Let us discuss the state of public education in America. There are not too many people that will argue things are going great. Part of this, of course, has to do with parents’ own memories of resenting their teachers and their blind support of their children versus the school. “My baby would never do that!” Remember when parents listened to teachers?
Now this is not to say that some teachers aren’t corrupt, aren’t terrible at their jobs and lie about the students to protect themselves. Half of the administration will still believe a teacher over a student, so there are ways to get away with anything.
I used to be a teacher. I was a high school English teacher, and I thought I was a pretty good one. Now I didn’t get fired or grow too old or quit in a huff of political outrage. I was pretty seriously injured, but that is not relevant to our discussion. The only relevance is that I worked in this industry (and I use the term ‘industry’ exactly how it is used in corporate America) and I watched some of this unraveling first hand.
To the non-teachers it is necessary to state that the worst part of the job is not dealing with the children. That is the best part, even if you have a room full of assholes. This is civic engagement, a sociological experiment and hope for the future combined. The teacher is always on stage, always performing for the class and this is truly exhausting. You keep it up, succeed and fail lesson-by-lesson until you finally slink home for a summer of decompression. And since teachers don’t get paid enough, those ten weeks of vacation usually include a summer job and the stress of making ends meet. And so these emotionally exhausted people never get the break that smug businessmen blame them for having.
The worst part of being a teacher, the hardest thing you have to deal with are both the administration/school board/school district hierarchy and the parents. Yes, I said the parents and it’s true. The parents have no idea what goes on in a classroom–frankly have no understanding of their child, who is truly themselves around their friends and not the deceptive, secretive person they are at home. And yet all parents (as they should to a certain extent) think that their kid is truly special, that they deserve to be treated differently, to be considered better than everyone else. I have even been at parent/teacher conferences where two mothers got into a physical confrontation over who’s child was smarter. This is not an exaggeration to make my point, but an actual horrifying fact. After the fight they blamed me for not doing enough to help their children succeed.
Many parents expect teachers to raise their children while they are in school, and this, to an extent, is our job. But it is not a daycare center and we are not there to play with them and oversee snack time and their nap. We are there to teach them, to give them access to facts and ideas that will help make them–at least we hope–into reasonably responsible adults. But the parents expect more. If their child is failing it is not because they do no work or call you a fucking asshole in class (happens all the time, and there is very little, any longer, a teacher can do to discipline this. I always accepted it, language being my job to teach them and having a sense of humor that makes it difficult to offend me. I didn’t care. Everyone needs to find their voice and if they thought a story or book or play was the ‘worst piece of shit I’ve ever read,’ fine, that is a valid critical response, just tell me why), but because you are being unfair to their baby.
I used to have three sections on my wall for hanging up papers: Best, for the superstars, good for students that impressed or surprised me when they ordinarily didn’t, and a small section to the far right called ‘WORST.’ There would be a new one every week, mostly blank quizzes with the student’s name and nothing else, or a pre-class activity that stated “I don’t know,” or worse, “Idk.” Sometimes the papers would say “I don’t give a fuck’ or more lightly a simple “Who cares?” These were the worst and there was always room for more. And yet parents demanded that I pass their child for giving me this. School administration warned me about failing too many students, talking about fiduciary backlash from the state and federal government. When I asked how I can pass a kid who’s classroom average is a ‘0’ they told me to figure it out.
This is the corporate mindset of schools today. Charter schools are the breaking point of education. A charter school, frankly, is no better than a public school. There are the same very good and very bad ones, the same teachers because many go back and forth from one type to the other, and the only difference is the blind lottery for students (usually backed up by bribes, influence or personal relationships) and the fact that these school’s chief concern is making a profit for their shareholders, eliminating union protection for staff and having a curriculum based upon whichever corporation is supplying the text books. They are a business and the business is to build future consumers and future cogs in the great big machine.
Education, along with the television news division, was once meant to be places that actually lost money and were for the public good. There were plenty of ways local, state and federal government had to make up the money donated or paid in taxes to fund schools and make an investment in the future of America. News divisions could easily make this up from the entertainment division and still offer a public service by letting viewers know what is going on in the world. Now the news is a sports talk show host, essentially, shrieking their opinions as fact and watching their guests yell contrary points of view at one another. But that is a discussion for another time.
Now it is all about money–all about money. Required test scores to pass keep dipping and some school districts have eliminated ‘F’s or even traditional grades out of fear of both lawsuits from parents and hurting a child’s feelings for being lazy or stupid or both. In some elementary schools the worst any child can do is some acronym of little meaning that says in code that the child is learning at a slower rate than expected.
I remember one time–and this will be my final anecdote before I wrap this whole thing up–I was teaching a book: Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ wonderful graphic novel The Watchmen. I had cleared this with my division director and the school even paid for the copies of the book. I was respected by my immediate bosses and was occasionally nominated for teaching awards, which are frankly meaningless. But this goes to show that the chair of the English department and my principal respected me.
I was following the thematic portion of the assigned curriculum, as I always did rigidly when substituting reading material, and I was teaching this in place of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which I hate and could not expect the students to think more highly of when to me it was torture. But we were doing heroic narratives and the uncertainty of moral conflicts in the world. Who is good and who is evil and can both sides of an issue think that they are working for the public good, regardless of being at war? This is an important lesson wrapped up superficially in a superhero comic book. The students loved it!
Then one day a roving assistant principal–former teachers, always, who were really terrible at their jobs, but had enough experience to get themselves out of the classroom–wandered into my classroom while I was teaching this. We were having a heated discussion on the meaning of one of the main characters and on this line taken directly from the book: “God exists. And He’s an American.”
The assistant principal looked confused, rifled through his papers, looked up and down and finally interrupted: “What is that you’re teaching?” I walked over and handed him a copy of the book. He flipped through it while I continued the lesson, looking up and down between me and the book with growing confusion.
Again he spoke up: “You’re supposed to be teaching Canterbury Tales.”
“Yes, this is a substitution. I cleared this with Mrs. —–.” I tried to return to teaching.
“This is garbage,” he said, tossing the book at me across the room. The class was no longer silent, student laughter, and yes, nervous laughter in defense of me, and the few shout outs of “Oh snap!” and “Motherfucker school you, Mr. —–!”
Never again did I have control over that class. Never again could I jab some information into their heads, except for the few who truly wanted to learn something, because they had been taught that it was okay to publicly disrespect me. In that class we talked about this incident more than anything else for the remainder of the school year.
My point is that public education–once the true stepping stone for the underprivileged to have a chance to rise up and be equal and every bit as American as the wealthy private school children–is no longer intended for such noble pursuits. Now it is the pay-off, the reason schools forge test scores, the reason that nothing is expected from the students. Schools are now sued all the time and the districts rarely if ever go to court. The announcement of a lawsuit is followed swiftly by the signing of a non-disclosure agreement to go along with a hefty pay-out. And this is school. Good luck, future . . .