Setting the Stage

For teachers, the last year was a new high in disrespect.  But I’ve learned a lot from all the media coverage of education– I didn’t merely get beaten like a red-headed stepchild– and it helps me plan this next year.

1. An amazing number of people think they are experts in teaching because they were students, or because they do research in education and lecture.  This makes about as much sense as me saying I’m an expert chef because I eat.

WHAT I CAN DO: Rant and rave about what my job requires, to remind people how challenging it is.  Encourage other people (especially teachers) to see themselves as knowledgable about what they do, and worthy of respect, even if society doesn’t.  Practice reminding myself that doing my best is good enough, and that cause and effect in real life are pretty much unknowable.  Thank my mentors.  Buy them beer.  Mentor other teachers.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Tell teachers you appreciate them.  Send your former/current teachers notes and presents.  Tip your waitress.

2. Many people feel that education has gotten “worse” in the last 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 years, without first tackling the extremely wiggly question of how we should define and measure “good.”

WHAT I CAN DO: Demand definitions of “good.”  Keep pushing this until definitions crumble.  Teach history at every opportunity.  Address racial and class divides respectfully, in safe spaces.  Listen to people who are different from me.  Ask lots of questions.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Study the past, and pay attention to the present.  Know and ask questions of people who are older than you, people from different generations.

3. Much of the American public is angry with teachers, so angry that they are willing to renege on historic agreements surrounding the right of teachers to band together to put their two cents into policy matters that affect their profession.  Many people feel that they should not have the kind of collective free speech that corporations now enjoy.

WHAT I CAN DO: Ask how modeling a powerless, resentful attitude and a lack of self respect benefits children.  Ask why turning eighteen and wanting to do good in the world should give people the right to exploit you.  Ask why we refuse to tax our former, successful students and their businesses enough to fund a productive educational system and pay their teachers well, offering others the same attention and opportunities that they enjoyed.

Treat myself and my time with respect.  Go for walks on my planning period, or read a book just for fun, or drive down to the garden and sit with the flowers.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Vote for more education funding.  Bug your legislators about education funding.  Tell them we can’t live without it.  We can’t.  Ask teachers about political issues that affect them, and listen.

4. If you treat people like criminals, some of them will act like criminals.  It’s a short jaunt from “Teachers are clueless and lazy and selfish” to “Let’s change the answers on these tests.”  Ethical?  No.  But logical.  It’s wrong to cheat.  But it isn’t right to put people in such a desperate situation that they are tempted to cheat, or to give them an easy opportunity to do so.

WHAT I CAN DO: Monitor boundaries with my students and colleagues to limit temptations and encourage productive behavior.  Build relationships that encourage honesty.  Be gentler with myself so I can be more forgiving of others.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Remind your friends: corruption and lies exist in every area of human endeavor, not exclusively in the public sector or in education.  Look into the ethics and effectiveness of testing.  Ask yourself what you would do, if you were in those teachers’ shoes.  Consider how our society can be built to encourage healthy behavior in citizens, and do a little something to push us that direction.

5. Many people think there is a clear way to tell a “good” teacher from a “bad” teacher, although, this, too, is very difficult to nail down.  Many people think that firing “bad” teachers will fix schools, although there is no reason to believe this is true.

WHAT I CAN DO: Encourage nuanced exploration over easy labeling.  Discourage other teachers from perfectionistic thinking.  Make them laugh.  Explain about what my “bad” teachers have taught me.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Think about your own teachers, and how they helped and hurt you.  Consider how you help and hurt people in your life.  Support and engage in thoughtful, respectful debate on difficult issues.  Remain open minded when investigating cause and effect.

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