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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.

WTF?

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!

  1. Gayle I agree with much of what you say especially that much of the blame for the school problems lies with the politicians both at the local and national level. But there are some problems in the unequal and unfair funding for schools. Live in a wealthy area and the funding and schools are generally great. Live in a poor area and the funding and schools are generally poor. In ideal world funding would be the same for all schools with adjustments based on special needs. Finally tenure and not being able to get rid of bad teachers only leads to bad schools.
    We need to do something and do it now to improve all schools.

  2. Dad:
    That is all true, especially the part about the funding. Poor neighborhood=bad schools. But is this a failure of teachers? Or of government?

  3. Thank you so much for your “battle cry for the mr. saxons!” blog. I am a teacher, who as the year draws to a close and I am entrenched in grading essays and trying not to snap at my students, have been feeling a tad weary and perhaps a little underappreciated.

    You just filled me up again and remided me why I do what I do.

    Thank you…

  4. My daughter went from almost failing Kindergarten to being the top of her class in First Grade. She has an amazing teacher who also sees the potential I saw after me wondering all year last year if maybe I was wrong, if maybe she did have a learning disability, if maybe I really was a bad parent who didn’t prepare her for school.

    She goes to the poorest school in the district in San Jose. Her teacher isn’t even allowed to use the copier this year because the school can’t afford paper. So instead of just saying “meh whatevs” like the other teachers she got creative with the homework. She tells them each day to do three activities and calls it “Homework Bingo”, they spin a large wheel she made out of bits of other things to see what their activities for the night will be!

    It’s not the educators, it most definitely is the budget. We have no school librarian (the books are all at least 5 years old) and no music programs, no PE teacher… but Mrs. Anchetta is doing her best!

  5. Already retweeted this and commented, but I’m still saying YES YES YES!! to all of this. I’m a librarian and I’ve had my share of good teachers and bad ones, but I have to say that educators as a whole are being driven down and broken into a stereotype that doesn’t really fit. HOORAY for teachers! They totally deserve to have their salaries doubled (at least!) and given the credit they deserve for changing the world, one child at a time.

    As a side note: a lot of teachers call the No Child Left Behind Act the No Teacher Left Standing Act instead. Food for thought, hey?

  6. My cousin is an English teacher. First high school, then grade school, now back to high school. The stories she has, about the things teachers are “allowed to teach and how” are almost unbelievable. A teacher can be the most awesomest at their job, and yet be forced to bend to the will of the higher ups who don’t have a clue about educating children.

    And the whole teaching to testing mentality is killing education. Teachers aren’t being rewarded for teaching, they are being criticized for scores on standardized testing. Something is seriously wrong with the system.

    Its the teachers who try, who push on despite all the roadblocks being thrown up in front of them that will inspire and teach our kids. Blaming them for the state of our education system is like blaming a town manager for the state of the US Government.

    Our district cut millions in the school budget this year, and yet no one on the board even knew how much they were paying the teachers, so they didn’t know exactly where the cuts were going to come from. (You can be sure though it will be in a reduction of “unneeded staff” and not school administrator salaries.

  7. This is a wonderful, and important, post. I’m Canadian, so our system is a little different, but in Nova Scotia grade twelve students have to write a couple standarized tests. One is an English test, and everyone knows it’s a joke, yet it’s used to measure the merit of high school English teachers. My English teacher–who was a good teacher, one of two who prepared me to write an essay in university–had to devote two weeks of class time to teaching is how to answer the test, because it went against everything we’ve been taught in English classes all our lives. She said that when she took the test to prepare the lessons she only got a 60%, and I feel confident saying that had everything to do with the test and nothing to do with her.

    I had a couple bad teachers–but honestly, none of them were so bad that they’ve had a long-term effect on me, or that I’d make an official complaint about them–but, like you said, it’s the wonderful teachers I had who stand out, like the one who told me that I was a writer, and the one who was in his classrom at least forty minutes longer than he needed to be every single day for extra help. Those teachers are why I’m a succesful university student, and why I want to teach one day. I wish I would’ve done more for them as a high school student.

  8. AMEN MY SISTAH. It kills me, the demonization and boogiemanification of teachers. I saw a stat somewhere about the average teacher spending $300 out of pocket per year on classroom supplies. Teachers are amazing.

    AND ANOTHER THING: Our public school PTA is already paying for music and art, because there is no funding for those “frills” in the age of testingtestingtesting. This despite data showing that arts classes are not only vital ways to engage young learners BUT ALSO are linked to higher test scores! It makes me nutcakes.

    Finally, people who think that relying on test scores for everything will save education are either naive or stupid. The tests themselves are frequently poorly constructed — go look at browniethecow.org for proof of that. And to keep their scores high, since funding is now so often tied to scores, unethical grownups are tempted to cheat (as I said in my column) and as Diane Ravitch points out in her amazing new book, schools will kick out or not admit kids who don’t test well…creating a bigger pool of undereducated kids AND proving the lie of Waiting for Superman and its ilk: choosing from the most engaged and motivated families and then drilling the crap out of kids is a great way to get high test scores but doesn’t help educate America.

    TEACHER ROOL, DUMBASS POLITICIANS AND BUREAUCRATS DROOL

  9. I’m actually a home school mom and I do have fundamental problems with the public school system (which I blame solely on the govenment–federal and state–and all their regulations, useless tests, etc that get in the way of teachers trying to do their jobs: actually teaching our children), but the reason I home school is because our elementary school made it quite clear through their actions and their attitude that they can’t properly take care of a diabetic. That and my son’s teacher was a bully. The stress of dealing with her and the way it was damaging my son’s self esteem as well as the diabetic issues were just too much and we felt it best to home school. That said, before this year, he did have some excellent teachers. His preschool teacher was phenomenal and I really liked his kindergarten and 1st grade teachers. I also had some amazing teachers when I was in school. More good ones than bad ones (though I do remember the bad ones quite clearly because they were AWFUL!).

    Even with the incredibly negative experience we had this year, I still don’t blame the teachers for our country’s educational failures. Yes, there are bad teachers out there and I wish there was a way to get rid of them more easily, but there are many, many teachers who genuinely care about their students and work really hard to give them a good education. The problem is the limits that are put on them by the government (and in some cases loud-mouthed, ignorant parents who are on a crusade).

  10. Thank you so very much. I almost cried when I read this post. It’s easy for teachers to feel completely unheard, even when it feels like we’re screaming. It’s easy for people to buy into the idea that “those who can’t do, teach” and that teachers only teach because they get summers “off.” It’s refreshing when a non-teacher publicly stands up for teachers instead of beating them down.

  11. I’m in college right now, getting my teacher certification. And there are days when I seriously question my sanity for spending five years in school (assuming our state and university’s budget cuts don’t push it back more…) so I can go into a profession where I’m just going to be vilified and told that all of society’s ills are my fault…by people who don’t even know the first thing about teaching. So thank you for posting this. This is amazing <3

  12. I teach PreK. I LOVE MY STUDENTS. We have so much fun together! Thank you for this post. It almost made me cry.

  13. I’m in middle school, and last year I had a teacher who almost every day gave us most of the class for journal writing (on whatever topic we wanted)and reading (whatever we wanted). And he didn’t grade us on how much we wrote and read; he didn’t even read our journals. He graded us on how much we were concentrating. Someone who wrote 5 pages or read 100 pages, but spent most of class goofing off would get a lower grade than someone who wrote half a page or read 5 pages. He also gave us almost no tests; only the ones that we were required by the school to take.And out of all the 80-something kids he taught that year, less than 15 of them failed. This year we have a teacher who gives us the assigned writing prompts and reading lists and insane numbers of tests, and in my class alone, over half the kids are failing. And you know what? Not only did I get better grades that year, but I also learned more that I will actually use in real life. I learned more common sense and life skills and such that year than I have in any three other years.

  14. And you know whats sad? There are prisons that have better libraries and gyms and stuff than a lot of schools

  15. So sad,so true, and so wonderfully said!

  16. I agree with a lot of what you said Ms. Forman about certain politicians, and that test scores (Race to the Top) are NOT the way to solve our educational system. However, in what other job except teaching is there complete job security after a few years? None! I found it astounding when the documentary Waiting for Superman compared the number of teachers with tenure fired each year compared to doctors, lawyers, etc.

    I support unions and teachers rights as well; I think they should be paid more, it’s a noble job. But Michelle Rhee’s proposal giving teachers the option of keeping tenure or increasing their salary was fantastic! It let great teachers, who don’t need tenure to protect them, get paid more and others who aren’t as good can be fired easier. I don’t see anything wrong with it.

    Just to clarify, I wasn’t like a huge fan of Waiting for Superman either. I thought that they sort of showed that there’s no way to change the system…. and then at the end were like “You can change the system!” So that was a bit strange. But I just don’t think that teachers are automatically scapegoats, etc. I think the teacher’s union needs some serious reform. Please also note that I am a current high school student and honestly, I would have gotten more scholarship money to the college I’m going to if I had had better teachers. Bad teachers DO stay in peoples’ memories sometimes!

    Thanks for reading this if you do!

  17. Thank you so much for standing up for teachers. I teach K-8 music and since music is now seen as “non-essential”, I’m going back to school – again – to earn a 4-9 middle childhood license. I feel like teachers are constantly being blamed and thrown under the bus for everything. How refreshing to actually have someone stand up for you. Thank you!!!!!

  18. I am an Art Teacher in a Middle School. We are a Charter School so we have a LOT of flexibility in how and what we teach. We have this thing that we do called Peer-Mediation where our kids are taught how to deal with conflict and how to get warring factions to actually talk out their issues. It is really fabulous. Thank you for your blog. I love being a teacher. Maybe one day I will actually get paid what I am worth but in the mean time, I will happily watch these great kids grow up and hope that I had a little effect on their lives.

  19. Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful comments.

    I totally agree that the idea that teachers get job security for life after two years on the job is silly (also, it’s not true anymore). And I suspect that entrenched tenure is part of what have made teachers such a delectable target these days. Everyone else is suffering from job insecurity, so why should teachers have this cushy tenure thing? Especially bad teachers? And I agree that the firing process is ridiculous in some cases (ever heard of NYC’s Rubber Room? Look it up). But this argument has drowned out the larger picture, which is that the majority of teachers are hard-working and awesome. Increasingly, they are hamstrung by testing and unable to actually do their jobs. Budgets are being cut, making it harder for teachers to do their jobs (larger classes, less enrichment, teachers paying for supplies out of their own pockets; the amount of stuff my child’s teacher just buys astonishes me). And teachers getting laid off en masse, in spite of all that tenure.

    So, yes, there needs to be a better way to deal with “failing schools” but it starts with identifying them. In NYC they started letter grading schools. What a joke! Schools that did horribly one year and marginally better the following got an A. Schools that did great one year and showed little improvement the next year (because things were going swimmingly) would get a C. And when tests scores are the barometer for success, it’s just trouble.

    Also, I greatly admire Geoffrey Canada and his schools in Harlem are no doubt a success but that does not mean that you can just start a charter school and add money and, poof, duplicate results. You need to have engaged teachers who understand the community they’re working in, an engaged parent population, and funds. (Small class size helps.) That kind of thing can bring success in any kind of school. But Charter is not the magic bullet. We’ve seen plenty of charter schools fail just as miserably as the regular schools they seek to replace.

    There are no easy answers. And blaming the teachers, that seems like the worst attempt at finding an easy answer.

  20. I completely agree with everything that was said about all the fantastic teachers who are making such great achievement with students!!! We are definitely a target for politicians! Budget cuts are definitely affecting best practice for teachers and students!! It’s a sad time in education right now!!

    I often question people’s understandings behind the comment of “bad schools” though. Does a “bad school” mean their test scores alone are low? Does that usually equate to a low socio-economic district with high poverty and a high percentage of second language learners? I work in a low socio-economic district with a high percentage of second language learners. Our district supports job-embedded professional learning through coaching. The teachers I work with have strong content understandings and are the most reflective teachers I know! What’s interesting is the fact that I live in a middle/high socio-economic area and my son’s school has some of the highest “scores” in the state yet I often question the content understandings and lack of best practice based on research that is demonstrated by teachers in his school. Test scores often seem to determine a “good” school which is usually in a higher socio-economic area. I think we need to look at so much more than test scores to determine a “good” school! It makes for a difficult struggle for myself as an educator and a parent living between these two worlds. All teachers need to be meeting the needs of all students no matter where they are at along the spectrum of learning. A great resource that supports these beliefs is “Breakthrough” by Michael Fullan.

    I also question whether we remember bad teachers or not. I absolutely remember them! Research has shown that it takes three years to make up for one “bad” teacher. Many parents I know now justify the fact that they turned out alright and they had “bad” teachers when they were younger. I often wonder how I might be different now had all my teachers been exceptional? Also, are our expectations that low of teachers that we don’t hold them to the highest standard for our own children? Would we make the same comment if a doctor were treating our own child or would we want the best doctor to treat our own child? Would we ever say, “This doctor isn’t very good but my son/daughter will be alright.” This is just my own reflective thinking as a parent and an educator. What are the subtle comments that are made that actually reflect one’s thinking of teachers? If we really value teachers of course things would be different now!

    A great school is one who has a leader with vision and believes that all students can and should demonstrate growth and learning. The best teachers I work with are continually reflective about their practice and are continually learning based on the needs of each of their students! I wish politics could understand the depths of this profession!

  21. Unrelated, but today in the car my seventy-year-old dad said, “Chels, are you the one who put that audiobook about the guy and the gal who plays cello in the audible account?”

    Me, “Um. Yes?”

    Dad: “It’s excellent! I’m nearing the end where she comes back after leaving him on the bridge, and I can’t wait to finish it. The writing is incredible.”

    Essentially, you’ve got my dad listening to YA!

  22. Wow. As a teacher, a mom, a writer, and a human – thank you, thank you, thank you.

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