Teaching is Not a Normal Job (Guest Post)
By Barry Lane
I met this guy at the Newark airport years ago. I remember feeling both puzzled and offended by his tee-shirt. Puzzled, because I have never really understood the purpose of retirement and offended, because he appeared to know and was taunting me. I approached him and asked for a photo of his shirt and then I confided in him my bewilderment.
“I don’t really understand what it means to be retired,” I asked with great earnestness.
“What do you do when you are retired?”
He paused a moment and then looked me right in the eye and said,
“I do whatever I want to do, don’t I?”
Yes, of course, that’s it. That’s retirement, and by this definition I have been retired for years now, along with the thousands of dedicated teachers I have met over the years at reading association meetings, like KSRA. There is no other place they want to be, but in the classroom. These are not normal people who work a boring job and relax on the weekends with their family. They are not extrinsically motivated by money or vacations or golden parachutes, (though all bets are off when free picture books are in the equation) . Many work in a profession for far less material reward then they could be getting in other less meaningful jobs. But they have this spark in their eyes and a passion for learning and children that is undeniable. To say they love their job would be an understatement. They don’t even see it as a job. They see it a calling. They see it as a life.
No one really understands this because it is so so abnormal. Like most teachers I know, I cringe when I read anything in the media about what teachers do and who they are. It is always completely wrong because it views teachers through the same warped lens as this guy with the tee-shirt. (Here is Kathy Collins brilliant spoof on this subject.) By corporate America standards teachers are the workforce in the last civilian public, tax funded sector. In a world where many low level jobs have been either automated, off shored or de-skilled (teacher-proofed is the education term), to see teachers as true, engaged, free-thinking professionals is a great threat to those powers who wish to control schools and, (more recently since NCLB and RTT) profit from the steady flow of tax dollars. The full frontal assault on our public schools by the corporate sector through the cleverly designed charter school movement is, at its core, an attack on the teaching profession itself and an attempt to make schools into little companies where you do what the boss (principal) tells you or hit the highway.
I know this from personal experience. One of my close friends taught at a charter school in California. She was by all accounts an extraordinary teacher and both kids and parents loved her and her method of teaching. One day, with no prior warning or discussion, she was fired. When she went to her principal and asked why, the principal went to a file drawer, found her contract and pointed to the clause that stated, “We don’t have to tell you.”
At another school in Oregon an extraordinary teacher at a school was given an award because her students scored the highest in the state on a reading test. When she confided to the Superintendent that she had not used the mandated reading program, he scolded her and told her principal to police her room the next year . She quit.
The saddest result of this ‘coup d’etat ‘ of the business model over schools is that the best , free thinking, teachers are leaving the profession and with them goes the profession itself. Try to be a chef at McDonalds and see how long you last. The shrinking enrollment in the I. L. A. and its state affiliations is the most dramatic example of this rampant de-professionalizing. In it’s heyday, California Reading Association would get 12,000 teachers to their annual conference. This year their conference was cancelled when only 500 signed up. Michigan Reading polled 8000 attendees in the 90”s and now is lucky to get 2000 at their spring conference.
If I were a shallow thinking media pundit I would blame these changes in the defunding of public schools on the recession and the strapped state budgets, but I know for a fact that the lion’s share of educational dollars are now spent on testing, silver bullet, teacher proof, training programs, and the narrowing of curriculum which results from these endeavors.
Last week I worked at a reading association in Northern Michigan and asked two young teachers why new teachers are not joining the organization and coming to their inspiring meetings.
“They don’t get it,” one said. ”Many new teachers think, we do our staff development at school with webinars or in services. Why spend your weekend away from your family when you work so hard all week?’
This was a valid question, I thought, a normal question, a question that the guy with the tee shirt in the airport would surely ask.
For a moment I had a sinking feeling that the new generation of teachers, who grew up as students in test driven classrooms, were now at the helm, aligning their lessons with standards, and keeping the proper records. No spark required.
Then I turned to these teachers, who were also pretty young themselves, and asked them,
“Then, why do YOU come here? Why do you leave your family to attend these meetings?”
They looked at me a bit quizzically, like I might be an alien from another planet, or worse, Anderson Cooper. Then, they wove their arms around each others’ shoulders and beamed two smiles that would light up the darkest school board meeting.
“We ARE family!” was all they said.