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 As usual, much of what was threatened was restored by some last minute “windfall”: pink slips were rescinded, the number of furlough days reduced, health care untouched (even though the providers themselves continue to diminish the benefit of “benefits”).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?