I’m probably preaching to the choir here. The people who will read this already know it, and those who don’t want to hear it will make up a reason to ignore it. Here it is, anyway.
Last night I was at a board of operations meeting for my local teachers’ union where another member of the board broke into tears, and before long, tears flowed down a number of our faces. We were talking about school closures, and this teacher talked about a family she has taught for years. There are nine kids in the family, and as the elementary music teacher, she has taught them all. The love she feels for them was in her wet eyes and all over her tear-stained face.
She wasn’t pleading to keep the school open for the sake of her job. Let’s face it; if for some reason her job disappears, as a highly effective teacher she will find another position, possibly for more money than Jeffco pays. What she pled for was an end to the uncertainty of whether or not the school would close. Close it, if close it the district must, but don’t string along families like this one who rely upon all the support that is supplied by a Title I school (predominately low-income children) such as her school. She was worried about what would happen to the children. Would they be spread out among higher income schools and cut off from these resources?
This is not about closing schools or not closing them. That is a business decision that requires a greater understanding of the whole district than any one average teacher has. This is about what teachers’ union members talk about when it’s just us. It’s about the way our hearts and souls are with our kids. Always.
So when I post on Facebook that I am frustrated that our new secretary of education has no experience with or knowledge of public schools, and people rebut that by saying the best thing about her is that she will “take on” teachers’ unions, I take umbrage. I really do. What the fuck do people think teachers’ unions want? Geeze. Do they really think we get together at board meetings and talk about how we can best keep shitty teachers in classrooms? The vast majority of the time our own children attend public schools! Mine did.
I belong to a union whose members have taken voluntary pay cuts and pay freezes to keep budget cuts out of the classroom. I belong to a union of people who spend out of pocket every year, again to keep budget cuts out of classrooms. I belong to a union of educators who spend every day of their lives in schools with kids. I’m tired of being blown off every time my colleagues and I voice our concerns about education because we’re teachers. For Pete’s sake, who would have a better understanding of schools and education than the people who work in them every day?
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I have a front row seat to this shit show. I do not read about schools and form my opinions based on that. I don’t even base my opinions on the very limited experience of my two children. I live this. I have taught thousands of kids over decades. In recent years, I have seen us make our children cynical about what we teach and why we teach it by placing so much emphasis on tests. I have seen our school-based (not union hall) conversations move from how to ignite passion in kids to how to gain more market share, how to market, how to make ourselves look shinier than the other neighborhood schools, because that’s what “competition” is all about.
Do you know what my ideology is when it comes to public education? I think every kid deserves a high quality neighborhood school. I don’t think any kid should have to go school shopping because his own school is terrible, nor do I think a family should choose a school because it has a better veneer of technology or facilities or because the staff puts on a better dog-and-pony show. I think kids should feel a community connection to their school, a personal connection to the educators that run it, and a creative and intellectual connection to the curriculum.
I don’t have a “conservative” or “liberal” ideology about schools unless you think that critical thinking skills and equal access to quality are political ideologies. If your politics opposes those things for children, or even some children, then you are a horrible excuse for a citizen. If you care about all kids, too, but are worried about low-performing public schools, work with teachers to improve them. Don’t disparage the people in there doing the job.
I get the fact that some people think the free market, applied to schools, will best achieve these things. I will tell you that, as one who works in schools, I think they’re wrong. I simply don’t see competition creating better schools. I just see the kids whose families can’t access “choices” getting left behind in schools with dwindling resources. Being wrong isn’t a sin, but blowing off the informed, expert opinions of educators is irresponsible.
Here’s the thing about DeVos: She is driven purely by political and economic ideology. For her it’s free market ideology first and children last, if at all. This is evident in the fact that she can’t be bothered to learn basic federal laws about educating children with disabilities or to understand the different ways test data are interpreted. It’s also evident in her absolute refusal to commit to equal accountability. She seems to think if a school provides a free education, accountability should be high, but if a school is for-profit and it makes a profit, well, that school is doing its job, regardless of student achievement. Her ideology is about free market schools making money. Period.
I have a big, fat, frickin’ problem with that, and I have another big, fat frickin’ problem with having teachers’ unions—peopled entirely by people who know schools, who know education, and more importantly know thousands of kids whom we love with all our hearts—being blown off for purely ideological reasons. Maybe you don’t like collective bargaining for compensation. Fine. Oppose that, if you must. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of how schools run—funding them so ALL kids have access to good schools, not just rich kids; regulating and monitoring schools so kids get what they need; keeping the focus on kids, not marketing and market share—for God’s sake, try listening to educators! Maybe even be grateful for the money our unions donate to politicians, because we put that money toward people who pledge to support public schools and the kids who attend them.
At the very least, have a little common sense and stop buying the bill of goods about teachers’ unions wanting anything but high quality schools in which to work.