On Offense

There are two kinds of teachers: conservative ones who valiantly sacrifice themselves to maintain our nation’s greatness, and teachers who won’t shut up and do as they’re told.  As you may know, I’m the second kind.

Both kinds of teachers can have self-esteem issues.  In a capitalist consumerist country, no matter how many times people at parties tell you you’re a saint for teaching, you still go home knowing money talks.  If you were so valuable to all those people, they’d tax themselves enough to pay you like a doctor.  Doctors save lives.  Teachers saved my life.  I know that.

I remember a male relation telling me he made $100 an hour, back when I was a kid.  I’ve always remembered that.  My time isn’t worth $100 an hour to the marvelously wise free market– not yet– but it’s worth way more than that to me.  I’ve worked my whole life to become an educated person (inside and, mostly, outside of schools).  I have enough life experience to know how to find common ground with students and give them honest, unbiased answers to sticky questions.  I can defuse ugliness by holding up my palm.  I can stop you from doing what you shouldn’t do by looking at you long and hard.  Sometimes by just standing in your sightline.  And those skills didn’t come easy.

People are hating on teachers a lot lately.  Civilians don’t know that spring break is the time when every teacher goes insane.  Teachers start saying all manner of crazy things at this time of year.  Everyone is quitting.  Everyone is changing schools.  Teacher happy hours last longer.  The tabs are more expensive.  By mid-April, we’re so exhausted we don’t even have the energy to threaten to quit anymore.  These are the “zombie” months.  So don’t worry, we’ll all calm down and stop protesting and making signs.  We’ll be too tired from all the effort of shaping up those kids to convince them to be good citizens, not to break into your car or destroy the economy with their financial schemes.

What encourages me is that teachers have been on the defensive, and now we have the opportunity to go on the offensive.  Not what we hate about school reform– let’s scream about what we want.  What would make schools better?  What analogies or soundbites would help people understand the real problems in education, and the real, small, slow solutions?  It’s not that we need to defend the territory won for us by the labor movement and feminists and the great educational theorists, it’s that we need to expand our sense of entitlement.  Who else is going to do what we do?  Who can do it better?  Let’s be honest: the country can’t run without us.

Not only should we be paid like doctors or lawyers, we should have their autonomy.  Not only should we have job security and academic freedom, we should have sabbaticals around year seven.  Do we need unions for that?  Maybe, maybe not.  Unions for teachers were a compromise, a rather ill-fitting solution at times.  They served a great purpose, but there could be other answers.

I know.  That’s as crazy as a black man running for president.  Or someone surviving a concentration camp having the chutzpah to get married and have kids.  People who were told they were completely worthless, not shutting up. Instead, accomplishing the impossible. They set the example.


If we’re too enlightened to beat up on the minority group of the hour, at least we have our school system to beat up on. I hear the phrase “failing schools” at least once a week, and last night Oprah went on a Godzilla-hits-Tokyo style hike through educational controversies. I watched skeptically, and barked at the TV a lot. (Tenure systems vary! What makes a teacher “good”?) There are a couple of premises that often appear in these debates that trouble me on a deeper level. While often spouted as obvious realities, I have a lot more questions than answers about education.

Were schools better at some point in the past? When were they better, and what was better about them? Can we learn from that, or are our current circumstances too different? Was everyone better served then, or only some students? Is it possible (or desirable) to create a school where EVERY student is accommodated? How much do students need to practice fitting in and adapting to others’ needs while at school, and when should the school/teacher accommodate individual needs?

How should schools change? Do we want schools to move quickly, like technology companies, or do we want them to move conservatively, more carefully? How much are we willing to risk on educational trends and theories and new technologies? If schools today need to prepare students for post-secondary education, why do Americans have to take out heavy personal debts to pay for college? How much technology should students study in school, when it’s likely their knowledge will quickly become outdated?

What societal problems do we want to fix? Will hard work in school make students successful? If they don’t think so, who has taught them that lesson? Who have they seen not succeed? Why do so many jobs not pay enough to sustain a family? If there is work cleaning hotel rooms and slaughtering chickens and running cash registers and waitressing, why don’t those people have medical care, a place to live, and basic transportation? Will students who live in crime-ridden areas choose those jobs over crime if offered an excellent education? If they have schools just as good as the wealthier students, can they do just as well? Or do their schools need to be better, because they have further to go? Do schools offer equal opportunity to learn, or equal opportunity in life? Should schools wait until the kid left behind catches up to the middle, or push the advanced students as far as possible?

No matter what you think about the state of education, it’s hard on teachers and kids to hear people throwing the word “failure” at us day after day. The word “failure” makes people defensive and angry and shoves responsibility on some, while exempting others. Our public school system has been growing with us for more than 100 years. It has been constantly reforming and changing with our culture. Continuing to reform it requires our respect, patience, and thoughtfulness—not insults and dismissals.


The happiest day of my life was the day I was the filthiest and the cleanest tired.  I woke up jittery on the floor of a Mexican church, and pulled on overalls.  All day we nailed two-by-fours and I drank gallons of water without ever having to pee.  In the desert, you don’t pee or sweat.  This was kind of a shame because the toilet at the work site adjoined a pig pen, and everyone who visited remarked on the novelty of hearing porcine grunts while doing their business.

The group I worked with built a small house– a shed by American standards– for a family on the outskirts of Juarez.  I was more physically tired than I had ever been in my life.  But my mind was clear, and my heart was full.  Their old house was flapping cardboard.  Their new house was strong wood.

On Friday, three of my students came up to me to contest their quiz grades.  “Uh, didn’t I get this right?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Sorry.”  I had written a big angry red “G” next to the student’s neatly penciled “G.”  Yes, indeed, the answer was “G.”  Yeah, a quality of a tragic hero is “noble.”  Yeah, that is an “e.”

“I’m really not out to get you or anything,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” they said.  At the end of the school year, I make mistakes, constantly lose things, and can’t ever get enough sleep.  This frustrates me, just like when I have a long bout of the flu.  I’m mad at my brain for its dullness, and I’m mad at my body for its slowness.

Sunday morning, I turned on the radio when I woke up.  I often turn on NPR and then fall back asleep, which results in a lot of strange dreams about politicians.  I didn’t dream this week, though.  I heard President Obama praising a school board for firing the faculty and staff at an “underperforming” school.  This was a sign of “accountability.”

I was so angry that instead of falling back to sleep, I yelled at the radio.  I struggle at the end of the year to forgive myself.  Forgive myself for being so slow and fuzzy-headed.  Stop worrying about what I didn’t teach, what went badly.  Try to let go of the students who never got it together, didn’t learn, flunked both semesters.  Was there something else I could have done?  The president confirms it: teachers, when the kids don’t succeed, you’ve screwed up.  If you had done better, those kids would be fine.

Some teachers should be fired, sure.  But that’s so they can move on to jobs they are better suited for.  Don’t encourage the delusions of the ones who remain: teachers can’t do the work for the students, and without administrative support, teachers can’t make a bad school good.

The reason I was happy in my sleeping bag on the floor of the Mexican church, even as the swamp cooler gurgled uselessly and my right hand shook with fatigue, was because I knew I had done what I could.

The family we built for may have fled from Juarez.  Many people have.  The intensifying violence of the drug business has turned their city into an unliveable place.  Maybe that house is abandoned now.  Maybe dogs live in it.  I still know those were good days.  I know I did what I could.

More Fear and Loathing, or, Why Health Care Discussions Are So Scary

I wrote the other day about Americans having no balls.  What I meant by that was: I feel that we should give reforming our health care system a serious, dramatic, bold, brave try.

I’m going to add, today, that my rah-rah goes out with a full understanding of why people are afraid.

I would like to believe that if I have good health insurance and good health care, I will avoid pain, aging, and even (fingers crossed) death.

Good health insurance and vitamin C, perhaps.

I understand that the idea of changing anything about doctors or hospitals is scary.  The problem is, I am already suffering (sometimes), diseased (right now this nagging tooth infection), and mortal (I think).  Whether or not I have health insurance, I will get sick, get old, and die.

This is bad news, I know, but the entire force of advertising is out there trying to argue against this, so sometimes I feel like I have to stand up and repeat it.  No matter what you own or buy or grasp at, you will get sick, get old, and die.  Best case scenario.

Even if I am responsible and good and I tell my representative not to change a thing about my health insurance, I will get sick, get old, and die.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is, if we’re all living in these crackerbox bodies, then we can at least look out for each other.  We’re all in the same boat: mortals, easily broken.  There is never enough money to keep people healthy and whole forever.  But we can look out for each other, and try to share the risk and the healing in a way that is fair.

We are in this together, and we have to believe in each other.  If Canada’s system has problems, that is no reason to ignore everything they have tried.  Some of it probably works, some of it doesn’t.  We can study!  We can learn!  We don’t have to recreate Canada or the UK with our system.  (You know they just go there to film because it’s cheaper and they speak English.  Where’s the footage from Japan…?)

I think the scariness of health care reform hits Americans pretty hard.  We are not invincible or immortal.  (It seems easier to remember mortality in Europe, surrounded as you are by the stuff of long-dead people.)  And we are not independent.  Our health (or lack of it) affects the people around us.  In a big way.  We are not lone cowboys who can all rope our own doctors.

I think we can change, we have to change.  We cannot throw up our hands at our problems and say, “Rationing!” anymore.  We can’t watch footage of cute British towns with Splash Mountain*-length queues and say, “I aint waiting to see a doctor!”  The price of not changing has become too high.

So please don’t vote out your representatives next fall because they are trying to be brave.  Maybe you disagree with them, but this is a brave move.  Not brave like “Just doin’ my job, ma’am,” but like when people risk their dream of wearing a grey suit with a blue tie and an American flag pin and attending endless meetings with droning speeches and votes at the end.  (Obviously not my dream!)

Somebody needs to go out on a limb and imagine a better way, and try to create it.  That’s what we want our leaders to do.

*As some may be aware, the lines for Splash Mountain are outrageously long, especially on a warm day, although my personal experience with this is quite limited, as I was only brave enough to ride it one time, many years ago.  I have in fact waited for others to ride this ride, and believed that I could have gotten on and off Space Mountain, a far superior ride, in the time they took to reunite with me at the Winnie the Pooh gift shop.  This is just a little levity since I wrote so much about the harsh Zen truths of living.