I was first exposed to the hypocrisy of public education during my teacher certification program at NCSU. In a class called Schools and Society, I was assigned the task of researching and reporting on recent ballot initiatives on the use of vouchers in public school systems. At the time, the two most recent initiatives had taken place in Florida and Michigan.
For the uninitiated, a simplified explanation of voucher programs follows:
Voucher programs allow parents of children in failing schools to move their children to an alternate school of their choice. The voucher has a dollar value that is roughly equal to the cost of educating a child in the public school system, but the parents can choose to apply that value to the cost of attending a school outside the public school system. Critics of voucher programs argue that they take precious resources out of the public schools. Proponents argue that giving parents choices will force failing schools to improve in order to “compete” in the education marketplace.
What I found when I looked into the Florida and Michigan ballot initiatives was that in both cases, right up until a month before the election, polls indicated a comfortable majority of voters favored the idea, at least on a limited, experimental basis. Then the two largest teacher’s unions, the NEA and the AFT, came in and over the next 30 days spent millions of dollars on advertising designed to discredit and defeat the initiatives. In both cases they were successful.
It is quite possible that the voucher proposals would have failed without the unions’ involvement, but we’ll never know. It is also possible that the Florida and Michigan voucher experiments would have been unsuccessful. That’s another thing we’ll never know. What we do know is teacher certification programs tell prospective teachers to experiment, be creative, be willing to try anything to educate your students, because you never know what might work. Yet while teachers experiment, the teacher’s unions spend teacher dues by the millions to squelch experimentation. There’s a word for that, and the word is hypocrisy.
I never gave a dime to a teacher’s union.
During my year-end review at the end of my fifth and last year teaching, my principal went through the standard evaluation form, on which I was rated well above standard in every category except one: communicates well with colleagues (imagine that). Then she got personal. “I don’t trust you,” she admitted. “I think you’re a subversive.” I felt like I had been transported back in time.
As a student, I was called to the principal’s office more times than I could ever count. Most often it was for general misbehavior, but in my time I was called disruptive, offensive, a ne’er-do-well, and on one celebrated occasion in France, a “danger publique.” But it wasn’t until I was a forty-six year old teacher with five years experience that a principal ever called me a subversive.
Thing is, she was right.
One of the joys of teaching comes when you recognize a special quality in a student and, like a seed gardener with a young seedling, feed that quality and watch it grow. On rare occasions, that growth leads to something truly special, the kind of experience that makes teaching quite simply the greatest job in the world. Such was the case with a student of mine, a student we’ll call Jim.
Jim was gifted, and I knew from the start I’d have to work to keep him challenged, since he mastered the 9th grade English curriculum almost without trying. Much of the time I didn’t even bother having him do the class assignment, but instead gave him a NY Times crossword puzzle, or a section from a practice SAT test. He loved and rose to the challenges I presented him with, and eventually he was helping me write quizzes, tests, and brain teasers for the rest of the class. The following year he quickly realized that Honors 10th grade English, taught by a National Board Certified teacher who was also perhaps the laziest, worst teacher in the school, would not be quite so rewarding. He again came to me looking for a challenge.
Out of respect for my colleague (respect she didn’t deserve) I decided to give him something extra-curricular, so as not to undermine her classroom authority. And because I was once a smart, bored kid just like him, I made it something fun. I encouraged him to start an underground newsletter (like she said, subversive).
To give me plausible deniability, we never spoke openly about the project. He involved several classmates he could trust, but never told me who they were. Although I didn’t approve topics or proofread articles, I did, through cryptic conversations in the hallways or after school, gently nudge them in certain directions.
“Hey Mr. Dobyns, what do you think of the new dress code?”
“All students hate the dress code. There’s nothing new there.”
The first issue appeared out of nowhere, strategically placed in the bathrooms shortly before lunch. I am proud to say it was very well-written, and carefully examined the questions it posed from multiple sides. In fact, there was almost nothing written in it that I would have called objectionable. There was, however, a rather unflattering caricature of the principal wearing a swastika.
Within minutes, a team of administrators swooped through the bathrooms en masse, collecting and destroying all the copies.
For the second issue, they stayed away from cartoons and widened their distribution. The primary question they examined was just how nutritious are school lunches, and not surprisingly the answer they arrived at was not very. They examined the data, and it was disturbing: Of 6 lunch lines in the cafeteria, only one served a “healthy” lunch; the rest served pizza and French fries. They conducted interviews, and they were alarming: The cafeteria manager pointed out that they had to have the healthy alternative to provide free/reduced lunches, but speculated how much more money they would make if they didn’t. I was ecstatic. In a state where the rate of obesity among high school age children is well above the national average, this was an issue that needed to be addressed. Of course, the administration felt otherwise, and all the copies were again gathered up and destroyed.
Frustrated by the administration but still determined to be heard, they changed their tactics. Rather than publish a newsletter, they emailed, texted, MySpaced, and Facebooked their next initiative, and it was a doozy. The following Thursday, in an inspired act of civil disobedience that had me practically busting with pride and joy, they staged a lunch-out, opting to bring lunch rather than buy what the school offered. In a school cafeteria that normally serves 2000 lunches a day, fewer than 300 were purchased.
Anyone who has taught the current cell phone, I Pod, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister generation knows that they really don’t seem to care about much of anything that doesn’t carry a brand. But here they were engaged in underground organizing for a common cause, and it was a just cause. I was blown away. Of course, yet again, the administration saw it differently.
Shortly before the end of the day, the principal came on the school intercom system and announced that if the lunch-out were to be repeated, several members of the cafeteria staff would be fired. Here was an educator, charged with the difficult task of educating and inspiring a largely disaffected crowd of young people. Suddenly, they became energized and inspired on their own, and all she had to do was engage them in the process, channel their energy, encourage them to promote their cause through existing and accepted channels within the system, and instead she told them their actions were going to put innocent people out of work. It was as if the collective spirit of the student body was suddenly smothered with a wet blanket. I’d say she’s a hypocrite, but really she’s just a dumb-ass.
Shortly thereafter, one of the newsletter writers, a senior, was discovered. He was a former student of mine, an excellent writer, and top 5 in his class. During his interrogation, the administration threatened to withhold his scholarships if he didn’t turn in his collaborators. He refused. They threatened him with expulsion, and still he refused. Eventually, they settled on him reading a mea culpa, written by the administration, over the intercom, and followed that with a three day suspension. In an egregious violation of his rights, they did not contact his parents until after the interrogation was completed and his mea culpa had been read.
I listened to that student’s forced humiliation, in which he castigated his fellow students for following him in a misguided, dangerous, and disruptive activity, and I wanted to cry. I listened to the principal’s “I hope you learned your lesson” afterward, and I wanted to smash something.
I taught for another year and a half, but a big piece of what made me want to be a teacher died that day.