When Did We Become The Bad Guys?
American culture - particularly American film and literature - has always had a love-hate relationship with teachers and the teaching profession. In the 18th century, there was the sniveling, ruler-slapping Ichabod Crane from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. More recently, we’ve become both engrossed and frightened by the brooding Professor Snape from the Harry Potter series. And who can forget the monotone, lecturing economics teacher from the 1980’s John Hughes film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - Anyone? Anyone? On the other hand, there was the reluctant, yet inspiring, musician-turned-band teacher, Glen Holland from Mr. Holland’s Opus. In the turbulent 1960’s, we were moved by the racial stereotype-busting Mr. Thackeray (portrayed by Sidney Poitier) in To Sir, with Love. Then there is my favorite teacher of them all - the leader of the Sweat Hogs – Gabe Kotter, from Welcome Back, Kotter?
I have been a teacher for 20 years. In that time, I have taught every grade from 4th through 12th (and even several semesters at the college level). A few weeks back, I sat at my computer and reflected on some of the many things I have experienced – in and out of the classroom. Here is a truncated summary: I have been hit, bit, insulted, peed on and puked on. I’ve taught LD, ESOL, on-grade level, below-grade level, wheelchair-bound and deaf students. I’ve taught students who have been neglected, abused and two who were raped. I have taught students who have been arrested for a variety of crimes ranging from vandalism to murder. I have also taught kind-hearted, generous, intelligent, eager students. I have taught kids who have won science fair awards, writing contests, and those who have been appointed the military academies. Some of my former students are doctors and lawyers, and one – that I know of – is a teacher.
In many ways, teaching has been a love-hate relationship for me, too. Throughout it all, I have loved every minute – every heart ache, every late night, every success, and every failure. Despite the numerous occasions when I felt like the walls were closing in on me, and I wanted to give up, I have never considered working in another profession – until this year.
What changed? Why now? Is it the prospect of making even less money next year (for a third year in a row)? No, not really. Money has never really been a motivating factor for me, or for any teacher for that matter. No one has ever heard a teacher say, “I got into teaching for the money.” Like so many other teachers, I have always worked summer jobs, after school jobs, or conducted/participated in workshops and trainings to make ends meet. I have worked at Walgreens. I have cut lawns. I have painted houses. I have taught on-line classes.
Likewise, this change of heart has little to do with the new law dictating how teachers will be evaluated next year. While the new teacher evaluation system has me worried (about how it will impact teaching and not how it will impact my pay), I have seen changes like this before. As my mother used to say, “This too shall pass.” My guess is that once school districts and politicians realize how much money “merit pay” is going to cost to implement and sustain, as well as the impact it will have on student achievement and the additional emphasis on the “teach to the test” mentality, this “new evaluation system” will be replaced.
What would cause a 20-year veteran, a National Board Certified Teacher, a two-time Teacher of the Year and an Exemplary evaluated teacher – and dozens of teachers just like me – to consider leaving the profession? The answer is simple. Somehow, we – all teachers – have become the bad guys. Suddenly, we all became Ichabod Crane, Professor Snape and the monotone, un-inspiring lecturer all rolled into one. If you think I have engaged in extreme hyperbole, or I am perhaps I am just whining – as a “friend” recently commented to me – read on.
This year alone, there have been numerous bills either discussed or passed by the Florida legislature aimed at “improving” education. These bills include the following measures: elimination of teacher tenure, teacher pay based on student performance, increasing teacher contributions to the Florida Retirement System (FRS), raising the retirement age/years of service, increasing student testing, reducing the number of “core” classes (an attempt to subvert the Florida Class-Size Reduction amendment), and last but not least – a 3% cut in teacher pay.
Why the sudden assault on the teaching profession? Perhaps a brief history lesson will help. In the lead up to the 1992 presidential election, political advisor James Carville coined the now-popular phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” No truer words were spoken. Despite the fact that Florida teacher salaries rank 47th in the nation (yet student performance has risen steadily over the past eight years), most people think teachers – make too much, work too little and have not had to sacrifice like others.
Looks can be deceiving. Politicians know this and have amped up the political rhetoric machine. During these tough economic times, politicians have bandied around phrases like, “cut spending…create jobs…pull ourselves up by the boot straps…” In order to get some of this accomplished, however, teachers and the teaching profession have become the proverbial whipping boys.
Politicians would like the voting populace to think that teachers have been unaffected by the current economic conditions. They make claims such as “teachers have not lost jobs at the same pace as other professions,” and “teachers don’t pay for benefits like other professionals in the private sector…” What they haven’t told the public is that teachers – good teachers – HAVE lost their jobs. All teachers have seen a gradual decline in income due to salary freezes, loss of summer jobs, loss of stipends and increases in health insurance and other benefits. The general public does not know that teachers have had to make do with less materials (copy paper, pencils, pens, glue, construction paper, folders, staples, etc.) and resources (school resource officers, health assistants, office staff, cafeteria staff, behavior specialist, etc. ) each of the past four years, with much of that shortfall coming out of their pockets. While politicians pound their collective chests when test scores rise and graduation rate increase, they fail to report to their constituents that teachers have had to take on extra job responsibilities due to cuts in personnel. The bottom line is the general public is misinformed, and the politicians who “represent them” have fed off this lack of insight to promote their own personal and political agendas.
To make matters worse, the language and tone directed at teachers by politicians has become increasingly vitriolic. I recently took a trip to Tallahassee to meet with six state legislators about pending education bills. What I learned and what I heard astounded me. One representative made the comment that teachers – those wearing red shirts as a sign of solidarity – looked “like Christmas elves…” Another representative barely let me speak. In mid sentence, he would intone, “…it’s in the bill…look at the bill…” between other profanity-laced comments about teachers, unions and the media. Most representatives were courteous and attentive. None of them listened, however. Their minds were made up. Things had to change, and teachers were the bad guys.
These bad guys – the ones you see holding signs by the side of the road or rallying in Tallahassee, Orlando or Miami – are not fighting for more money, fewer students or better benefits. They are fighting to keep their collective bargaining rights. They are rallying to prevent more testing for students. They are campaigning to maintain retirement benefits that were promised to them – some, like me, over 20 years ago.
Like the main character in the movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, I see myself slowly and deliberately forced out of the classroom. Not by budget cuts but through the deterioration of the simple pleasures that pulled me into the classroom over 20 years ago. Gone are the days when creativity, cooperative learning, project-based learning and inquiry reigned in classrooms around the state. They have been replaced with a standards-driven, assessment-verified, results-oriented, one-size-fits-all curriculum model. But more important, gone is the respect teachers once had. The steady erosion of respect for teachers is palpable in parent conferences, in the conversations among patrons waiting in line at the grocery store, and among politicians and other policymaker’s statements in the newspapers and on television.
As one legislator said to me, “The public deserve accountability…they deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent.” In one respect, he is right, but what good are numbers and test results if we lose our integrity, our compassion, our humanity along the way?
I will end with another axiom my mother used to say, “Be careful what you wish for.” Ultimately, you may not like – or want – the results.