Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Hypocrites, Subversives, and Public Education

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.

11 comments:

bali_ultimate said...

Nice post.

I've never taught but am interested in why public education here fares worse than in lots of other countries (Scandinavia is of course the example that always comes to mind). Here's an article that might interest you:

http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9989914

It summarizes a report that argues that the key to successful public education is not class size, salaries or overall money spent on education. Instead, the answer lies in conferring greater status on teachers by making it a more elite and difficult-to-enter profession.

The most successful countries constrict the supply of potential teachers by setting high barriers to entry to their teacher-training programs and then train the hell out of the elite that get in.

What the report found is that the difficult, competitive process of becoming a teacher was far more important in attracting great educators than salary; the lure of being part of an elite was sufficient.

The article doesn't mention it, but weak, insufficiently committed teachers are also fired. Of course, doing this sort of thing in the US would have the teachers unions up in arms and would require a major cultural shift.

I suspect if you had become a teacher in Finland or Singapore, you'd still be in the profession today.

itchy said...

Great post. I don't think I'd have the persistence to keep banging my head against that bureaucratic wall, but I'm glad you do.

dusty.rhodes said...

small-mindedness and hypocrisy are omnipresent. some lessons are hard to learn-- the fallibility of authority is an important one. glad those teacher-suckers are willing to sacrifice something i hold so dearly in order to teach that lesson: integrity.

rather learn this in school than 15 years down the road when you get more than a good story to tell and a reminder that every path is littered with senseless obstruction.

thanks for the food for thought.
(he's a hungry bastard.)

Anonymous said...

as for the voucher part of your post, i spend 7K per kid(X 2) at a private monesory(sp?) school that is very coveted by the parents here in my town that can afford it. the test scores at "friends school of wilm" are higher than the national average. Heres the kicker....the public school system spends 11K per kid, there test scores are lower than the national average, AND the teachers are paid less than they would be at public shcools (where they dont have to build in a profit margin to stay afloat).

As for the subversiveness......of both you and the kids you helped to organize(great story, fucked up ending), i can relate like a mofo. couldnt hep but make me think about how the upa administration is when it comes to the policy and direction of the sport of ultimate. By the way, where do you stand on the issues of sotg and refs in ultimate? and have you ever thought about gettin involved with the upa administration?

toad

Anonymous said...

Toad, please attend spelling classes at the Montessori school with your children. Perhaps then you will learn the difference between there, they're, and their. And perhaps then your posts will be readable.

Great story, Kenny - I've worked with a large urban school system and the dysfunction is incredible. Seeing the progression of teachers from young energetic and committed staff to old, jaded, civil service veterans is a sad thing to watch. Of course, the bad ones stay and care less and less and the good ones get frustrated and leave.

-ray

Anonymous said...

ray, why dont you show some respect for kens' blog and keep the bullshit, off topic, personal attacks on rsd. in fact i'm gonna go start a thread over there(did i spell it right?)just for you.

John Stebbins said...

KD-

Did you have any opportunity to help the kids from an institutional standpoint? Things like openly questioning the reaction of the administration or getting faculty support for the kids. I know it isn't a simple thing and it would likely come with a cost, but since you are a self avowed subversive....

luke said...

ken, great post, and at the risk of raising todd's ire about 'personal responses', well, i'm in. you can skip the rest.

dusty, as a teacher sucker, you might want to sound a little less douchey.

along those lines, i couldn't even decipher your second paragraph.

yes, i note i've not bothered with punctuation. but if you skipped grammar and syntax and logic, i think i'm cool. i even went ee cummings on it, and went back and changed a couple capital I's to i's.

sir, i took a 30k haircut to teach, and i love it. knowing ken's success, on and off the field, i'm sure he took a bigger one, and i don't begrudge his return to the private sector, but he's talking admin, and if he hates every other teacher, and even if he saw me teach, and hated me, i don't care.

your comment comes off as bashing teachers, and as someone who puts in 8 hours of teaching, 2 of coaching and a bit more grading and lesson planning, and i'm happy because i ski 100 days a year, love my job, and weather the storms of irritation with admin (which are far less of an issue than ken's district), i say as a teacher sucker, go fuck yourself.

to ken i say, your post is as always, spot on. i've had some horrific battles with admin, and while i can posit arguments on both sides of the voucher situations, i see where you're coming from. with regards to your subversive kid, that is a tragedy.

it would be inappropriate for me to speak to my own case, as a current employee, but, well, It sounds like you did a great job, and i respect the candle that burns at both ends. for my case, i admit, with self deprecation, and willingness for FAIR criticism: i'm a middler. i'm a engaging teacher who creates dynamic lessons and commands a class. i'm also a lousy, slow grader. a good coach. half of the senior class (120, out of 240) signed up for my AP Gov class. here's a lesson plan if you want to know what i do beyond telling dusty to stfu.

http://apgovsmith.blogspot.com/2008/09/giant-pool-of-money-questions.html

i put in about 2700 hours a year, up from 2200 when i built homes, down from 3000 my first couple years. and you know what, i'm pretty stoked.

so to ken, i say, sweet post. what i don't agree with, i respect and appreciate. a lot of it is economical issues, and they vary from district to district, and public schooling is flawed, etc... nuff said.. but...

to dusty, call me a sucker for teaching?
fuckouff, you ignorant callow patheticsounding prick.

to toad, yeah, sorry to make this personal, but I went to dusty's blog, and it's retarded, with no readership to warrant my response.

and to any who reads this: calling me a teacher sucker is the hot button you were looking for: i didn't get into this for your respect. but i didn't get into it for your disdain. it's public service for me, not public trough, so you don't like what i do, look at yourself, in a long hard manner.

feel free to correct my grammar, syntax etc. but mock me for my career choice and FUCK THE FUCK OFF.

Anonymous said...

luke, cant wait to hear dustys' reply to all that. but i'd say those were all on-topic critisisms(you made on dusty), so, ok by me. I never read dustys blog but i have read yours......and it sucks(too?). You really need to just "give it up"(as most do here on wtut). damn, i just busted my own rule. oh well.

Anonymous said...

"Hey Mr. Dobyns, what do you think of the old sotg code?"

"All players hate the sotg code. There's nothing new there."

dusty.rhodes said...

Luke:

I'm sorry.

I wrote too hastily and did not make myself clear. Give me a second chance?

Errors:
1. I should have carried over the distinction between teachers and administrators from the original post.
2. I still let too much go unsaid when I type as if we were having this conversation in person.

To try to keep this organized, I will use my original comment as a base from which to work:

"small-mindedness and hypocrisy are omnipresent. some lessons are hard to learn-- the fallibility of authority is an important one. glad those teacher-suckers are willing to sacrifice something i hold so dearly in order to teach that lesson: integrity."

What this means in English:

I agree that the administrators mentioned, and in particular the principal, displayed an appalling affinity for small-minded action. Of particular note is the stamping-out of something students were *truly interested in* which could have served as motivation for further education.

The strange thing, of course, is that the principal still teaches by acting this way. The lesson is that authority is not synonymous with words like "intelligent," "aware," "understanding," and so forth. In order to teach this lesson, the principal went so far as to BECOME a person who embodies that lesson instead of shouting warnings about it.

"rather learn this in school than 15 years down the road when you get more than a good story to tell and a reminder that every path is littered with senseless obstruction."

This is an attempt to express that although the lesson learned ("The Fallibility of Authority" from Paragraph 1) is a painful one no matter when it is learned, it might be less painful/damaging as a high school student than as an adult. More at stake when you're an adult and all of that. The bit about every path is littered with senseless destruction is a throwaway line that I still like, even though it is misplaced here. The gist is that there is no easy path and that no matter how well chosen or reasoned or principled that some obstacle will be in your way. In this case, the principal.

The interesting thoughts, for me, are just beginning:

Could the principal be purposefully acting this way to teach this lesson? What lessons are actually being taught in schools? What lessons should be? Are they societal lessons or academic lessons? Is it more about finding your place or being put in your place?

I see the lesson(s) you're aiming for with your lesson plan the "This American Life" (w/o Ira Glass, this time round) segment, but what lessons do you and the rest of the teachers teach when you're not teaching lessons? What lessons do the administrators teach when they're never/seldom teaching lessons? Is one more important than the other? More difficult?

I apologize for not making my comments more lucid the first time 'round and for the nerve I can see I've clumsily struck. That was not my intent.

Finally:
"look at yourself, in a long hard manner."

I make a point of it every day, Luke. And it is the best and worst part of my life, every single day.