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Though I have been teaching for six years, I have never really been a vocal advocate for schools. Never really knew how, I guess. Never really cared enough either, to be honest. For many years, my priorities were toxic at best and deadly at worst. But regardless of my priorities, I have never been the kind of person that marches in protests, calls myself an activist, or even enjoys the idea of joining thousands of people united for a single cause. I’m not a fan of crowds AT ALL!! And honestly, until the past few weeks, the very thought of standing around cheering and congregating and demanding the ear of our legislators has been about as appealing to me as a fourteen hour IEP meeting.
So maybe I’m not the rah-rah activist type. I probably never will be. It’s just not my personality. But in watching the reaction to the upcoming teacher rally on social media, I started feeling this urge to really begin standing up for my profession and my students. In much the same way I’m in the midst of one, public education in North Carolina clearly needs a comeback.
In late May I will be two years sober after two decades of addiction. My comeback is still young. But it’s time for me to start making an impact in my career outside the four walls of my classroom. Reading the public reaction to the upcoming teacher rally seemed like a great place to start. Some of the reactions have been so undeserved it’s made me embarrassed by some of my fellow North Carolinians. And some others just want to irrationally bitch seemingly for the sake of just bitching. And yes, some others have been legitimate arguments and concerns. But not many.
I have spent WAY too much time the past few weeks reading the comments on social media any time I see an article or post about the rally, and one theme has stood out to me over and over and over again. And it’s been almost startling to me. In the public’s eyes, teachers are being blamed for all the educational deficiencies we had no hand in creating.
Six years ago, when I took up that ever-so-noble mid-career change to do something important with my life and become a teacher, I knew what teachers were paid. That still doesn’t really bother me. The insurance I pay for my family bothers me, but my wife is a hygienist (and she’s amazing; this parenthetical addendum was written solely for brownie points,) so we’re okay.
But what I didn’t know six years ago, and it’s now taken me exactly that many years to discover, is that the decline in all things education – pay, benefits, test scores, school grades, attendance, Common Core implementation, discipline, student expectations, student achievement, etc. – is blamed on the wrong people.
On Monday, I will return to my Title 1 high school with its nearly 80% free and reduced lunch, and I will stand in front of my high school freshmen, some of whom might have had two good meals over the ten calendar days of spring break, and I will continue teaching them quadratic applications, which is, of course, a requirement under Unit Five of the Math 1 curriculum. I will do this with complete pride and respect for my position and the students I teach, and I will do so without politically indoctrinating my students in any way whatsoever. To the best of my knowledge, my peers will do the same.
I will soon thereafter move on to Unit Six and then spend a couple of weeks reviewing for an EOC that my administration says cannot be used as a determining factor as to whether or not a student fails the class. Sometime before the end of the school year, I will also have to check in with our distance learning teacher to see if the students who “failed” my class during the THIRD quarter did enough make up, get-out-of-jail free work to allow me to backtrack and give them a passing grade for the third quarter.
These instructions were given to me by my administration. In most cases, I do not believe my school administration is solely responsible for the instructions that we accept but about which we do not always agree. I think very highly of my school’s administration, actually. I think the directives that have contributed to the decline of education in North Carolina have come from the top, and whether that is the Department of Public Instruction, the General Assembly, or our county office, I do not know, but I do believe it happens for one main reason: to make the school system look better than it actually is. It’s all about the data. And when the data isn’t good, even the data that teachers had no hand in creating, the blame (in the public’s eye, at least) all goes back to the teachers.
For instance, I believe in the incredible life lessons that come from learning to overcome our failings. I think students should learn that same lesson. It’s not my decision to allow them multiple chances to pass without EVER experiencing their own reaction to an actual failing grade. It’s also not my decision to often just “push them on through” because they simply refuse to do the work. But more people passing looks really good in the data folder, so there will be a lot of students passing that do NOT deserve it.
Then again, it IS my decision to work in a school where a great number of students do not get their basic needs met at home, thus bringing in a variable that will never show up in that data. So there will inevitably be a moment in the next month where my heart makes a decision my brain never would, and I’ll pass a student that absolutely does not deserve it.
But that’s the data we control. We can manipulate it, which means you have no idea if that data is meaningful or not. Some of the data – test scores, for instance – cannot be as easily manipulated, unless DPI decides to put a massive curve on exams (and they do.) So when the data that can’t be manipulated is bad, teachers seem to get all the blame. And that’s not fair.
Anyway, at some point in the next month, I will have to write up another student for cussing me out (trust me, the odds are pretty good) and they’ll be given a slap on the wrist and a three day vacation. I will have to make sure they learn while they’re gone, of course. Near the end of fourth quarter, I’ll most likely be called into one of the AP’s offices and asked, “Is there anything you can do about these students that almost passed?” I will have to show evidence of their apathy and their earned failing grade, because high student expectations and trusting teachers’ decisions were both forgotten sometime before I started teaching six years ago.
It seems at times that we just want to get students out of our school NOW (and from talking to teachers at other schools, this practice seems to be pretty universal.) The high expectations that I recall from my high school years have been replaced with making the teacher feel guilty for student failures, even if the student missed twenty-seven days and showed up high on Ecstasy and cheap pot every day. But I’ll be prepared to defend the passing grades as well as the failing grades. Because I know I’ll be asked.
Everything you just read in those past few paragraphs, however, is me, honorable employee, dedicated teacher, following orders. I’m simply doing what my leaders tell me to do. It seems to me that the trickle down economic theory has finally been deemed a success, only it’s the success of public education that has trickled downward. Ever so slowly, over years and years and years, we have seen a gradual decline in education because our expectations and requirements of our students led the decline. And ever so slowly, it seems the people being blamed for that decline are the teachers.
But for the vast, vast majority of teachers, that is not correct, nor are those the only reasons education is declining. Here’s but a snippet of the many, many ways our leaders have failed us:
We no longer have a “seat time requirement” in North Carolina. That means students can miss as many days as they want AND show up tardy as much as they want without any concern of this causing them to fail, and the burden is on the teacher to still ensure that those absent students get the required material. I have 82 students this semester and they will average somewhere between 3 and 5 absences each. You can do the math on what a burden that puts on making sure all students have the required material when as many as 400 absences take place in a single nine weeks.
You can’t even imagine what a nightmare this policy is, especially at a Title 1 school with already terrible parental involvement. We’re essentially teaching students that in the real world, showing up for work about twenty percent of the time is acceptable. This elimination of a seat time requirement was our leaders’ decision, not the teachers.
We no longer have textbooks, or where they are used, it is either spotty availability or the books themselves are outdated. It has been proven through study after study that textbooks are vital to students’ understanding of material, especially in a subject like math. The voluntary withdrawal from doing frequent textbook adoptions – and in many cases simply cutting funds for them altogether – was our leaders’ decision, not the teachers.
A few years ago, we made passing easier. People said it aligned more with the college grading scale, which would be a valid argument if fifteen year old kids voluntarily scheduled afternoon classes because they were hungover. Otherwise, college and every level of school below it are currently and always will be totally different types of school with totally different requirements and expectations (and freedom, living arrangements, social requirements, etc.) But let’s make it easier to pass anyway, thus lowering our expectations of students. What a fabulous idea. This, again, was our leaders’ decision, not the teachers.
The judicial system started getting really ill at people who disciplined their children by way of spanking, popping, tapping, or mildly raising their voice beyond a whisper so as not to upset the offending child. Be honest. Does anybody actually know what is considered acceptable parental discipline these days? I honestly have no clue where to draw the line between acceptable and indictable. The basic premise of discipline – that of punishing a child for something they did wrong – is the same as it always has been. But it seems very obvious to teachers that since nobody knows what types of discipline are allowed (I sure as hell don’t,) that people just said, “Well, I guess we have to just let them do whatever they want.” I think most parents are scared to even hurt their child’s FEELINGS!!
The trickle down effect of this decision to essentially disallow parental discipline will be felt in schools for decades to come. Entire generations of students have no idea what discipline feels like. Heck, a lot of them don’t know how to respond to being told no. They don’t even know what it’s like to lose their phone or video games for a week. But there are parents out there who have had a child taken from them because they popped their leg in public.
Because of changes to these occurrences within the judicial system, parents that would normally be disciplinarians are scared to do so. I’m a father of three. I totally understand that fear. I don’t parent with that fear, but I understand it. And even though this is a different kind of leader, this was the result of decisions made by our judicial leaders. Teachers did not request scores of undisciplined students every year. So once again, this was our leaders’ decision, not the teachers.
This year, for the first time in many generations, we will not honor a valedictorian or salutatorian at the high school level in North Carolina. Because apparently challenging oneself to be really good at something – or god forbid the BEST – is unhealthy competition for our students. So, in other words, we lowered the grading scale and gave them no incentive to get more than a 90 in every single semester of high school AND they don’t even have to come to school to achieve that. What in the absolute hell are people thinking? I hope they at least give the rightful winners a smallish participation trophy. This was, once again, our leaders’ decision, not the teachers.
Common Core. Talk to ten teachers and you’ll get ten different opinions. I know a teacher who loves it and loves what it has done for her children. I know another one (me) who is six years into this journey and still pretty clueless about whether or not I’m teaching Common Core because nobody even calls it that anymore. (Apparently what I teach is called “integrated math” and it IS based on Common Core. Who knew?!?!)
Honestly, I’ve always just taught what they tell me to teach. And I do it very well. Two years ago when I was hungover every morning? Maybe not so much. But now I do my job VERY well.
I’m willing to bet some of those ten teachers we hypothetically talked to would be similar to my understanding of Common Core, too. Why? Because most of them weren’t teaching when Common Core rolled out, and as a teacher I spoke to said, “The standards in Common Core are fine. It was the roll-out that was terrible.” So when do you think they’ll roll it out to those of us that started AFTER the initial roll-out? You know, after six years or so, I guess I forgot I was waiting to learn about it.
My freshmen this year were in second grade when Common Core was instituted. Their teachers had no clue what they were doing – through no fault of their own – probably because of that terrible roll-out. I have a LOT of ninth graders that cannot add fractions, they cannot plot a point on a graph, and they have no idea that a McDonald’s menu contains decimals. Let’s just admit it. Thus far, Common Core is not a rousing success, especially in the eyes of the general public. Regardless of its success or failure, however, its adoption was our leaders’ decision, not the teachers.
Over the past 5-8 years, the North Carolina General Assembly took away the following incentives or “luxuries” that teachers used to enjoy: ended Master’s pay, because being rewarded for wanting to be better at your job is just selfish; eliminated approximately 7,000 teacher assistant jobs, because more adults helping students in the lower grades is undoubtedly terrible for their development; terminated career status, because being rewarded for spending your career teaching young people is obviously not the best way to retain your best and most experienced teachers; ended retiree health benefits, because, well, that’s just downright mean. All of the above were our leaders’ decisions, not the teachers.
And I can keep going. In the past five years, we have had a 27% decrease in the number of college students in North Carolina who are majoring in education. This is at least partially due to the General Assembly eliminating Teaching Fellows scholarships. And how about testing? In the younger grades, teachers can barely teach because of all the testing they have to do with every individual student three and four times per nine weeks. In high school, we have diagnostics and practice EOC’s and something called MAP testing and another something called CASE 21. We spend WEEKS with these tests that student know don’t count, so they don’t even try. Yet again, these decisions have come from our leaders, not the teachers.
I hope it’s apparent where I’m going with this. Do yourself a favor and read the comments on a story about this week’s march somewhere throughout the social media universe. You will find people who call teachers communists, they’ll say they no longer respect us, they’ll say our kids are dumber than ever, they’ll say we are indoctrinating our students with liberal ideas (I have NEVER witnessed this, but okay,) they’ll spout statistics that have no factual basis whatsoever, they’ll say homeschooling, charter schools, and online schooling are better than public school, they’ll say teachers whine, they’ll say we should shut up and do our jobs, they’ll stereotype all teachers because they had ONE they didn’t like, they’ll say we’re wasting our time by fighting for our profession, they’ll call us babies.
The best argument, though? The absolute best one? They’ll essentially tell you that you shouldn’t be able to decide when you take a vacation day. But I’m willing to bet that every single person that says that has taken a day off for something so embarrassing or pointless that they would NEVER admit it. I bet they’ve called in sick because of a hangover. I bet they’ve taken a day early in a new relationship to just stay in bed and “snuggle” all day. I bet they’ve taken a Friday and headed down to the beach for a long weekend. I bet they’ve even taken a day off and done absolutely not one damn thing all day. Teachers are taking the day to fight for kids. I’d say teachers win that one.
If you’re a teacher or you care about public education, at some point as you are reading the comments about this week’s march, you will either get sad, angry, or disillusioned. But then you’ll realize that all we have to do is get these people to blame the correct people. I mean, that’s clearly impossible because ignorance and apathy are VERY difficult to cure, especially at the same time, but at least you’ll have some ammunition for your inevitable battle against an ignorance that baffles you to the point that you can’t wait to get back to work to ensure your students don’t end up with that same ignorance.
And then one night you’ll lie in bed thinking about how you can have an impact with this new knowledge that you’re only doing the job for which your leaders have prepared you and for which they have supposedly supplied the appropriate resources. I mean, you can’t go against the wishes of your leaders and administrators, right? You do the job they ask you to do. You do the job you were hired to do. Our personality, drive, and love for our students is what makes us do great things with the cards we’re dealt, but it’s pretty obvious that we don’t have the same cards we used to have. And the ones we do have are being controlled by our leaders (Or the nurses!! Bad joke. I’m sorry.)
And then another night you’ll lie in bed and have this seemingly unanswerable epiphany. Why in the hell is the education of our state’s children a battle between teachers and legislators? Why is education political? Why do so many people on the right hate teachers and say we’re all liberals? What in the hell did we do to deserve that? Probably half my school is conservative. A couple of them are so far right I’m actually scared to talk to them (only half joking.) Don’t compare K-12 public education teachers to a few kooky but absolutely newsworthy college professors that fail kids for not praying to the socialism gods while eating a vegan tofu taco with a spinach shell because it won’t produce methane gas should they fart.
But there are more unanswerable questions. Why can’t we all – no matter the political party – get to a place in the middle where things actually get accomplished and students benefit? Why is our superintendent of public instruction giving us fake data and not standing up for us? Why are we fighting against each other to give the children of our state the best education imaginable? Why don’t people want to give students every opportunity to grow and excel? Why are teachers getting the blame for the decline in public education? What in the hell did we do wrong?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We’ve always done our jobs to the best of our abilities, even when our abilities were lacking. We teach because it was a calling, and most of us will continue regardless of the pay and working conditions. But we can’t quit fighting the ones who are actually to blame because we will always do this first and foremost for the kids. They deserve our fight. I did not get into teaching for the money. What kind of idiot would do that? No, I decided to teach so I could feel good about my contributions to this world. I’m betting most teachers at least partially fit that same description.
So kudos to you, fellow teachers. Go raise a little hell. You’re all badass in my eyes.