Thursday, February 23, 2017

Teacher as Savior

Yesterday I spoke of a forum I attended in the Bronx. An interesting conversation ensued between audience and panel about recruitment for TFA and Moskowitz Academies. Evidently the pitch is that children of color must be saved and only you, the students, can get it done. Oh, and also we can give you a job after you graduate up to your neck in debt.

There are a number of striking points you could make about this particular argument. One is that there are plenty of public schools right there in the Bronx, and if you wish to branch out there are four more boroughs nearby with kids who could use your assistance. Another is that working in an NYC public school still beats the hell out of doing test prep for Eva and watching your hapless kids pee their pants rather than pause one moment from studying. She treats those kids a lot worse than I treat my dog (and in fact I love my dog, treat him well, and take him out whenever he asks).

Then, as one of the panelists pointed out, it's not exactly within our means to change everything. You know, there's poverty, there are learning disabilities, there is environment, and there are newcomers who speak no English. And make no mistake, Eva talks a big ballgame, but she doesn't take the same kids we do. 100% of the students I teach are beginners. They are most definitely not ready for intensive bathroom-free test prep, and that's not to suggest that anyone else is. If Eva takes ELLs, they are certainly on a higher level. Special education runs the gamut as well. Just because someone has an IEP doesn't mean she's alternate assessment, like a group of kids at my school. Alternate assessment kids are not expected to graduate. We take them to worksites and train them for jobs, and their stats count against us at year's end. And, of course, self-purported savior Moskowitz has a reputation for dumping kids that don't help her test-score-based bottom line.

As for TFA, sure you can have them pack you off to anyplace in the country. Sure you can help poor students whether or not you've got training sufficient to work in a public school. Maybe you've seen movies like Freedom Writers, where the actress what's her name (who, in fairness, has been in some good stuff too) singlehandedly inspires kids and saves them from their otherwise miserable destinies. Then there was the movie with Michelle Pfeiffer, where I think she shot a gun off in class, or jumped out a window or something, and didn't get fired.

One really cool thing about these movie teachers is they invariably have only one class. That's convenient, because you can focus on the handful of kids being saved. Most teachers I know have 170 students, and are pretty busy with things like, oh, grading tests and lesson planning. In my school, located on this astral plane, we now have grading policies so ponderous that teachers can barely find time for anything else. And don't get me started on gym teachers who have different classes every other day and are expected to perform this nonsense for 500 kids. I don't know how they even learn student names.

Of course teachers are a positive influence. Of course teachers, next to parents, are often the very best role models for children. And of course sometimes teachers can do incredible things, and there are extraordinary teachers. I know real stories about real teachers who reach out and change lives. I even know one who did this for years, who was threatened with an ineffective rating from a supervisor who appreciated this not at all, and who died alone one weekend only months before his planned retirement. I don't suppose that would make a movie script, as the protagonists tend to be gorgeous young white women.

The really cool thing about the teacher as savior model is it takes almost everyone off the hook for just about everything. Problems with your kids? The teachers suck. Failing the class? The teachers suck. Not graduating on time? The teachers suck. Teacher calling your house? He should handle it himself, that's his job, and he sucks. Why can't he be more like Michelle Pfeiffer or what's-her-name from Freedom Writers?

Not only parents are off the hook, but so are politicians. Arne Duncan, or John King, or Barack Obama, or Michael Bloomberg, or Joel Klein, or Andrew Cuomo (all of whom send their kids to private schools), can get up and tell some story about how a great teacher can change a life. That takes them off the hook for crumbling infrastructure, lack of a living wage or affordable health care, and allowing both parents to work 200 hours a week each to make ends meet. The implication is that a good teacher can change absolutely everything, and politicians are suddenly responsible for nothing, It's a WIN-WIN!

Thus you devise ways to fire teachers, like value-added, you devise ways to vilify teachers, like attacking their unions, and you devise ways to blame them for every ill of society. You even try to make a few films that drop the whole savior routines and stereotype public school, making charters the hero. You gloss over the whole pants-peeing thing because it doesn't make for increased popcorn sales.

Here's the thing--we do the best we can, each and every day, under incredibly challenging circumstances. We choose to go out and work with America's children each and every day, no matter who they are or how they come to us. We're not asking to be portrayed as super-heroes, but we don't deserve super-villain status either.

I want to support kids and help them to be happy, but I can't do everything. Politicians need to do their part too, instead of simply taking money from rich people, making their comfortable lives even more so, and ignoring those of us who actually work for a living. And we need to hold their feet to the fire.

The best idea would be to make folks who run schools patronize them. If the schools you run aren't good enough for your children, they likely aren't good enough for mine either. If Bloomberg or Klein had to send their own kids to public school, they'd eye very different reforms than the ones they ended up enforcing. You wouldn't have kids sitting in trailers, eating lunch before 9 AM, herded like prisoners, running around outside because there is no gym, or going years without glasses because even an eye check is unaffordable.

With Donald Trump as President, with demagogues like Betsy DeVos and Eva Moskowitz pretending to care about all children but giving in to the backward moves of this administration, our jobs become even more difficult.

Maybe we have to be super-heroes after all. Maybe we can. But our super-hero status will have to bring us outside the classroom and into communities, where we will be truth-tellers. Truth-tellers are in very short supply here in 2017.
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