battle cry for the mr. saxons!
May 16th, 2011
So, I finally watched that documentary Waiting for Superman, you know the one that was much buzzed about last year, the one that basically says that public education is going to hell in a hand basket?
And maybe it’s because I appreciate a bit of nuance, be it in my books, my documentary films, or my feature films, or maybe it’s because I watched it on the heels of having returned from the International Reading Association’s annual conference where I met, and was inspired, by so many teachers (more on that in a second), or maybe it’s because I’ve had it about up to HERE with the political trend of blaming educators for pretty much everything that’s gone wrong in our country, from out-of-control budgets to under-performing kids or maybe it’s because I send my children to public schools and so I know that while there are some really crappy schools out there, so too are there some phenomenal ones (hello? balance?). Or maybe it’s because some of my best friends are teachers (hi Gretchen, hi Georgi). But can I just say, and say it in a way that is totally inappropriate for the classroom: Shut the fuck up, already.
I mean, seriously. Teachers? Teachers as the scapegoat? How we got to this sad state of affairs shows a couple of things, one of which is just how good politicians are at playing politics. Because, really, if we wanted to look at people who were rewarded for incompetence and idiocy, or whose hypocricy or profligacy went unchecked, we might have to look at people who, say, cheated on their wives when they had cancer, while they were gunning for impeachment of a president for having an affair, then left said wives and married the woman they were hooking up with and are now running for president for the party that stands for Family Values. Or, you know, the crusading governor who gets caught in a high-end prostituation ring, only to come back with a cable show that is likely his entré back into politics. Or, those who you know, spent our country into a deep-ass deficits by pursuring off-the-books wars and giving tax breaks to rich people who probably send their kids to private school. Not that all politicans are bad, but it sure seems like a lot of them these days are really good at slinging arrows, less good at actually solving problems. And the worst abusers just get golden parachutes, while the men and women who are dipping into their savings to buy school supplies because politicans keep cutting off the public money (but not corporate welfare) are having their parachutes burned, their paltry safety nets shredded.
Look, I get that there are crummy teachers out there. I see them at school visits. The ones that treat students like delinquents and wait for them to sink to the occasion. Or the ones who drone on, phoning it in while waiting for their pensions to kick in. And I will admit here and now that I have iffy feelings about the tenure that protects that these crappy teachers. But, I’d be a lot more willing to do away with tenure if I could be sure that come budget-cut time, it wouldn’t be the hightest paid, senior teachers that got the axe, or if I could be confident that teachers’ abilities were judged by more than just test scores. Because scores are bogus. I’m proof of that.Want to know what I got on my SATs? In the thousands. And I graduated college summa cum laude and seem to have done okay for myself. The tests like that are supposed to measure aptitude or achievement but really all they do is measure how well you take a test. Which is why so many classrooms now focus on teaching the tests, which is not only suck-ass boring but also counterproductive to actually educating kids. Oh, and it’s making them sick. And cheat. Read my friend Marjorie’s excellent column to learn more about it. Puke is the new black for fourth graders. You heard it here.
As for lousy teachers, I had some of them myself. But you know what? I don’t remember them. You know who I do remember? I remember John Saxon and Donna Huberman. Mr. Saxon was the stooped-over, chain-smoking eighth-grade English teacher who taught us really grisly poetry (Robert Frost’s Out, Out) and Bob Dylan lyrics and really sexy poetry (ee cummings’s she being Brand) though in the latter case, you had to analyze all the metaphors to understand just how dirty a poem it was. To eighth graders, this was the best carrot in the world to draw us deeper into the text. Mrs. Huberman was the feisty redhead who taught me senior-year physiology and got me obsessed with the genius that is the human body and who probably had something to do with me meticulously writing all those surgery scenes.
There are millions of stories about Mr. Saxons and Mrs. Hubermans. And yet, they’re being drowned out by all this bullshit propoganda. I don’t get it. There are good cops and bad cops. Good doctors and bad doctors. Good plumbers and bad plumbers. Good writers and bad writers. But none of them get painted with a single stroke. But teachers, do. Again, might I say: WTF?
This wouldn’t be so teeth-gnashingly annoying if so many teachers weren’t so freaking amazing. Like I said, I just got back from IRA and I met educators who taught me stuff. Like Kimberly Frykas, the vice principal of Crystal Park School in Grande Prairie, Alberta. When kids get sent to her office for discipline problems, do you know what she does? She gives them an emotional YA book and they sit down and read. Often, there are some tears.Then they can talk about what’s really going on, the issue behind the “discipline” problem. Dude, that is what I call enlightend. (Frykas’s school is in Canada. I cannot see this going down at a public school in the U.S. Teachers, if you’re reading this, I would LOVE to be corrected.)
Then I heard about Gay Ivey, who along with Douglas Fisher has written this book called Creating Literacy-Rich Schools for Adolescents. Ivey talked about this wild thing they did, which was—Lexile scores be damned—to do away with the required reading lists and give middle-schoolers the kinds of YA books they wanted. Instead of papers, the kids had to journal. And you’ll never guess what happened to test scores. They went up. Way up.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention Paola, my six-year-old’s teacher who works minor miracles with her 23 first graders. She has taught them how to read, write (as in write stories), do math, build marble runs, sketch, create ceramic flowers (they had to sketch designs first), which are now being kiln-fired, walk a mile for weekly field trips (bus money seems to have dried up) discuss life and death ( two of the class gerbils have died and the ensuing spiritual discussions were deep), be a community, be respectful. That last part really blows me away. Because those kids, they all respect Paola, but not because they’re scared of her but because she treats them with respect. She asks their opinions, allows them to make their own decisions. She has shown them that mutual respect is expected. She has raised the bar and allowed the to rise to the occasion. It makes my own heart swell.
Paola, Gay, Kimberly—their kind of innovation is what happens when teachers are not hamstrung by tests and mandatory curriculum and government top-down policies. So many teachers know what they are doing. Know how to get through to kids. And for this? For this we demonize them.
Again, I’m not saying our education system is perfect. Far from it. But seriously, can we stop blaming teachers and maybe start blaming a system that pays teachers less than $23,000 to teach 40 kids a class, six periods a day? That was how much MATCHED author Ally Condie made when she taught at a public high school in Utah, and it’s a testament to how much she loves teaching that she still wants to teach, still keeps her license active, even now that she’s a mondo-successful author.
But when a system pushes test scores in the name of not leaving any child left behind and then tells all students to race to the top—And why are we racing? And also, there is not room for everyone at the top. That’s not how it works. Some kids are meant to thrive in other areas, but no, we can’t acknowlege that—and then defunds education first when economic trouble looms, what the hell do you expect? So, sure, blame teachers. Might as well blame Canada while you’re at it.
Meanwhile, the teachers (and this goes for librarians and media specialists, too), they have unwittingly been cast as the Big Bad Bogeyman. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe the politics are too potent to push back against. Maybe they just suck at fighting back because they’re dealing with school stuff all day, and really, there’s only so much irrationality you want to deal with. Maybe they’re just too busy grading papers, planning lessons, changing lives.
So it falls on us, then, to speak up for them. Someone has to. It doesn’t seem to be working for the teachers to just defend themselves. We have to start going to bat for them.
I’m not sure where to even start. I know there is going to be a big Save Our Schools march on DC this summer. Spread the word.
But maybe the answer lies with students. Maybe people will actually listen to you (for once) on this one. I know that sometimes teachers seem like the banes of your existence. Often they drive you crazy. Overload you with work. Or bore you. But you know how sometimes as a teen, it feels like the whole world is out to get you, blame you when you haven’t done anything, crap all over you because you’re at the bottom of the totem pole? Well, that’s how it is for teachers right now!
You know how that feels. It sucks majorly. So go to your favorite teachers. Tell them you’ve got their back. And ask what you can do. What your community can do. And then do it.
We don’t need to wait for Superman. You are superman. And your teachers, they need some help!