. That’s why it’s all about the unspoken (and sometimes unabashedly spoken) expectation that we serious teachers WANT to give of ourselves all the time because of all the unspoken rewards we receive. . . like all this love. 
That’s the rock and the hard place where we passionate teachers find ourselves. Shouldn't we merit more pay for this ability to inspire, for this ability to get students to write smart, coherent papers and read with analytical depth and emotional sensitivity? Isn't teaching well enough? Does our creating environments that promote intellectual growth and our motivating students so deeply that they are happy to pour out to us their artless love, invalidate our need to be paid well? 
You know. . . I really, really love my doctor. . . maybe I should ask him if I could just pop in for a no-fee check-up?

Friday, February 25, 2011

There's No Biz Like Ed Biz!

The President recently urged the youth of America to become teachers--a noble request, we can agree. But frankly, why should they? 
We have all talked about the degradation and demoralization that students and teachers suffer. In these entries, I have discussed the causes of this demoralization, in particular the malaise caused by a system that can neither praise nor punish. I have discussed the need for excellent teachers and effective evaluation procedures, and I have discussed myriad reasons the system seems to be failing and myriad ways to make the public schools actually conducive to education. But a topic I have not yet really covered here is teacher preparation, which is one of the reasons, if not the key reason, that school districts like mine 1) decided they have to make standardized testing the barometer for success and 2) decided they have to spend time and money to create stringent rules and scripts for teachers, many of whom they never should have hired in the first place.

Several years ago I was asked to guide a student teacher. While most student- teachers enter the room with shiny, motivational posters, big-giant post-its,  ambitious “fun” games, and other “dazzling” (at least they think so) appurtenances, this teacher was of a different breed altogether. He offered none of the glitz; in fact, he offered nothing at all. He wanted to teach drama and resented the fact that he had to put up with English-teacher training to get the job. He had no interest in reading, in thinking, in answering questions, in grading papers, in instructing or in motivating kids, and he made no bones about saying so. All he wanted was to stage-manage school productions and his motivation was, his words: "to get paid a full salary and have the kids do all the work." All that mundane classroom stuff? Not for him. 

I spent that term sitting quietly in a corner of my classroom, cutting out paper dolls from the manilla folders he asked for but NEVER USED as he stood in front of the room unable to get the attention of the 30 kids in his care. As he would fumble in the front of the room, clear his throat, and stare myopically into the crowd of kids, who were checking phones, talking amongst themselves, or heckling him, I cut away person after person in an 11 inch chain, so I would not cause him physical harm as he wasted my students’, and, of course, my time. 

Now, you might ask, why did I not eject him instantly? Well, truth be told, I am a believer. He has not confessed his cynicism immediately and I thought no one would want to become a teacher without the requisite passion. I also thought that if I could teach, anyone could, so all I had to do was confer with him after each class, and he would start to see the light and improve. Soon, however, the proverbial handwriting was on the wall, or maybe I should say the angry graffiti: HE JUST DOESN”T GIVE A $%&*! 

This fellow knew that once he slipped past this silly student-teacher requirement, he would be given a key, a classroom, a bunch of students who would never complain about learning NOTHING, and best of all, NO ONE would have the time or inclination to observe him. Stay quiet, keep your head down, and health insurance, summers off, and job-security would be his.  
After several weeks of thoroughly reviewing his performance with him and realizing that I would never slice through his apathy, I forwarded my evaluation to the student-teacher’s supervisors and mine. I am sure no one will be surprised to learn that no one counseled him out of the profession or failed him in his student-teaching course before more harm could be done. Instead, my students languished until I hammered enough at the process for the administrators to remove him, at least, from my classroom. 
But, you ask yourselves, was he eventually removed from his “teacher-education” program? Is money green?  He was given another lead teacher and actually "passed" the student-teaching requirement of his education program, though his methods, as he was proud to tell me when he saw me again some time later, remained the same. I guess he showed me!
I was reminded of another equally disheartening incident. Several years ago, a few students from the education school that was part of the university where I was earning my masters degree in English were enrolled in a couple of the graduate English classes I was taking. What these students all had in common was the fact that they never did the reading and never had anything to say in class. Well into the semester, tired of failing, I suppose, many of them simply dropped the courses. Lo and behold, a year later at my graduation, there they were, standing proudly under the GRADUATE SCHOOL OF  EDUCATION banner. I guess they showed me!
What these education students showed everyone is what all parents, teachers, retired lawyers, failed doctors, and empty-nest housewives or husbands all know: ANYONE CAN TEACH. But should they? 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I Could Have Danced All Night

 Often teachers who uphold high standards face students who have no standards. In too many instances students receive inflated grades because standards of excellence vary from year to year, class to class. Add to this disparity, along with the ensuing confusion, the fact that we are smack in the middle of the age of entitlement and its bedfellow, zero accountability, and the classroom can become a treacherous place. When I face students who don’t understand why all their “hard work” doesn’t instantly add up to A’s, I first despair; then I offer this:
I spent several of my formative years in a ballet class designed to groom professional dancers, but even at the tender age of nine, I could tell that with all the hard work in the world, I was not going to be one of those professionals. Yes, I had the grace, the musical sensibilities, but I did not have an instep that started under my knee and an extension that tipped the clouds. Our teacher, Mme. T., was a beautiful, if severe, Russian woman whose days of dance glory had long since passed, but her keen eye and exacting standards dominated the room. She would start us at the barre and would glare at us with her stern, icy blue eyes as she marched around the class in ballet slippers with small wooden heels that clicked ominously with her every step. I remember the terror I would feel as she approached. We were to pull up, to stretch, to point fiercely, to turn out as far as we could. She would sometimes bend down to adjust a curled foot, but she always carried a polished wooden stick that she would use to tap us in whichever areas needed to be reminded to tuck in, straighten up, point hard, and turn out. 
After the barre exercises, grueling for their stillness, we would line up to jeté, pirouette, chaîné, pas de bourré across the floor. The class pianist would rev-up, and we each would glide across the floor with as much fleet-footed grace and speed as we could muster. Then would come selection time for the center-of-the-floor exercises. Mme. T. would use her stick to point to us and indicate the spots where we were each to stand for this portion of the class. Invariably, I would make the back row, left corner. 
Now, you might ask, did my mother call to complain about the humiliation I must have suffered at being placed in the back of the room for every class? Or did I cry and feel dispirited because I was not making the kind of progress that would put me into the same league as the pre-professionals? Or did I ever say to myself, “This is just too hard, so I am not even going to try!”?  Or when I finally realized that I should not continue the classes because they would require too much after-school time for a student not on the professional track, did I say, “Well, since I can’t do it, I hate dance! NEVER AGAIN!”? And most important, did I EVER blame Mme T. for upholding standards that I clearly could not meet no matter how hard I tried?
The answer? A resounding NO!
Being in a room with excellence, where nearly unreachable standards were the norm, was a gift. I always knew where I stood, yes, in the back of the room.  And I always knew that even if I could not achieve greatness, greatness existed. For me, that was the truest comfort. To this day, I have taught all my classes with this thought in mind: genuine, hard work not empty praise and pandering (whether to students or parents) yields success and self-esteem. 
These days the only alumni contributions I make are to that ballet school’s scholarship fund; the only cultural contributions I make are to support dance performances in my city; and, most important, one of the only exercises I still love? Dance classes, of course!