Lasts, Endings, and Beginning Again

Right now, I should be entering grades, writing (very late) lesson plans, and designing the final exams that I will be giving the week after next–in order to put together study guides, I need to know what’s on the exam, and with graduation next weekend, I’m not going to even attempt to tell myself that I’ll put together the tests next weekend. I know better.

This coming week is graduation prep for Beth and winding up the year for me. My to-do list is somewhat long, but I’m not feeling pressured; it’ll all get done, even with me taking a moment to write. I want to reflect on all the ending, all the changes–but at this point, the combo of things that need done and emotional….fatigue?….blunt my reactions. I want out of the classroom, and I don’t believe that I’ve been good in it for two years. I can’t point with pride to much I’ve done in the classroom–academically or as it relates to specific kids since MI ended. Parts of this year have been as dead and anxious for me as the worst of the old school years. Would it have been different if I had known I wouldn’t be replaced until next year? I don’t know. My attitude about that could certainly have colored the year. But it’s not that much different than last year, and I can’t name any teacher I’ve talked with that would even call the year mediocre. I have to remind myself that I had good years–excellent years–and try to hold to them as my memories of teaching.

And Beth is graduating. For 18 years, my mornings have included her getting in the car with me to go whereever she had to be before my day started. Her first day of kindergarten is still so heart-stopping clear to me. We got in the car, her with her backpack and smile–a bit scared, but she’d met her teacher before and been in the school for speech therapy many times. I took her to First Baptist, where she’d get breakfast and walk over to school with her daycare teacher and a few other latchkey kids. She went in with no issues, hugged me and we talked a bit, then I left. When I got to the car, I cried. Sobbed. While watching my watch, because I had exactly 3 minutes that I could fall apart, then I had to swing past the house to get Megan (first year of high school) and Chris, who was starting his senior year. 3 minutes to cry. There’s a poem in there somewhere. By the time I’d traveled the few blocks to get them, my eyes were clear and if they could tell I’d been crying, they didn’t mention it.

And now, I’m at another major juncture, and I don’t seem to have any tears. Very little joy, either. Just another to do list, just another time when I know I’ve fallen short, but have to cross my fingers, light some candles, and have faith that it’s all going to work.

Good Bye, Yellow Brick Road: My Ode to the School of Multiple Intelligences

Note: I wrote this in 2013, and I was only an English teacher at Lima Senior for a couple of years after I wrote this. I teared up while re-reading it, and I stand by my belief that MI did incredible things and being part of it was the highlight of my career as a teacher.  

I’m only going to be a teacher for the School of Multiple Intelligences for a few more hours. When I walk in school, after dawn comes and I’m more awake, I will be an MI teacher–but after my room is packed, my check out sheet is signed, and my keys are turned in, I’m simply a Lima Senior High teacher again.

Being an LSH teacher is a perfectly good thing, of course; I spent the first 18 years of my career doing being one, and I did a boatload of wonderful  things as an LSH teacher–and I will again, no doubt.  Here’s the thing, though: I did those in isolation, one teacher, a bunch of kids. I wrote a piece when we closed Lima Senior about the ending of that era, when we were closing the actual building and opening not only the new building, but also opening three small schools within the building; what strikes me now, after 9 years as an MI teacher, is  how little mention of my colleagues or the larger school community were in that piece. It was the students and me, and any connection with my neighbors down the hall or the principals in the office was unusual.

At the time, of course, I didn’t see it that way. I assumed that my relationships with my department and my fellow teachers was perfectly normal. Then came MI.

Before the school opened, we had spent hours—days–no, weeks–in meetings about what “our school” should be like. Almost everything was on the table: schedule, electives, mission statement, even what our hall passes should be! Even the decisions that were studied by small groups eventually were decided by consensus, not vote, by the whole staff. We eventually learned which teachers orally processed ideas and options, not really committed to the stream of ideas they were spewing forth; they had to think out loud. We learned which teachers wouldn’t say a word through the discussion, but once they did, they were sure of their path. There were a few times, especially at the beginning, when decisions that we thought were made turned on a dime when one quiet, thoughtful Math teacher finally spoke up, saying she couldn’t support whatever that decision was…and the discussion began again. Ultimately, that check and balance made us stronger and more committed to our course of action. We knew what we intended, and even when we fell short (which happened frequently), we still had the vision in front of us–and our leaders and each other, trying to get it just a bit more “right” the next time.

Even after we opened, the discussions and the tweaking continued–and the self-assessment, wrapped up in those dreaded Barnhardt questions. I always threatened to miss the meetings where we had to argue through what rating we should receive on every criteria (citing evidence, of course), but the only time I missed on was when I was out of town on school business. I still think we should have had a voice in adapting Barnhardt, but here’s an important point: the process of discussing those ideas was what mattered; not the rating we gave ourselves. That process is missing now, and it’s impossible for the same degree of voice and interaction to occur in a staff of nearly 100 (MI had around 30 staff members). That’s a big part of what happened behind the curtain, where the students and the public didn’t see–and it’s a large part of what we are losing. Ownership. Autonomy. Partnership with people who have bought into the vision.

As my Facebook page and my phone contacts attest, it wasn’t just the teachers who mattered in MI. In the old LSH, my students were my most important relationship. In the new paradigm, the students were the whole reason we did it, and our goal was to build relationships with them that pushed and inspired them to do more than they imagined they could. And I am still finding daily examples in my Facebook feed of how well that worked. Students who would have fallen through the cracks in the old school have recently graduated from college–something I couldn’t have imagined for several of them based on where they academically when they entered MI. With around 400 students and about 30 staff members, no one was merely a face in the crowd. I could give example after example showing the relationship between teachers and students, and how that carried over into a higher commitment to doing their best on both sides; I don’t even know how to cherry pick an example. The kids matter, and I can find examples of every staff member going well above and beyond to prove it.

We started with a young, inexperienced teacher as our leader, and until Jeff, I didn’t know what it meant to be driven by a vision and committed to working it through. To this day, he is one of the very, very few people I have ever gotten into an actual “shouting” argument with–and there have been times since he left to play on a bigger field that I wish Jeff would come back to continue pushing us, even though I can imagine the arguments we would need to have! Until then, I’d never dreamed what it meant to have the support and respect of the principal, either. And……I’d certainly never imagined that I’d tackle a principal at a Christmas party to try to keep him from winning at Dance, Dance Revolution–but yep, that happened too (with a little help from another teacher–thanks, Melinda!) We were a community, with all the ups and downs, wounds and scars and blessings that implies.

With Jeff as our leader, we had the “rocks” of our foundation, which is the genesis of the oft-used phrase “MI Rocks!” When he left, we asked for and got the right to not just be at the table for the choosing of our new leader, but to run the whole process–and we eventually choose Jeff’s right hand, Sue. As different as her style was, her commitment to MI was every bit as strong. The “Rocks” still existed, but we had outgrown our vision statement; it was dated and generic for what we needed at that point. So…..after several meetings with no progress on a new vision statement, we decided on 10 Belief Statements. They are still the most lofty set of goals I’ve seen for running a school. (I will add them as a separate post when I get to school. I don’t happen to have them posted in my dining room)

I have been thinking about this writing for a week now, and have taken notes–which I have completely ignored as I’ve written in the dusky hours before dawn. I had some good ideas, and who knows, maybe some MI memories will be posted this summer. Or maybe the time will have passed. I’m busy getting ready to teach this summer at Rhodes, and to begin next school year in a different classroom with a different principal and a whole new set of conventions and expectations. Maybe I don’t have the emotional energy left to write more about it in the near future. My alarm clock has rung, and my day needs to start, so I can’t begin the litany of names and memories now.

Here’s my clearest image of MI, what I’ve been remembering this week: The first day in the new building, the first day MI existed. All the MI teachers wore their new,crisp, shining white MI shirts–Bill Blass’ best emblazoned with the MI logo. Students walking in were completely enthralled. Visually it was impressive–but there was something else: it was clear we were working as a unit, we were proud and excited–we were MI. And the kids were too. That’s what they walked in to discover that first day. We did it for them and with them—and especially those first few years, they recognized the difference.

MI existed because of the school reform movement. Bill Gates (via KnowledgeWorks) threw passels of money at us, making all the meetings and training and details possible. We’re closing not because of money, but because the enrollment in our district has gone down enough that keeping three small schools open is fiscally irresponsible. I know that, and I have to trust that everyone involved is going to do their best to make the “new, improved” Lima Senior better than ever.

I’ve learned more about what that means in the last few years, though. I’ve learned that true school reform doesn’t come from the outside-in or the top-down. It comes from the people in the trenches buying into the vision, then working their damnedest to make every day a bit closer to the vision than the previous day was. Will we do that? I don’t know. It’s too soon to tell. What I do know is this: For a brief, shining moment, there was MI.

“Live Long & Prosper” and Other Platitudes

The final grades are in, and the lockers cleaned out. For our seniors, “school’s out, for summer…school’s out, forever,” to quote the great sage of education, Alice Cooper. All that remains are the goodbyes.

For most people, that’s easy: a few tears, a long hug, reassuring that they’ll remain close…on Facebook…forever. Then, with a brave smile and a wave–“good luck,” and walking away.

For me, though, saying “au revoir” to my seniors isn’t that simple. Philosophically, I can’t endorse saying “Good luck” as a platitude. I could wrap my logic in jargon and causal links, but the core of the reason is this simple: an overwhelming percent of my students believe that random chance, or at best, semi-random chance influenced by the most loosely defined causes, is the determining factor in their progress and success. After 26 years of discussions, essays, and status messages, I’m persistently struck by the variety of ways they credit luck, or some equivalent force, to things like passing the state graduation tests, completing school work on time, and even whether they make it to school before the tardy bell. Deep down, the belief that they are subject to the whims of forces outside of their control pervades my students’ lives.

Of course the roll of the dice impacts us all in multiple ways. As the popular bumper sticker says, “Shit Happens.” I’m sure that every holy book has some variation of that belief, wrapped in the guise of their deity’s  capricious “Carrot & Stick Guide to Garnering the Gods’ Favor.”

But modern civilization–and modern education–are built on the diamond-hard assertion that peoples’ actions and choices directly impact their lives. My students say all the right things about making good choices and controlling their destiny…but when I listen closer, they usually do not take neither the blame nor the praise  for their accomplishments; ultimately, the factors impacting their lives are categorized as “Shit Happens.”

So “good luck” doesn’t slide easily off my tongue as I say good bye. I’ve opted for “May the Force be With You,” in some cases, and “Live Long and Prosper” in others, but generally, an awkward, “Stay in touch. You know how to find me,” may sound diffident and glib, but for me, that’s more sincere than a chorus of “Good Lucks” streaming on banners attached to pegasuses as they fly over a rainbow. I do like staying in touch. I do like knowing “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey would say.

And as I watch the rest of the story unfold, I notice one thing: whether the student rolls all sevens in life, or is kicked in the teeth, luck only bares a portion of the credit.

 

Practical Math

Note: I wrote this in 2012. It’s still all true, maybe even more true–except for the number of tech-related devices I carry at a time. My phone now replaces most of those!

I like technology. In my purse right now, I have a Livescribe pen, a digital camera, a couple USB cords and a recorder that I can talk into and download what I say into my computer, where it appears as typed words—often word soup, but even that fascinates me. Technology makes sense to me the same way that shopping for shoes makes sense to some women I know. I’m certainly not going to be the person who claims texting hurts communication, or that twitter is killing society–a sizable portion of my life in online, and I’m a firm proponent of tech in education.

However, the fact we can technologically do something doesn’t mean it’s the best way to accomplish the task. Just because we have the toys doesn’t mean we should play with them. To be bluntly specific, because of technology, we are turning students into accountants.

Every high school I know of requires teachers to keep their gradebooks online, and those gradebooks can be accessed by parents and students from any computer with internet access. That sounds like a terrific idea, giving the parents and students detailed information so the home can partner with the school to improve the student’s understanding and achievement I like being able to tell students to look online to make sure I credited all the assignments they have emailed me or to understand why their grade changed dramatically in the past week. Having continual access to a student’s grades is the type of idea that makes a great sound bite and gets unilateral support—who can oppose parents and students having the data to understand the progress the student is making?

Welcome to the dark side of the online gradebook.  One issue is that students live in an “instant gratification” society, and the ability to see their grades in real time feeds that jones. This week, I’ve had students hand me a paper, then say while they are still holding onto it, “So what’s my grade now?” If I haven’t put it in by the end of the class, there’s so much sighing and eye-rolling that I feel as if I’m surrounded by a flock of Scarlet O’Haras.

There’s another trend that shows students are becoming accountants After accessing their grade, some students will decide that they’ve “learned” enough, and not even attempt an assignment that doesn’t impact their grade in a concrete way. They’ll calculate points and percentages, then determine if the homework assignment will make a noticeable difference—it may seem as if every little bit helps, but in practice, that’s not true. Students who struggle with the state math tests often have a Einsteinian grasp of “gradebook math,” even with weighted grades or categorized assignments.

The flip side of that is students who don’t have the score they (or their parents) want, so they audit their points with the fervor of an I.R.S auditor who is bucking for a promotion. Every piece of paper they’ve written their name on needs to be accounted for, and they often try to dicker for missing points or the ability to turn in very late work—they almost always have a ten point paper from seven weeks earlier that would pull them up a percentage point, getting them that much closer to athletic eligibility or the next higher grade.

What do grades mean? Does having the technology to micro-manage grades lead to the student “learning” more? Maybe instead of having more trainings to make sure teachers and parents can use the technology correctly, we need discussions about how to use it wisely.

What Glee Got Right

What makes football players cry? Maybe losing a game, but I haven’t seen that…often. In fairness, that could be because my school’s team has more than their share of experience at dealing with loss.

No, the television show Glee got it right tonight, which is something I have only very rarely been able to say. Finn, the football player and Rachel’s boyfriend–his only two identities–doesn’t know what he wants to do after high school. He’s surrounded by people with dreams, but he just can’t figure out what his next step is. In a heart-rending speech, he admits to his teacher that he doesn’t want to graduate, that he believes he has little talent and that once high school is over, he’ll be lost in the crowd, destined to a mundane life watching others succeed as he lives on past semi-glory.

The actor playing Finn nailed the range of emotions, and the writers got the speech down almost exactly to how I hear it, every year, sometimes multiple times. They were basically right about the context, too–just the senior and the teacher, alone in a classroom, fairly certain that no one will wander in–it’s usually after school, or during lunch, a time it’s easy to predict who’s around.

The first few times I had these conversations, I was stymied; even kids who sit in classes enthusiastically counting down days till graduation with their friends have been among the ninjas who sneak in my confessional to unburden themselves.

I’ve taught 26 years. In that time, there have been very few years that I haven’t had the “I don’t really want to graduate” speech, sometimes from a kid who seems to have the world by the tail, sometimes from a kid who is sabotaging his/her graduation in amazingly passive-aggressive ways. The reasoning and emotions are nearly the same: the kid feels unprepared in some way (intellectually, socially, emotionally, financially) for life after high school–even if there’s evidence that he/she is ready to cope–and the kid feels that his/her high school years may be their peak. It may be the smartest, the most popular, the most talented that they will ever be.

I could whistle a happy tune and tap dance the platitudes that spout like dandelions in May throughout the school, attempting to “encourage” these kids. Instead, I listen, and just listen some more, often as they choke up and look for tissue to wipe their tears–and yes, the males cry in this conversation as often as the females. They cuss and get angry, too–they’re not ready to go on, and they’re pissed that they have to. And I admit to some of them that yes, they probably will remember high school as a golden time, and depending on how they handle the next few years, it could be downhill after they wear their cap and gown and walk across the stage to shake hands and get their diploma.

I have a lot of issues with Glee, and have gone through times of only half-watching because my daughter wanted me to. And I have plenty of comments to make about Rachael’s cover of “How Deep is Your Love” tonight–it was not a perfect show. And I don’t want to give spoilers, so I’ll just say that a couple later scenes with Finn have no ring of truth resonating. But the scene when Finn finally tells Mr. Shue how he feels–that was real.

I could prove it….I’ve had conversations in my room in the last month that the writers of Glee could have been scribing for that scene. Bravo for writing it right…for once.

 

 

 

 

Things I Don’t Believe In, Education-Related

Note: I wrote this in 2012, and I predicted that within ten years, the traditional college freshman-style research paper would change dramatically. I’ve taught college courses this year (2020), and yes, they have changed quite a bit. Citation styles are very different, expectations and paper types are different–change is in the air. 

When was the last time you curled up to read a research paper? When was the last time Oprah or Dr. Phil or Matt Lauer suggested you really needed to catch the hot new research paper that everyone else was reading?

Never?

Research papers–the standard, gotta-have-footnotes/citations/endnotes with a Bibiliography/Works Cited/References at the end type paper–don’t exist outside of a very specific climate. Even if you have written one, you probably never read one, except the examples your English teacher provided as a model. Unless you read professional journals, you probably haven’t read one outside of the English class where you wrote one.

As a highly qualified teacher, a part-time college instructor, and a fairly smart cookie who spews words for fun, I have a professional opinion about research papers: they suck. If that’s not clear enough, how’s this: as a benchmark of student success, the process of producing a standards-based paper following the current MLA or APA guidelines relies on an antiquated educational paradigm and provides inconclusive data about a student’s critical thinking ability, research capabilities, and essential writing skills.

With all that said, I believe whole-heartedly that we need to push critical thinking and research. Teaching students to ask good questions, be curious, and to engage in meaningful discussion about ideas–whether face to face, via technology, or in a written format–is crucial. Getting them to evaluate the quality of information they find and put it in a context is paramount, too.

Learning to write a research paper, following spacing guidelines, formatting rules, and worrying about punctuation, transitions, and the mechanics of good writing do not further all of the things listed in the previous paragraph. In fact, the emphasis on learning to write the formal paper de-emphasizes the crucial skills listed above. Form matters more than content, at least most of the time at the high school level.

In fact, I’m going to don my Amazing Kreskin hat and predict that in a few years–a decade at the most–the “research paper” is going to change format dramatically, with the wide-spread acceptance of first person (which is usual now in some journals) and hyperlinks to sources instead of traditional citations. We’re on the verge of that change now.

The research paper as it’s taught and written in high school is a completely artificial form of communication, and needs to change to utilize the technologies we have now while emphasizing the baseline research and critical thinking skills that are even more important in the age of information glut.

The “research paper” needs to give way to a more relevant form of writing that reflects those concerns and priorities.

And part of the reason? Research papers thrive in the hot-house of academia, but not out in the world our students live in. Not in the world we live in, either. The skills to write a correctly formatted paper can be learned with relative ease when they are truly needed–and that’s not at the high school level. The research and critical thinking skills, yes. Emphatically. But the hallowed formal “research paper” that I spend weeks teaching? It sucks.

“Scarborough Fair/Canticle”

Note: I taught a class called Literature for Musicians, and one of their projects was to create a playlist of their life. I limited it to 10 or 15 songs, and they had to write about each song and why it is on their playlist. This is one of the samples I wrote for them.

Musically, this song is the most complex thus far (on the playlist I gave my Lit for Musicians class), although it begins deceptively simply. After the introduction of the main melody, one voice splits off into the counterpoint, a simple song that makes a political point about the human side of war. Juxtaposing this against the folk melody is lyrically jarring, but also ironic in the context of the lush tight harmonies and nearly archaic harpsichord and guitar background.

This also was the first time I was aware of overdubbing. Paul Simon is singing both counterpoint and melody, which confused me when I first heard it, then lead to a lot of experimenting with my guitar and a tape recorder with me singing harmony with myself. It was fascinating and challenging.

I’m intensely political. There’s a decent chance that this song is part of the reason. As an pre-teen, hearing them personalize war, with the obvious implications about the Vietnam war, also lead me to questioning and thinking. Even now, about 4 decades later, I find myself thinking about the imagery and ideas.

I’ve seen Simon and Garfunkel in person, and I was disappointed that although they sang “Scarborough Fair,” they didn’t do the “Canticle.” I haven’t heard them sing that for years, and I suspect that the reason is that the time has passed for those gentle images and sounds to resonant with audiences; the politcal rhetoric now is loud and confrontational, not thought-provokingly metaphoric.

Like The Beatles, Simon and Gar are musicians who could show up in my playlist multiple times. They are fundamental, foundational parts of the soundtrack running in my brain. And like The Beatles, their sound morphs and changes, so this song is only representative of one phase of their careers, both as a duo and solo.

My Reading Life: Little Black Sambo

My earliest memories involve books. I remember both of my parents reading to me, Mom reading kids’ books to me, Dad reading…..well, whatever he was reading when I climbed on his lap, I think. Probably everyone my age knows the books Captain Kangaroo read on his show–Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel jumps out at me, and I have gauzy visions of Mom reading that to me, too. Reading was part of the warp and weft of my childhood.

But there’s one story that I probably shouldn’t talk about Mom reading me, a story that is reviled in children’s lit; in a college children’s lit class I took, the prof actually lowered her voice as she mentioned the volume, and admitted she had never seen it. Little Black Sambo was the story of a child who tricked some tigers into chasing each other around a tree until the tigers all melted into butter, with illustrations that were later considered overwrought and racially demeaning.  Poet Langston Hughes called the book “a typical ‘pickaninny’ storybook which was hurtful to black children,” and slowly,  publishers and the public, in a growing awareness of racism, quit buying and reading the story.There’s more to that part of Sambo’s saga, but that’s not what makes this part of my reading life.

A couple years ago, in one of my Senior English classes, I was trying to explain “trickster” figures. Along with Bugs Bunny, I mentioned Sambo–totally forgetting that my students have been raised in a politically correct, racially sensitive era. The class was almost entirely African-American, like many of my classes are, and I had to make a split-second decision when I saw they didn’t understand the allusion: shrug it off and go on, or stop, explain and discuss. Which option was more likely to result in phone calls? Which stood a better chance of getting my name in the paper…..in a context I really wanted to avoid? Stopping to talk about Little Black Sambo sounded like a bad idea, but…of course that’s exactly what I did.

There’s a part I didn’t anticipate when I tried to briefly (and politically correctly) describe Sambo’s story: cell phones. Students who couldn’t do research for their senior research papers unless I stood behind their shoulder all the sudden had their cell phones in their hands, the version of the book from my childhood on the tiny screens. In a matter of seconds, three students had found the book, and another couple were scanning the wikipedia entry about the book.As “racial” material, the virtual book couldn’t get past the school internet filters, but like good rebels, we had access anyway.

We had a two day conversation about what racism is and how attitudes have changed over the years. Many of the kids were baffled by why the book was considered racist; they even pointed out that Sambo is Indian, according to the story, not African, yet curiously, the pictures were reminiscent of an Aunt Jemima bottle. Questions about censorship, especially commercial v. governmental, were raised, too. My lesson plan was shot for those days–but the degree of research, engagement, and deep discussion that came out of it was incredible. And, because I had to wrap it up and carry on, there was a writing prompt giving the kids a chance to assimilate and process our discussion.

In the process of discussing with my students, I learned something else. Well, I knew it, but it was vividly reinforced. Few of my students were read to as children. For many, the first memory of someone reading to them was HeadStart. There were exceptions, of course, but fewer than I hoped. I can’t imagine not having Sambo and Mike Mulligan and all the animals from Over in the Meadow, and the Little Lost Dolly and Laughing Allegra, and Make Way for Ducklings, and….all of them, bouncing around in the dark recesses of my mind. My reading life started before I could read. Woven through my life are the stories and people that I’ve only encountered on the page (since I got my Kindle, on the screen, too). Maybe it’s not a wonder that my students so often label things “boring;” their imaginations aren’t peopled with ideas and places outside of their experience, anxious to be brought to life as only an imaginative reader can.

Talking about what I’ve read is a cornerstone of most of my relationships. My older kids are more likely to call me if they have read a good book than if they have the flu. The students who I’ve stayed close to after graduation are all readers, and frequently email or text to share something they’ve read. I’ve discovered–or rediscovered–great writers because of they assume I want to know what they’re reading.

So my students, who don’t read for fun, who very often come from homes where reading is “work” or “boring,” where no one ever read to them for fun–or argued that that book is always better than the movie– they miss a world of interaction and connection not just with ideas, but with other people.

Little Black Sambo reminded me of all that.

Remembrance of Things Past

And much more am I sorrier for my good knights’ loss than for the loss of my fair queen; for queens I might have enough, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company.
Thomas Malory, Le Morte de Arthur
 

A new school year started this week. It’s the first week in years–11? 12?–that Drew Chiles didn’t amble into my room and give me hell about whether I was going to teach the kids anything worthwhile this year. Or something similar. As much as his sudden death shocked our school last spring, I didn’t have an insight or memories or comforting words to spread as a balm over the people looking for answers.

I still don’t. What I do know is that this week, I’ve missed my friend more deeply than I expected. I don’t feel sorry for him–he’s past all that. I won’t post messages on facebook for him or write him notes; the man I knew would raise one eyebrow, stare, and comment on how droll superstition is when supposedly intelligent people act on it.

I also won’t engage in hyperbole about him. He was human–and flawed. The last couple months of his life, he and I had some intense disagreements, and we had some very hard conversations. That’s history–and I can honestly say that he and I don’t have unfinished business; before he died, we’d come to terms with what needed to be dealt with. At least as much as we could at the time. People have loved to corner me for sympathetic “talk” about whether Drew and I were “ok.” Guess what: I have no qualms about avoiding and shading the truth to most of the “concerned” people–if it was their business, they knew all the details they needed.

But this week, loss is hitting me hard in several ways, and the lesson I’ve taken from Drew’s sudden death is this: the wheel keeps on turning. There’s a new teacher in his room, a young, energetic man who is even teaching ONU classes for credit, so our kids still have that option. The Senior English/senior social studies combined class is still going on, with the new teacher and I inventing the curriculum to fit us as we are now. Our school may miss Drew the friend–but Drew the teacher has been replaced.

I miss Drew’s scoffing, devil’s advocate arguments with me, I miss sparring intellectually with him–and sometimes, I even miss his mind-games and power plays. But the wheel turns. The person I feel sorry for isn’t him–it’s me.

As a eulogy goes, it’s not much. He’d be the first to tell me I’ve engaged in needless emotional rhetoric without making a salient point. And he’d be right….but the wheel is turning again, and he’s getting further away. Next week, or next month, I’ll walk in his room without thinking of him. Soon, I’ll remember to quit calling his room “Chiles room,” and the kids will know it as Mr. Vermillion’s room. And the ghost fades further away, and the wheel turns another notch.

 

 
 

Who’s the Boss of Me?

I want to scream. To rail against the Gods. To resurrect Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi and Abbie Hoffman and….I don’t know who all else–anyone who can organize an insurrection.  All because the currently pending legislation impacting teachers in Ohio (and other states) is fundamentally wrong–and I’m not talking the ethics, or the economics, or how I believe it would impact education. I’m talking about the core intent; a major paradigm shift is occurring in the business of education, but it’s being shrouded in warm, fuzzy concern about student achievement and fair use of public money.

So here’s my question: who is my boss? I’m a teacher, I am paid from public money. No debate there. But all these laws coming at me with the speed of Darth Vader’s X-wing, are they coming from the people who are actually “my boss?”

That’s such a tangled question that modern education should be on the Maury show to determine who the Daddy is. That’s a crucial question, though, in any discussion of laws impacting education.  It’s easy to agree or disagree with any specific point in bills such as Ohio’s SB5, and it’s even reasonable to discuss if teacher’s working conditions, compensation, and accountability are in line with their counterparts in the private sector. Those may be vital discussions. But lumping hundreds of pages of diverse points in one bill–and adding on with the “budget”–then giftwrapping it in the flag….that’s not a discussion. That’s punitive with a hidden agenda, fueled by marketing and prejudice.

Here’s the issue, as simply as I can explain it: in America, the educational model is based on local control. Individual school boards can hire or fire as they wish–yes, the teachers are licensed by the state, but the decision whether to hire lies with the local board. Also, local boards can apply for special licenses for people who don’t have traditional credentials.  The power is local.

Likewise, the basic budget of a district is raised from local money–traditionally, property taxes, but sometimes other taxes are available now IF THE LOCAL VOTERS AGREE. Note, the power is local, and it’s one of the very few types of taxes that voters have a say on. I can’t vote to send money for wars, or farm subsidies, or universal health care, but I can to decide if my local school gets more money.

However, most districts can’t make it on just what the local voters are willing to give, especially poor districts. So a long time ago–in the late 50’s, maybe?–states realized that they could offer needed funds to districts, with a few logical, easy-to-live-with strings. That’s grown and continued till many districts couldn’t exist without the state money–and the state conditions. But in the legal chain of command--the state does not control education. They offer money for specific programs, they provide funds to compensate for poor or handicaps students–in districts like mine, they provide a sizable amount of money, all coming because of specific criteria or expectations. In real terms, there is built-in accountability for those tax dollars; those funds go away if the criteria isn’t met or changes.

The state has tests that students must pass to get an official certificate, true, and they have specific classes that are required for graduation as well. However, LOCAL CONTROL gives a great deal of leeway about what those classes teach. As long as the students pass the Ohio Graduation Test and take the right core curriculum, there’s no oversight as to what textbooks are used, what projects or units are covered, how students are assessed and graded–public education is NOT standardized beyond teacher licensing and OGTs, in actual practice.  Even the state standards and benchmarks are guides, often unrealistic, and often impossible because of student achievement levels, time,  or educational supplies available. Again, local control, local oversight.  State money has come with strings that add layers to that, but any school solvent enough to not get specific money also can avoid specific strings.

More recently, add the federal government to the party. Same process, only they don’t currently have one test, one model–they have all the No Child Left Behind requirements (most unfunded or underfunded at the local level, but with strings that make the states respond), then Obama’s Race to the Top grants…another whole level of fun.

Imagine education on the Maury show, with grandmas, step dads, maybe-daddies, and a whole family tree of dysfunction arguing over how the baby is to be brought up, with the mom standing there confused and powerless, but knowing that at 3 am when the baby’s crying, she’s going to be alone in the dark.  That’s the business of education as we are trying to practice it now.

When the state report cards come out, who’s blamed or praised? The local principals, teachers–the people on the front lines. We know that bottom line, the local district in in control. Bad teachers can be fired–I’ve seen it happen. There’s a process to protect them, yes–but in Ohio, getting rid of a bad teacher is fairly simple.  Likewise, the unions don’t get higher teacher  pay than the district can offer; teachers in poor districts generally get paid less than teachers in richer districts. That’s basic economics with built-in limits. Teachers are NOT running up the state budget.  If a specfic neighboring district would hire me today, I’d get over $8000 more than I get now per year. And they’d pay more of my health insurance. I wouldn’t be any better as a teacher; the price merely reflects the district budget.

Teachers do not cause the state economic hardship. Teachers’ salaries are determined locally, and paid largely out of local funds. The local school board can’t offer more money than the have in their budget. Teachers are more subject to the vagaries of their local economy than other “public” workers for that reason.

I have more issues with bills like SB5, but at the core, there’s the problem. I’m not hired by the state. I’m not responsible to the state. These bills slyly shift from local control to state control–but only the aspects that they want control of. If we’re going to change the paradigm, we need to do away with the current mirage of “local control” to create a cohesive, effective state-wide or nation-wide educational system.  Then it would be clear who the boss of me is.

Throughout their investigation of Watergate (google it, children….), Woodward and Bernstein were repeatedly told by their informant, Deep Throat, to “follow the money.” He insisted that if the reporters would do that, the source of the power and the problem would become clear. Woodward and Bernstein brought down a whole presidential administration by using that theory.

Trying to apply that to modern public education doesn’t work; there are so many checkbooks waving around that it’s nearly impossible to untangle the specifics in many district. But underlying it all is this: the people who sign my paycheck are not funded directly from the state or federal dollars. Officially, local control and local dollars are the bedrock of our public schools. Bills like Ohio’s SB5, which micro-manage a huge list of issues that have always been under local control without formally, officially transferring the entire educational system to the state government, are out of line because under current laws,  it’s just NOT their job. I know who my boss is–and it’s not Ohio governor Kasich.